A Night at the Opera

Satie’s Parade, Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias, and Ravel’s L’Infant et les Sortileges had their premiere at the Metropolitan Opera as a remarkable triple bill (sets by David Hockney!) in 1981. Seated at the rear of the orchestra section in Row AA was your truly, surrounded by many of the great and the good of New York who were mostly perplexed at the sounds emanating from the orchestra pit. To say that Satie, Poulenc and Ravel weren’t the Met audience’s particular cup of tea back in the day (or on any day since) is an understatement. But despite the audience’s ambivalence towards the incredible music-making that night, there was a palpable sense of excitement and energy in the hall. Still relatively new, every inch of the Met gleamed and glowed in equal measure. The entire house appeared to be in black tie and the women dressed to impress rather than for comfort. I distinctly recall then-Governor Carey’s wife descending the stairs boasting an emerald necklace that would look more appropriate around the neck of the Princess of Wales rather than the First Lady of New York. Indeed, the so-called Diamond Horseshoe was fully on display that night, with an unbroken line of gemstones lining the necks of the ladies in the first row of the parterre boxes. I recall the feeling of that night as if it were yesterday.

Yesterday being the operative words because, in fact, the Met felt quite the same yesterday at the premiere of another opera, Terence Blanchard’s Champion. Some may question Peter Gelb’s decision to mount a second opera by the jazz trumpeter after what was a decidedly uneven production of Fire Shut Up My Bones last season or otherwise question the reasons for his doing so. Let the record reflect that Peter Gelb was absolutely right: This is exactly what the Met should be doing, presenting new music by living composers whose themes speak loudly to the issues facing our society today. Verdi may seem quaint today, but, 180 years ago, he spoke directly to the hearts and minds of his countrymen so forcefully that his name itself became an acronym for the Italian national movement. That is opera’s role and when it connects with an audience, no art form can so inspire humanity.

One of the bright points of Gelb’s somewhat problematic stewardship of the Met Opera has been his noble quest to find new audiences, with the goal of bringing a young and diverse audience to the grande dame of American opera houses. At least for one night, it was mission accomplished. Last night’s crowd was young, stylish and as diverse as one could have hoped for in 21st century New York. I could comment more on the dresses and diamonds from last night, but this blog is about the music and I suspect that the Met’s social media feeds will do that job better than I could. So I will just say that on these nights, when the Met brings new vital music to the stage, the old warhorse doesn’t seem old at all. It was 1981 all over again, dripping with glamour and again at its most relevant.

That said, there was nothing like a young Catherine Malfitano on the stage last night and Blanchard, who is developing in exciting ways as a classical composer, is a ways off from Satie, Poulenc and Ravel. Let’s start with what Blanchard got right. The orchestrations, particularly in the first act, were lush and, at times, quite interesting. I had all sorts of trouble following keys and thematic development. Distracted a bit by what was happening on stage, large chunks of score would fly by leaving me lost and searching for Blanchard’s line. This is a good thing–great music should be challenging and protective of its many secrets. Otherwise, why listen to it again? Whether it is coincidence, or me reading too much into the score, it did seem like Blanchard has been studying his Berlioz. At times, the brittle tritones in the violins reminded me of Symphonie Fantastique–although scoring an accented tritone on the word “devil” seemed a little too on point. But I did appreciate the various musical quotations sprinkled in amongst the score like so many Easter Eggs. Like many composers before him, Blanchard uses quotations not only to link his opera to the past, but also for humor. For example, during the standout scene in what must have been the most glamorous drag bar in 1960s NYC, Blanchard quotes John Williams’ Cantina Suite from Star Wars.

In short, while the Met bills Champion as a jazz opera, the marketing department sells Blanchard short. Of course, there are many jazz elements in the score. And while some of the more rhythmic passages recall Art Blakey and a few arias lean towards popular songwriting forms, this is fully a classical composition–closer in tone and feel to Janáček than Gershwin. And it is better for it. This is serious music and should be treated as such.

It has to be said, however, that as exciting as some of the music unquestionably is, there were long stretches, particularly in the rather turgid second act, where Blanchard appeared to run out of ideas. Perhaps this is the fault of the narrative, which seemed calculated not to offend. Champion is based on the life of Emile Griffith, the great middleweight champion of the 1960s. For those who have not heard of Griffith, he’s the guy who Rueben “Hurricane” Carter beat to a pulp in the opening of the movie The Hurricane. But Griffith is no mere footnote in history, even when compared with Hurricane Carter’s remarkable story.

Griffith’s meteoric rise up the middleweight division in the early 1960s concealed a secret–Griffith’s sexuality was, at the very least, more fluid than American society was ready to accept at the time. At the weigh-in prior to his third title fight with then-champion Benny “The Kid” Paret in 1962, Paret outed Griffith to the world press. Paret was clearly seeking to unsettle Griffith, who had soundly beaten him the first time around but had lost a controversial split decision in their second fight. To put it mildly, Paret’s strategy didn’t work out so well. Griffith pounded Paret throughout the fight and, in the 12th, landed 17 uncontested blows, mostly to Paret’s head, before the fight was stopped. Paret collapsed onto the canvas, fell into a coma, and died 10 days later. Griffith would later memorably remark that the world forgave him for killing a man (he would fight on through 1979), but wanted to kill him for loving one. By the time Met legend Eric Owens, playing the elder Griffith delivers this line, much of the emotional charge that line should have conveyed had been lost in a drama focused mainly on Griffith’s later dementia. And therein lies the problem.

Opening with the senior Griffith at the end of his life, suffering from dementia pugilistica and being cared for by his son Luis, the narrative focuses more on Griffith’s exploitation by his manager rather than the duality of his existence as a closeted gay man who earned his keep in what some would call the most masculine of sports. Griffith’s anger at having to conceal his true nature from the world finds easy parallels to our current society. Indeed, we are not so far gone from the AIDS crisis for the righteous anger at the establishment for ignoring a “gay disease” to have fully subsided. If I held the editing pen for Champion, this is the story I would have told: Pugilist and nominal family man by day, seeker of “bars with no signs down streets that have no names” by night, this study of duality is one that has been explored many times on the operatic stage, but never in a way that speaks directly to our contemporary society. Frustrated by having to hide who he is from the world and being forced to live a lie in public, Griffith’s anger reaches a fever pitch in the last Paret fight where he metaphorically (and actually) beats his many tormentors to death in the most public way possible. Paret hits the canvas, never to wake, to a crash of diminished sevenths as the curtain falls.

Blanchard, however, ignores much of Griffith’s dual life for much of the opera, reducing his same-sex dalliances to a couple of scenes. Predictably, one of these scenes proved to be a showstopper, complete with certified Met-diva extraordinaire Stephanie Blythe playing the proprietress and “only pussy” in a drag bar dripping with style. Contrasting these subterranean scenes with more of the boxing gym scenes would have potentially heightened the tension in Griffith’s life while exploring the undercurrents of sexuality in modern society. An aria where Griffith pleads, in sum and substance, “why can’t I just be me” would be a far more devastating moment than the senior Griffith’s repeated mantra of figuring out where his shoe is supposed to go. What could have been a sharp and pointed blade directed right at the heart of American society instead was reduced to a trite story about exploitation that, unforgivably in a drama about a boxer, pulls its punches.

Instead of trotting out the “tried and true” of the operatic repertoire, the Met is doing something brave in commissioning new works for its stage. As opera fans, we owe it to the art form we love to support this effort, recognizing that even as we await a new masterpiece, we will likely get more operas along the lines of Guntram and Rienzi. But without those early efforts, we wouldn’t have Salome or Tristan. As Blanchard reminds us, we must stay in the game.

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