As is my habit I avoided reading any reviews of Terence Blanchard’s Champion prior to attending the “Live in HD” broadcast of the opera this past Saturday. As a rule I like to go in with fresh eyes and ears, and in this case I’m especially glad I did, as the lukewarm accounts from New York outlets cast the opera in a not very flattering light. Mining the opera’s boxing theme the reviews (or at least their headlines) spoke of dramatic punches being pulled rather than solidly landing, and complained of imbalances in sound and dramatic “clutter” in the form of overdeveloped secondary characters. (You can read some of these reviews, which also summarize the plot, creative team, and genesis of the work here, here, and here.)
I’ll state plainly that I had an entirely different experience of what I found to be a gripping and compelling piece of theater that felt so at home on the Met stage it made me almost giddy with satisfaction. As a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race might say, this opera felt “correct.” Reading the reviews from New York I actually felt happy for the first time to have my experience of the Met mediated through their cinematic apparatus, for this particular work seems to have translated well if not better to the movie screen, with the flexible cinematographic capabilities of the broadcast able to capture both the interiority of its plot and the period detail of the sets and costumes. I would further wager that new and unknown work is in general a better experience on the movie broadcast screen–this was my experience of the recent HD broadcast of The Hours–since one can more closely follow the interconnection of unfamiliar text and music, and the evenly mixed sound of the movie theater ensures that the immediacy of the voices is preserved. (For those still unsure about the HD broadcasts, you might reconsider and give them a try, especially for new work – initial reviews from New York be damned.)
I can already hear some complaints from purists of “how could it be!” that an operatic work of art could be *better* (clutch pearls) in the garb of its technological reproducibility rather than “live,” to which I would say 1) who cares and 2) thank goodness. I was among the skeptics when Peter Gelb went all in to mediatize the Met early in his tenure, and I will now gladly renounce my previous ambivalence to say that the HD initiative was one of the best strategic decisions ever. The Met’s media network is a boon for accessibility and relevance–I admittedly speak as a now almost ten year resident of the San Francisco Bay Area– and if on occasion an opera lands better on screen than live in the opera house it can only help the art form, with the added personal benefit of alleviating my (often acute) New York performing arts FOMO.
I can really only gush about how perfect I found almost every aspect of Champion, beginning with the suitability of its subject matter for the opera stage. The work’s protagonist is a man battling multiple personal demons, and because he also happens to be a boxer there is a way to depict this in a literal and dramatically compelling way–that is, by showing him fight. Thanks to the choreographic acumen of Camille A. Brown and coaching from a real life boxer, the fight scenes felt necessary and compelling, with no hint of West Side Story staginess.
The opera has an exquisite dramatic arc between its two acts, with the first setting up Emile Griffith’s life and personal struggles. These begin with a difficult childhood on the island of St. Thomas, continue thanks to a by turns absent and manipulative mother, and get even more intense owing to his being attracted to men. The second act chronicles his personal and professional dissolution and descent into dementia, resulting in part from the physical brutality of his profession. As was elucidated by the composer himself prior to the broadcast, Griffith’s career had a clear demarcation point that was the defining moment of his life, that is, when he won a match by unintentionally killing his opponent (who had been severely injured in prior bout with another boxer). Armed with this information, I realized halfway through the first act that I knew exactly when the lights would come down before intermission, and it was a hunch that proved correct: act one ends at precisely the moment that Griffith realizes his opponent has died. This is the kind of dramatic build up and narrative clarity that opera thrives on, and as soon as it happened I felt even more reassured that we were all in very capable hands.
It has been noted how both of Blanchard’s back to back Met premieres treat protagonists grappling with queer identity, and the opera’s thoughtful treatment of this aspect of Griffith’s life only deepened my admiration for the work. The exploration and depiction of his identity felt real and organic, and the scenes set in Kathy Hagen’s gay bar were among the most dramatically real I’ve ever seen in an opera house anywhere. My realization about the end of the first act was further enriched by the knowledge that this deadly knockout would give metaphorical embodiment to his queer struggles. For it is a matter of historical record that Griffith’s opponent uttered a homophobic slur during their weigh-in the day before the match. How this slight may have motivated Griffith’s drive in the fight will never be known, but its depiction in the opera was almost literally jaw-dropping, and I am not sure when I will again see a more compelling dramatization of the destructive power of internalized homophobia.
On so many other levels this opera delivered and showed how the genre has the capacity to grow and remain relevant. Watching Camille Brown’s beautifully choreographed Caribbean parade and street festival I had to retrospectively wince at the many “exotic” and orientalist spectacles of excess I’ve witnessed on opera stages, when all along we could have been experiencing the same theatrical delight with cultural authenticity. The aria sung by Griffith’s mother in the second act was a musical marvel, accompanied by a single pizzicato double bass. The musical and dance interludes that moved the plot forward–Griffith’s training montage in particular–felt similarly compelling, as did the production’s use of projections, which added depth and immediacy to the story and reminded us that we were watching the life of a real man.
And of course we were not watching the life of just a man, but a Black man, who for most of the opera is surrounded by other Black characters, all of whom were portrayed by Black singers and backed up by the most racially mixed opera chorus I’ve ever experienced. Like my realization during the festival scene, this aspect of the production was a moment of personal reckoning and some shame, making me realize that the operatic stage is perhaps one of the most powerful white racial frames that has shaped my experience of art and understanding of the world. Seeing a complex Black life depicted on the stage of the Met with richness and nuance was, sadly, an entirely new experience, and one that took place many years after the election of our first Black President. (Had I not missed Fire Shut Up in My Bones I could have had this melancholy realization a year earlier.) Indeed seeing the full resources of the Met invested in telling the story of a Black life that had been written, realized, and depicted by Black creatives felt truly momentous, an embodiment of what it means to show and not just say that Black lives matter.
Like many of my fellow liberal White opera fans, when I was watching Champion I certainly felt pangs of hope like I felt when we watched the Obama family on the stage at Grant Park in November 2007. Those feelings usually tend to reinforce the dubious progress narrative that White people have been fed for most of our lives, that is, that America is on a slow but inexorable path towards self-perfection when it comes to race. That a Black composer has now had back to back premieres at the Met–tying the record last set by Richard Strauss in the 1940s, no less!!–will for many be an invitation to keep believing that everything has been and will keep getting better.
Instead I realized as the curtain came down on Champion that we were not witnessing an instance of inexorable progress, but something more complex. For I would posit the moment Terence Blanchard is having at the Met as a moment of “interest convergence” happening more broadly in the performing arts in the US. The “interest convergence” theory of racial progress has been advanced most notably by attorney and Harvard professor Derrick Bell in his book Silent Covenants–one of the foundational texts of *actual* critical race theory– in which he offers a radical reinterpretation of the meaning of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v Board of Education decision and other moments of racial reckoning in American history. “Black rights are recognized and protected,” as Bell explains “when and only so long as policymakers perceive that such advances will further interests that are their primary concern,” with these policymakers being White people and their primary concerns being the consolidation of their power. In other words, White self-interest is in general the true driving force behind any decision to expand Black rights, not a genuine desire to further the well-being or equality of Black people.
Interest convergence seems to me the best explanation for why legacy performing arts organizations in the US are finally and quite rapidly taking measures to upend the impossibly White and ossified canons of art that have defined their repertoire and identities for decades. For without such concessions they are facing existential obliteration and demographic irrelevance. Like the phenomenon of the “glass cliff” by which women are handed the executive reins only when organizations are on the brink of collapse, Black people, after all they have done to build this country, are now being tasked with the extra burden of propping up some of its most elite and historically exclusionary institutions with their stories, talents, and ideas. While White people might congratulate themselves for now including the likes of Florence Price and William Grant Still in their programming–composers who were never really forgotten, just overlooked by the White majority–the fact is that these innovations are really being driven by a desire to ensure that there is still an orchestra left to play Beethoven and Mahler and an opera house where we can keep putting on the Ring cycle.
These changes are not intrinsically bad, of course, and as Bell notes, both Black and White stakeholders alike are compelled to express gratitude for the positive benefits that flow from change resulting from interest convergence. These steps forward are taken as some evidence that progress is possible, even if in many cases the gains realized by Black interests are more symbolic than substantive. (White people are still running the Met and most other large performing arts organizations.) The reality is that the diversity moment that American legacy performing arts organizations are experiencing is not entirely driven by a desire to empower or center Black art and experiences, but rather a hasty pivot hoping to keep the entire enterprise from collapsing entirely. Champion provided powerful evidence of what is possible when Black artists are given the space and resources to create on our nation’s most elite stages, and we can only hope that the Met survives another several decades to put on more such work out of genuine interest rather than mere interest convergence.