Jazz meets opera in the boxing ring


English (Subtitles : French and English)


Welterweight prizefighting champion Emile Griffith soars to celebrity status yet ends up in solitude after accidentally killing his opponent in the ring.

Composed by one of today's greatest jazzmen—trumpeter Terence Blanchard—, this is a moving account of a forbidden love in mid-20th century American society.



Champion - Sets and costumes

Credit: Ken Howard and Washington National Opera

Musical excerpts

Champion - Musical excerpts

Credit: Minnesota Opera


Terence Blanchard  >

Terence Oliver Blanchard (born March 13, 1962) is an American jazz trumpeter, composer, and music educator. Blanchard started his career in 1980 as a member of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, then Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers...


Michael Cristofer  >

Michael Cristofer was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and an Antoinette Perry "Tony" Award for the Broadway production of his play, The Shadow Box...

Stage Director

James Robinson  >

American stage director James Robinson is Artistic Director at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where he has mounted productions...



  • Act I

    Scene 1 begins in Emile Griffith's apartment in Hempstead, Long Island, where he is struggling to dress himself. Suffering from dementia, he is confused and haunted by his past, which the opera presents in flashback. Luis, his adopted son and caretaker, reminds him to be ready for an important meeting with Benny Paret, Jr. Late 1950's: Emile is a young man in St. Thomas, the US Virgin Islands. He wants to find his mother, Emelda, and make his fortune in America as a singer, a baseball player, and a hat designer. Emile moves to New York. When he finds his mother, she is confused, not sure which of her seven abandoned children he is, but overjoyed. Hoping to find work for Emile, she takes him to meet Howie Albert, a hat manufacturer. Howie sees an opportunity, in that Emile is physically like a boxer, not a hat-maker. Howie decides to train Emile for prizefighting. Giving up his other dreams, Emile quickly develops into a talented welterweight. Lonely and confused by his success, Emile finds his way to a gay bar in Manhattan, whose owner, Kathy Hagan, welcomes him to a frightening and also attractive world. Emile confides in Kathy, revealing some demons from his past. As a boy, his fundamentalist cousin Blanche forced him to hold cinderblocks above his head as punishment for 'having the devil inside him', which gave him his great physical strength.

    1962: Emile meets Benny Paret at a weigh-in for their upcoming fight. Paret taunts Emile with the term 'maricon', a disparaging Spanish word for a homosexual. Alone with Howie, Emile tries to talk to him frankly about why this word hurts him so deeply, but for Howie this is something that no one in the fight business wants to talk about. Howie leaves him and Emile wonders what it means to be a man. Emile and Paret prepare for the big fight. Paret continues to taunt Emile, who ultimately delivers seventeen blows in less than seven seconds, which puts Paret into a coma.

  • Act II

    Back in Emile's bedroom in the present, Emile is haunted by the ghost of Kid Paret who still questions his old opponent.

    Mid- to late 1960s: Emile is enjoying a strong winning streak all over the world. Titles, trophies, and money roll in, but he remains disturbed by the death of Kid Paret. He tries living it up, and, denying his own identity, he takes a young bride, Sadie, although everyone, including his mother Emelda, who remembers her own childhood back in the Islands, warns him against it.

    Early 1970s: After the wedding, Emile's luck has changed. He's now on a long losing streak of matches, and beginning to exhibit signs of "boxer's brain", or trauma-related dementia. Howie realizes that Emile's days are numbered and tries to console him. However, Emile rejects Howie, as well as his wife and his mother. Instead, he looks for comfort back at Kathy's bar. Outside in the street, a group of thugs taunt him and beat him violently, exacerbating his brain injuries.

    Back in the present, Emile relives the nightmare of the attack. Luis tries to comfort him ("That was long ago"). In a New York City park, Emile asks for forgiveness from Benny Jr. Luis tells Benny that since that evening, Emile has struggled to find peace with what he's done and who he truly is. Back at home, the voices and memories subside.