Composer/trumpeter Terence Blanchard made his opera debut with Champion, the life story of boxer Emile Griffith, beleaguered by homophobia and his own guilt over killing a man in the ring. The work, with a libretto by Michael Cristofer, had its world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013, and has gone on to productions at San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle, Washington National Opera and New Orleans Opera; next season it will have its Canadian premiere at Opéra de Montréal. In 2019, OTSL will present the world premiere of Blanchard’s second opera: Fire Shut Up in My Bones, with a libretto by Kasi Lemmons based on Charles Blow’s memoir of the same name. Here he talks to OPERA America President/CEO Marc A. Scorca about his life in jazz — and opera.
SCORCA: I read that your father sang opera.
BLANCHARD: He was an amateur opera singer, a baritone. He loved the music. He sang at church and he would sing recitals around town, but he never performed professionally. He studied with a guy named Osceola Blanchet. He was an African-American guy in New Orleans who taught kids how to sing, and for the longest time, because of his name, I thought he was my grandfather!
Who brought you to your first opera?
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis!
You mean you saw your first opera while you were already working on Champion?
Yeah, they brought me to check out their season a couple of years before mine premiered, and it was the first time that I got the chance to see a staged opera.
What did you think?
It was amazing; it was overwhelming. Because Opera Theatre has a stage that sticks out into the audience, it was like a 3-D experience. You feel like you’re a part of the performance. I saw Ghosts of Versailles there, and sat down not realizing that members of the cast were in the audience. All of a sudden they would start singing and you’d go, “Oh my God!”
How did Champion come into being? Who approached whom?
Well, it started with Gene Dobbs Bradford, who is the president of Jazz St. Louis. He had been talking to Opera Theatre about putting together a jazz opera, to try to broaden the audience of opera. He remembered that I had told him about my dad’s love of opera. He said, “Well, I have the perfect guy for you.” So [OTSL artistic director] Jim Robinson approached me and he said, “Man, we want you to write an opera.” And I went, “Whoa, okay.” Once I got over the initial shock, I became really excited about the idea.
So before you actually saw your first staged opera, you said, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
I had opera recordings, and because of my father, I had heard opera all the time growing up. I just never thought it would ever actually be a part of my life in this way.
I understand the subject came from you. What made you think that it was suitable for opera? What qualities made you think, “This is the story I want to tell”?
Well, it had all the elements of drama. The basic idea is one of redemption and forgiveness — very strong elements that lend themselves to an operatic performance. The line in [Emile Griffith’s] biography where he said, “I killed a man and the world forgave me, but I loved a man and the world wants to kill me” was a very powerful statement, going well beyond boxing.
You mention the universal themes of forgiveness and redemption. But can’t opera also offer a potent commentary on our world today?
To me, opera is the moral conscience of humanity. It can sweep you away. If you’re a person with any kind of compassion, you have to deal with truth. And you walk out totally transformed. We spend a lot of money putting home-theater systems up in our homes, where you have surround sound and a big screen and maybe a projector, whatever. But with opera you get all of that, and a home-theater system can’t compare. I keep saying to people: “Stop thinking of the clichés about what opera is. You need to start thinking about musical theater in its highest form, created and performed by people who are at the top of their craft.”
What so impressed me about Champion was that right from the start, you absolutely got what opera could do. You understood what an aria can do, what a duet can do. In one scene, you have three generations of Emile’s family singing at once — something you can’t do in a play, but only in an opera. You used the tools that only opera offers to a creative artist.
Well, that’s where Opera Theatre came into play. Jim Robinson, [general director] Tim O’Leary and [music director] Stephen Lord: Those guys were extremely helpful in making me understand the power of opera, and the craft of it. The way Jim staged Champion made it very powerful. The moment in the aria “Seven Babies” when old Emile puts his hand on young Emile’s shoulder, when he sees his mother for the first time, and then he pushes his younger self toward his mom like, “Yo, man, you have to forgive her” — in moments like that, I learned the significance of all of the different elements that come together — lighting, wardrobe, Jim’s direction and obviously having great performers, like Denyce Graves.
Denyce’s aria accompanied by a pizzicato bass — I get goosebumps thinking about it.
It’s funny that you bring that up. I’ve been talking about that aria a lot because it symbolizes to me what collaboration is about. I originally wrote it to be more like an Ella Fitzgerald/Ray Brown ballad, where they’d do it with momentum, keeping consistent time throughout. But when Denyce started to sing it, she said, “Do you mind if I try it with rubato? In order to push the air through some of these phrases, I need to take long, deep breaths.” I said, “I’m open to anything. If that’s what you’re feeling, then let’s go for it.” When she started to do it that way, I saw how flexible and how malleable that melodic content was, and how she could use that to tell a really powerful and compelling story. Think about it: Prior to that moment, all you know is that she’s a woman who has sent all of her babies off to be raised by other people. She’s living kind of fast and loose, and she runs into Emile in New York City by mistake. But when you get to that part of the opera and you hear her sing, you start to feel for her and everything she’s gone through.
Did you wait for Michael Cristofer to deliver a complete libretto, or did you start playing with the first scene, say, while he was working on the third scene?
No, basically he delivered what we thought was going to be final, and then he went back and made some revisions, and I would go back and rewrite.
You did a workshop with Opera Fusion at Cincinnati College-Conservatory. Did that help?
Oh my God, yes indeed. You can be working on a piece and you have an idea like, “I want this passage to be belted out in a low register.” But when you get there, the singer can’t really push the air in that register. That workshop helped me understand, “Okay, maybe what I should do is double that with a lower instrument and have the singer sing it in the register where he can really belt it out.”
You talk about Champion as an “opera in jazz” rather than a “jazz opera.” Why?
We didn’t want people to think that there was going to be a big band and jazz from beginning to end. We use the language of jazz at various moments, but I looked at this as an opportunity to write a proper opera. Stephen Lord was the one who said to me, “Listen, this may be controversial, but I kind of feel like we’ve never really defined what American opera is. It only makes sense that American opera should have some elements of jazz.” So that’s the way I approached it: not saying, “Oh, I’m going to write a jazz opera,” but “I want to write an opera, and that language is one tool that I’ll use to tell the story.”
This is slightly off-track, but what do you think about the concertization of jazz? When I go to Jazz at Lincoln Center, I admire the virtuosity beyond words, but I’m aware that I’m in a concert hall, sitting with my hands in my lap and a performance program in my hand. Is this the right setting for jazz?
I think it belongs there. Some musicians create music within the realm of jazz that’s really on a high level, and it deserves to be presented as such, not where you hear glasses clinking and plates being dropped. I have heard Wayne Shorter play things in concert that would work in a club setting while food was being served. There’s nothing wrong with that, don’t get me wrong, but jazz has belonged in the concert hall from its inception. You look at the music, you look at what guys have created, the language that they’ve created and how it’s influenced music around the world — it’s been a very powerful art form.
Jazz is inherently a collaborative art form. Is opera collaborative in a different way?
Oh, very much so. I was leaning heavily on the vocalists for expertise. Writing for orchestra didn’t faze me one bit, but writing for voice is a totally different thing. You can have two guys who are called baritones, but the lower register of one guy really blooms, and the other guy really shines on top. Combine that with the fact that the range of the voice is much narrower than, let’s say, a cello or a violin. The singers were extremely helpful with that. Arthur Woodley, who played the older Emile, asked me if he could change a note in a phrase because it would help him deliver the entire line, and I said, “By all means.” Of course, when I asked them to improvise — you should’ve seen the looks on their faces! But they got into it and what they did was pretty cool.
Your next commission is Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Is the libretto done, or are you just starting out?
The libretto is done, but I’m behind! Everybody is waiting on me to write the vocal score. I’ve been working on it for months, and I got a significant part of it done, but I’m nowhere near where I should be. The same thing happened when I did Champion. They had to actually reschedule it because I wasn’t ready. I was just freaked out about writing an opera and I wanted to make sure that everything was right. So, I was checking and double-checking and re-checking. I’m trying to learn how to work faster.
Puccini took about three years for each opera and went back over it again and again and again. Great opera doesn’t happen by accident.
No, man, I can see that. It’s funny, because La bohème has been my go-to. When I scroll through my phone and come to it, I think, “Keep moving, just keep moving.” Because once I start it, that’s the rest of the day. Puccini makes it look easy, like it already existed and he just took it out of thin air.
What advice do you give to young composers about writing opera?
I tell them, “Don’t think about writing opera.” What I mean is that if you think about referencing material that you’ve already heard, you may not write your opera; you’ll write somebody else’s opera. When I was writing Champion, I had to throw away the notion of writing an “opera.” I was just trying to tell a story, to be performed by some amazing singers and musicians.