Lights Out: Emile Griffith never got to see that celebrated opera about a bisexual boxer. He just lived it.

Lights Out: Emile Griffith never got to see that celebrated opera about a bisexual boxer. He just lived it.
Ken Howard
Victor Ryan Robertson, Aubrey Allicock, Arthur Woodley, Robert Orth and members of the company of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' 2013 world premiere of Champion.

Boxing legend Emile Griffith passed away July 23, just a month after Opera Theatre of Saint Louis brought his story to life onstage. Griffith never saw the production. Even if he had, it's doubtful he would recognize the characters playing him in Champion. Pugilistic dementia zapped the boxer's brain long before his body expired at the age of 75.

“What makes a man a man? THat’s the question he had to ask himself. It’s not the image that we put out in the public of a very virile and macho person, so what is it?”

See also:
- Video: Emile Griffith's Fatal Beating of Benny Paret in 1962.

Yet thanks to the opera — and a few extraordinary coincidences — Emile Griffith was arguably as relevant at his death as he was in the 1960s and '70s when the welterweight champ captured the public's attention with both his fists and — what did they call it back then? — lifestyle.

James Robinson, artistic director at Opera Theatre Saint Louis.
Courtesy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
James Robinson, artistic director at Opera Theatre Saint Louis.
Arthur Woodley played an elderly version of Emile Griffith in Champion.
Arthur Woodley played an elderly version of Emile Griffith in Champion.

"[T]he single most important world premiere in the 38-year history of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis," crowed the Post-Dispatch in its review of Champion this past June. A "visual treat" echoed the New York Times, while the Denver Post's Ray Mark Rinaldi observed that Champion " a deeply personal story with a significant social message; the world forgave Griffith for killing a man but could not forgive him for loving one. Tragic for our hero and yet wonderful for opera."

It was in 2008 when jazz composer Terence Blanchard first suggested the idea of an opera about Griffith to James Robinson, the artistic director of the St. Louis opera. Neither man could have anticipated how timely the production would end up being when it finally debuted five years later amid NBA player Jason Collins becoming the first active professional athlete in America to announce he was gay, the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the federal law banning gay marriage and, finally, Griffith dying in a Long Island nursing home.

Perhaps the opera's most meaningful performance came courtesy of Arthur Woodley, who played an elderly Griffith, broken and awash in dementia. Like Griffith, Woodley was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands and immigrated to the United States.

In writing Champion's librettos, or vocal script, author Michael Cristofer researched and constructed a narrative that sought to explore a complex man — a man who initially wanted to design women's hats for a living — without forcing a conclusion. Cristofer described it as "letting the telling of that story make its own statement."

For this story we are going to follow Cristofer's lead: What appears here is a eulogy of sorts, constructed from separate interviews Riverfront Times conducted last week with four of the key people behind Champion: Terence Blanchard, James Robinson, Arthur Woodley and Michael Cristofer. Together they tell the story of how an experimental-jazz opera and a vegetated boxer became intertwined, one coming to life on a St. Louis stage, the other giving up the ghost soon after.

Round 1: March 24, 1962
It was the third fight between Emile Griffith and Benny Paret with the welterweight world championship on the line. At the weigh-in the Cuban-born Paret reportedly grabbed Griffith's ass and called him a maricón — Spanish for "faggot." In the twelfth round Griffith backed Paret into the corner and unleashed a flurry of punches that put his opponent in a coma. Paret died ten days later.

Cristofer: I don't quite think that words at the weigh-in are the things that did it.

Robinson: He was paid to be a boxer, and in the boxing ring you box. And you're trained to deliver blows and to avoid them, and that's what it was. We can't say he was a killer because he was doing his job.

Cristofer: Yes, he was doing his job, I think that's fair to say. But to put someone into a coma, it hasn't happened that often, so you have to admit that there's something special about what happened that night. And for my money, I believe that something was unleashed, and it was the anger of the oppressed. I think being unable to be honest about his sexuality and really pursuing it — I think that was responsible for an accumulated anger that finally exploded in those moments with Benny Paret.... I do think oppression leads to violence.

Robinson: We don't celebrate the death of his opponent [in the opera]. What it is ultimately about is a man who was tortured by this incident. No one really knows why the fight went the way it did. The ref should have stopped the fight, and Benny Paret was not ready for that fight because he had been in a fight a short time before then. He had complained of headaches.

Woodley: It's an amazing thing. To go through all that he did and come out and be the wonderful gracious man that he was. That is immense. And that is why people feel for him. To box is to be an artist and scientist, to live by your wits and to live in a square arena. His vision was small [when he came to America]. All he wanted to do was make hats, make women beautiful. And he ends up in the ring, and he has another kind of artistry there.

Round 2: The Phantom of His Own Opera
In creating Champion, the writers and actors had to rely only on old interviews and film of Griffith, leaving them to wrestle with whether they accurately portrayed the man.

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