The Kennedy Center

WNO Champion

Washington National Opera: Champion

Saturday, March 4, 2017 - Saturday, March 18, 2017

Justice and Courage at the Opera JFK Centennial Celebration Jazz Washington National Opera

The real-life story of Emile Griffith--the closeted gay boxer whose knockout of a homophobic rival in the early 1960s led to unexpected tragedy--comes roaring to the stage in Terence Blanchard's haunting and visually stunning "opera in jazz."

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In English with Projected English Titles
New WNO production adapted from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
(Champion was co-commissioned by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis and was first performed in June 2013.)

This event is part of JFKC: A Centennial Celebration of John F. Kennedy, inspired by five enduring ideals often ascribed to JFK: Courage, Freedom, Justice, Service, and Gratitude. Learn more about this event's connection to the celebration.  

"I'm seeing a lot of wonderful African American singers at WNO…
I love it. I have to go sing for Washington."
--Aubrey Allicock (Opera News)
"I kill a man and the world forgives me. I love a man and the world wants to kill me." The story of Emile Griffith--the closeted gay welterweight boxer whose knockout of a homophobic rival led to unexpected tragedy--comes roaring to the stage in this riveting and haunting opera. Through flashback, an aging Emile reflects on his tumultuous life, from his Caribbean upbringing and conflicted sexuality to his meteoric rise in the ring and ensuing decline in health. Battling years of guilt, regret, and denial, he now faces his greatest fight: to come to terms with his true self.
Five-time Grammy-winning jazz powerhouse Terence Blanchard, whose music ranges from film to Broadway to the concert hall, has composed a soulful, groundbreaking score filled with jazz-inflected vocals, bluesy harmonies, and Afro-Caribbean beats. Mixing bold characterizations with visually stunning multimedia and a jazz trio within the orchestra, Champion blew critics away when it premiered in 2013. The New York Times said the opera "strikes a resonant chord," while the Chicago Tribune called it "a new work of quality and staying power."

Please Note: Champion contains mature subject matter and strong language. Recommended for age 15 and up.

Performance Timing: Act One - 60 min.; Intermission - 25 min.; Act Two - 60 min.

Part of Terence Blanchard All-In, a yearlong residency that includes collaborations, a headlining appearance, and a mentorship role to young D.C. public school students.

Presented in conjunction with The Fearless Project.

Emile Griffith: Arthur Woodley
Young Emile Griffith: Aubrey Allicock
Emelda Griffith: Denyce Graves
Benny "The Kid" Paret: Victor Ryan Robertson
Howie Albert: Wayne Tigges
Luis Griffith: Frederick Ballentine
Cousin Blanche/Sadie Griffith: Leah Hawkins
Kathy Hagan: Meredith Arwady
Ring Announcer: David Blalock
Little Emile Griffith: Samuel Grace
Man in the Bar: Andrew McLaughlin
Principal Dancer: Joe Orrach

Jazz Quartet:
Guitar: Dan Hovey
Piano: Fabian Almazan
Bass: Nathaniel West
Drums: Jeff "Tain" Watts

Conductor: George Manahan
Director: James Robinson
Set Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: James Schuette
Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind
Projection Designer: Greg Emetaz
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners and Rusty Wandall
Wig and Makeup Designer: Tom Watson
Choreographer: Seán Curran
Fight Master: Joe Isenberg
Cover Conductor: William Long
Assistant Conductors: Joel Ayau and Paul Jarski
Diction Coach: Thomas Bagwell
Chorus Master: Steven Gathman
Assistant Director: Amanda Consol
Projected English Titles: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Stage Manager: Kimberley S. Prescott

Musicologist Saul
Lilienstein leads the Wednesday, Mar. 15 Opera Insight, starting 1 hour and 15 minutes before the performance and lasting 35–40 minutes. All other Opera Insights start 1 hour before the performance and last 20–25 minutes. Informative and entertaining, Opera Insights take you inside the composer's mind, behind the scenes of planning a production, and into the history and social context of each opera. These lectures are free, but patrons must present a ticket from any performance of Champion.

3/4: Francesca Zambello in conversation with Terence Blanchard and Jim Robinson
3/6: Colin Brush, Artistic Associate
3/10: Colin Brush, Artistic Associate with Joanna Lohman (Washington Spirits player)
3/12: Colin Brush, Artistic Associate
3/15: Musicologist Saul Lilienstein
3/18: Colin Brush, Artistic Associate with Hudson Taylor (from Athlete Ally) and Joanna Lohman (Washington Spirits player)

Following all performances:
Saturday evening, Mar. 4
Monday evening, Mar. 6
Friday evening, Mar. 10
Sunday matinee, Mar. 12
Wednesday evening, Mar. 15
Saturday evening, Mar. 18
Don't miss your opportunity to engage directly with our artists and share your thoughts on the experience you just had! Here's your chance to ask questions and get the inside scoop on the production from members of the cast and creative team.
All discussions begin immediately after the performance and are free with your ticket.


In the Smoke of the Sting
Free, no tickets required.
Join WNO artist Jarrod Lee and pianist Dara Kristina-Joi Morgan for this program that tells the stories of three boxers--Joe Louis, Emile Griffith, and Muhammad Ali--and how they each addressed the issue of racism and discrimination in their own way. Brought together through poems, music from the period, and arias from operas written about these men, In the Smoke Of The Sting is also layered with reflections in the boxers' own words of humor, courage, and determination, as each endured the truth that being titled "Champion" did little to stop the public's disquiet at such prominent ‘otherness.'
The program will be presented at the following venues:
2/14 at 10:30 a.m. at Anacostia Library
2/15 at 12 noon at National Postal Museum
2/18 at 2 p.m. at Takoma Park Library
2/22 at 10:30 a.m. at Francis Gregory Library
2/24 at 6 p.m. at The Sitar Arts Center
2/26 at 3 p.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church
2/28 at 7 p.m. at Shaw Library
3/1 at 7 p.m. at Petworth Library
3/2 at 2 p.m. at Bellevue Library
3/7 at 7 p.m. at Woodridge Library
3/9 at 7 p.m. at Mount Pleasant Library
3/16 at 7 p.m. at The Hill Center

Champion Panel Discussion and Sneak Peek at the National Cathedral
2/27 at 7 p.m.
Free, registration required.

Performers and panelists moderated by the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas will explore Terence Blanchard's "opera in jazz." This free event will feature selections from the opera and discussion prompted by the life of Emile Griffith and the experiences of LGBTQ athletes today.

Champion photos by Ken Howard/Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

What People are Saying

Watch and Listen

Denyce Graves on Champion

Terence Blanchard on Champion

Champion (Trailer)

Champion (Teaser)

Francesca Zambello on Deadman Walking and Champion