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Sat June 15, 2013
Music Interviews

Terence Blanchard Turns A Tragic Champion Into An Opera Hero

Originally published on Sat June 15, 2013 5:19 pm

From his days blowing trumpet for Art Blakey to his film scores for Spike Lee, Terence Blanchard has honed a signature sound as one of today's foremost composers of jazz. Last year brought a new challenge: He was commissioned to compose an opera, and jumped at the chance to tell a powerful tale.

Champion is the true story of a gay boxer in the 1960s, welterweight world champion Emile Griffith, and his fateful fights with rival Benny Paret.

"They fought twice, each winning a decision in the fight," Blanchard says. "And then there was a third fight, and with Benny trying to gain an advantage over Emile, he kind of mocked his sexuality, which Emile was keeping very much under wraps."

Blanchard says that in the final round of that fight, Griffith cornered Paret and hit him 17 times. The blows put Paret into a coma, and 10 days later he died.

"Emile went on to fight again, but was always haunted by that experience, obviously," Blanchard says. "But he said something in his autobiography, which is the thing that made me want to write the opera about him. He said, 'I killed a man and the world forgave me, yet I loved a man and the world has still never forgiven me.' "

Later in life, after he'd retired and begun training other fighters, Griffith suffered another trauma: He was attacked coming out of a gay bar in New York City and landed in the hospital for a month. Blanchard says much of the music in Champion was written to evoke the deep thinking that often follows physical and emotional injury.

"All of these arias are very personal moments; to me, they speak to that moment in everyone's life when you have certain types of quiet reflection," he says. "The arias are written in such a way where they're moments in time that kind of step out from the rest of the opera."

In addition to his work on Champion, Blanchard has a new album out with his jazz combo, entitled Magnetic. He says he's done this kind of multitasking for most of his career, in part because what he learns from one project can strengthen another.

"I go back to my days with Art Blakey, and one of the things that he always used to say is that composing is the way that you find yourself," Blanchard says. "That's the thing that I think about all the time. When you have to sit down and commit musical ideas to paper, they start to become imprinted on your musical identity. So over the years, the experience of doing this has helped shape who I am as a musician."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CHAMPION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Emile) (Singing) What makes a man a man?

LYDEN: Opera isn't what you'd expect to hear from one of today's foremost composers of jazz Terence Blanchard. From his days blowing trumpet for Art Blakey to his film scores for Spike Lee, Blanchard has honed a signature sound. Then, last year, he was commissioned to compose an opera, and he jumped at the chance to tell a powerful tale and make his opera debut. The work is called "Champion," and it's the true story of a gay boxer in the 1960s, the welterweight world champion Emile Griffith.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CHAMPION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Emile) (Singing) What makes this man a man? Is it the life he's lived? The yesterdays are what he dreams for the tomorrow (unintelligible)...

LYDEN: The opera "Champion" opens tonight at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis, and Terence Blanchard is in the studios of St. Louis Public Radio. Welcome to the program.

TERENCE BLANCHARD: Thank you. Thank you, Jacki. Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: We know you - the public - as a trumpeter. We know you as a bandleader, a jazz composer. You're so multifaceted - and, of course, a film score composer. But now this is something new again, an opera. Was this something that was always on your to-do list, Terence Blanchard?

BLANCHARD: Oh, no. No, no. Not at all.

LYDEN: Didn't have to write an opera before...

BLANCHARD: Not at all.

LYDEN: ...the final trumpet call?

BLANCHARD: No, no, no. Well, the interesting thing about it is that, you know, I grew up hearing opera because of my father. He was an amateur baritone, so he played the music in the house all the time. But I never thought of writing an opera. I mean, you know, this has been a whirlwind experience. It's been a totally new experience for me and one that I've learned from immensely and I feel very blessed to have had.

LYDEN: So let's talk about the story. I had never heard of Emile Griffith before, and he is your protagonist here. Would you tell me about him?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Welcome to the fight of the week.

BLANCHARD: Well, Emile Griffith was a welterweight champion. He fought this guy named Benny Paret for the title, and they fought twice, each winning a decision in a fight. And then there was a third fight. And with Benny trying to gain an advantage over Emile, he kind of mocked his sexuality, which Emile was keeping very much under wraps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Right against the ropes. Almost (unintelligible).

BLANCHARD: And then at the end of the fight, you know, Emile hit Benny 17 times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They're going to stop it as Paret takes to the candles. Paret goes down from sheer exhaustion. Look at him there.

BLANCHARD: And Benny fell into a coma, and he lasted for about 10 days and then subsequently died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The fight has been stopped and the winner and new champion is Emile Griffith. But we're more concerned about the condition of Benny "Kid" Paret.

BLANCHARD: Emile went on to fight again but was always haunted by that experience, obviously.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLANCHARD: You know, but he said something in his autobiography, which is the thing that made me want to write the opera about him. And he said: I killed a man and the world forgave me, yet I loved a man and the world has still never forgiven me.

LYDEN: Yeah, yeah. And what happened to him later in New York that was a humbling moment for him and a terrible moment?

BLANCHARD: There was an experience he had when he actually retired and he was training fighters where he was beat up, you know, coming out of a gay bar in New York City and was clinging to life. He was in the hospital for about a month.

LYDEN: Hmm. Wow. Let's listen to a section from one of the recent rehearsals that you did.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CHAMPION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Emile) Listen to me, Howie. What he says about me...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Howie) (Singing) No, Emile, I don't want to listen.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Emile) Listen, Howie.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Howie) (Singing) No, Emile, you listen. There are things I just don't want to hear. There are things I just don't want to know.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Emile) What if it's true, Howie? What should I do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Howie) (Singing) No, Emile. It ain't true. Not in this world. Not in this man's world will it ever be true. No fighter in this fight world is ever gonna be less than a man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Emile) But listen to me, Howie, I am a man.

LYDEN: So we're hearing the words no fighter in this fight world is ever gonna be less than a man. What's going on here? Who's speaking to Emile?

BLANCHARD: Well, that's his trainer trying to deal with what people are saying about him. And he's telling him, you know, he doesn't want to hear it. You know, this is not the place for this. This is the fight world, you know, and he's dealing with his own issues in terms of trying to come to terms with who he really is.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CHAMPION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Howie) (Singing) In this world, it's (unintelligible) to ban. You bury him. You lay him in the dirt. That makes you strong. That makes you not afraid. That makes you not weak.

BLANCHARD: You know, all of these arias are very personal moments. And, to me, they speak to that moment in everyone's life when you have certain types of quiet reflection. So the arias are written in such a way where there are moments in time that kind of step out from the rest of the opera.

LYDEN: Yeah. I'm speaking with Terence Blanchard. He's making his debut as an opera composer tonight in St. Louis with the work titled "Champion." On top of everything else that you're doing, you just released this fantastic new album with your jazz combo, reminding us of your jazz chops. It's called "Magnetic." And, you know, I've read that some of your music here was partially inspired by your practice and study of Buddhism.

BLANCHARD: Yes.

LYDEN: Could you tell me a little more about your experience?

BLANCHARD: Well, you know, I became a Buddhist, I think it was probably seven years ago now. And one of the things that's been, like, very beneficial for me is just the whole notion of trying to draw positive energy to yourself. And I know sometimes people think of that as a rare simplistic notion, but it's helped me immensely in terms of just dealing with everyday life.

I remember when I first started chanting, we were chanting every night, every night. And immediately, I felt the benefits from it. So, you know, it's not like I have forsaken any of my spiritual roots. It's just that this is something that I've added to my life to give strength and comfort and benefit to other areas of my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Let's go back to your opera just for a second because "Champion" debuts tonight in St. Louis. And I'm just wondering what that's going to be like. I imagine you've been in the audience for films that you've worked on, but this is very different.

BLANCHARD: It's very different because, you know, it's the first time where I've actually created something that has come to life in front of my eyes. You know, normally, when I work on a film, the film is already shot. You know, it's edited, it's done, and I'm reacting to something that I'm seeing on screen.

Well, you know, this is the first time in my life where it's totally the reverse, where the performers are reacting to the music, and the music is helping them shape how they develop the characters. So I can't wait to see what happens tonight.

LYDEN: That's composer Terence Blanchard. He's celebrating two new creations: a new album called "Magnetic" and tonight's debut of "Champion" at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis. Terence Blanchard, thank you so much and congratulations.

BLANCHARD: Thank you, Jacki. It's been great talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on Programs and scroll down. And you can follow me on Twitter: nprjackilyden. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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