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.
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.
"[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 "...is 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.
Robinson: I met him a year and a half ago...he was in a severely declining position. It just seemed like an honor to be in his presence. The walls of his room were covered in letters and pictures. It puts it into perspective: Wow, this was a person who impacted a lot of people's lives.
Cristofer: All I knew [before working on the opera] was that Emile Griffith was responsible for someone's death in the ring. I also knew that was a reason why boxing was taken off television back in the '60s. When we [later] realized that he was so far gone — that he wasn't even going to be able to come and see [the opera] — it became a bit like a ghost story. It's been strange and a terrifically moving experience emotionally. It's also fraught with a lot of concerns and doubts: Have we done him justice, have we told his story as well as we can?
Blanchard: I don't think he was fully aware of this [opera], but I think spiritually there was a very loving vibration that was coming his way that allowed him to move on.
Cristofer: He knew about it. We know that he knew about it. He knew there was going to be an opera written.
Woodley: I realize that his mind was gone, and there's no way we will know if there was any self that was conscious and able to figure things out. But I hope that there was that one small little atom or two of consciousness left in the man, and I hope that at some point in the trip we took in making this opera that he understood some part of what we were doing. And if he did not, then it is up to us, the living, to understand that and witness his life.
Blanchard: I wish I had been able to meet him earlier and talk to him as a fan of the sport. There was no need for me to see him in a weakened state, suffering from dementia.
Woodley: I wanted to meet him now, after the opera was done. I didn't want to meet him before because I knew that if I did, as an actor, I would steal. I would take from him. I would need to be more like him, to gesture like him. I didn't want to do that. I needed to create this guy and use whatever forces I had. It's finding Emile Griffith through what I know, filtering him through what I would do, what I would feel. It's living with this character: How would I feel? How would I feel if I were?
Round 3: A Complicated Legacy
Emile Griffith hated labels. He admitted to chasing men and women but shrunk from identifying himself as gay, homosexual or bisexual. When asked about his sexuality, his standard response was, "I ain't nobody's faggot."
Woodley: Emile Griffith put the Virgin Islands in the 1960s on the map. Both of us came to this country, so [the role] was easier for me than I think it would be for other people. I still speak the dialect, and I knew the feeling of coming up here, being new, trying to put it all together. He was from St. Thomas, and I'm from St. Croix, maybe 25 minutes by prop plane or 10 minutes by jet. Even though we were separated by water, I had family on St. Thomas. He was a big story, especially in my church. Emile Griffith was always a big deal. A hero in some sense: "Look at this guy who came from this little island and is now a world champ!" That meant that there was a possibility in making it in the big city, in that big country, in the United States of America, in New York.
No on really spoke about [the rumors of his sexuality] in the beginning. I think in those days we didn't want to pay attention to that, in that way. He was our success story. It is true that if somebody in the islands called you that kind of name, it's fighting words. So we could understand that. But the idea that he was either bisexual or gay did not figure into our way of thinking at that point.
Blanchard: What makes a man a man? What is it? 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? And I think that question itself lies at the core of why people struggle with accepting people who aren't like them.
Cristofer: Most of his life was chronicled. Even apart from [the] book [Nine Ten and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith by Ron Ross] and the documentary [Ring of Fire] that was made, there was a lot. He did a lot of interviews. There's a lot of coverage of different fights, including the famous fight, the last fight with Benny Paret. His interviews were interesting because they were so contradictory in lots of ways, the way he fielded questions about his sexuality.
I don't think it's important from the outside, that an athlete has an obligation to me to express his sexuality. I don't think that that's the point. The point is that the athlete himself, in that world, should be free to openly be whoever he is.
Blanchard: When I was working on the opera and reflecting on a person who had reached the highest high of his chosen profession, to accomplish that and not to have the ability to be who he is, and not being able to share that success only with the person who he loves — to me that is a very, very painful notion.
Woodley: When you think about the fact that in the '60s and '70s, when he was active in boxing, and [Griffith] refusing to say, "These are not my friends," and saying, "These are my friends, these are people I hang out with and care about and love." The only words that come to mind are, "What a hero." What a guy to stand up and say these things.
Cristofer: We were, and still are in lots of ways, a culture that prevents people from truly expressing who they are.
Robinson: These days we want everyone to come out, we want transparency. But here was a guy who was as true to himself as he could be.
Woodley: Jason Collins was 2013; Emile Griffith was 1962. Look how many years it took for this, how many years upon years for us to get to this.
Cristofer: I assiduously avoided [in the opera] telling the contemporary story of what's happening today with gay athletes. I just thought it was smarter and fairer to not use his story to proselytize. It would be like using him, using his life to make a kind of a statement. Whereas the alternative, and it's subtle but it is different, is that you tell his story and let the telling of that story make its own statement.
Round 4: Free at Last
Griffith was never the same boxer after he killed Benny Paret. He'd let lesser fighters hang around in matches, and nightmares of that March 1962 fight haunted him long after he retired from the sport in 1977.
Blanchard: [Griffith's death] hit me pretty hard. This is a person who was a very sweet personality, never meant anybody no harm. In an interesting way, it's almost as if his soul said, "It's time for me to move on," because we brought his story to life, and we had a chance to have a lot people experience his life. A part of me is saddened, but a part of me is at peace with it.... He's at rest. No more suffering.
Cristofer: What attracted me to his life, because I am gay, was this struggle that he was going through. When he died I thought, "Maybe peace at last for him," because I don't think he ever had any. That repression led to the kind of violence that included the death of another person. I don't know that he ever had any peace. I hope he does now.
Woodley: There is something about him, something that is learned. People don't cry in an opera for no reason. They feel it. I felt it. I felt it for Emile Griffith. I felt it for my little islands. I think of Emile in this fight as someone who was one of those figures who helped us to get here. He was a witness; he testified along the way. Minds will change, people will change, and it will all be slow. But like Martin Luther King said, it bends toward justice.