Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Emile Griffith

Champion” is a jazz opera about bisexual boxer Emile Griffith, an immigrant from St. Thomas (Virgin Islands), who landed 17 punches in seven seconds on Cuban boxer Benny "The Kid" Paret in 1962, resulting in not only a knockout, but also a coma from which Paret never recovered. He died ten days later. The match, held at NYC’s Madison Square Garden, was televised nationally by the ABC network. Before the fight Paret had taunted Griffith with gay slurs, calling him a “maricón” (faggot) at the weigh-in.

The world premiere of this opera takes place tonight at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and five more performances will be offered through Sunday, June 30. Arthur Woodley plays the older Emile Griffith, while Aubrey Allicock (photo at top of this post and below) will portray the younger Griffith. Famed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves is cast as Emelda Griffith, Emile’s mother. Direction is by James Robinson. The opera presents different episodes of Griffith’s life, each separated by the bell sounding a new round.

Baritone Aubrey Allicock (b. 1983), portrays Emile Griffith.

With music by jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer Terence Blanchard (b. 1962, the very year of this fateful boxing match) and libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer, “Champion” is inspired by the true event of Griffith’s meeting with the son of Benny Paret forty years later. Paret’s son was two years old at the time of his father’s death. Flooded by memories of his career, his checkered personal life, and a later attack that exposed his homosexual activity*, the character of Emile explores his finding himself in the face of his greatest tragedy. Paret’s son is expected to attend the premiere performance, but Griffith himself, now 75 years old, is not well enough to attend.

*In 1992 Griffith was viciously beaten by a gang upon exiting a gay bar in NYC’s Port Authority Bus Terminal vicinity. He was hospitalized for four months as a result of his massive injuries. In a 2005 interview with Sports Illustrated magazine, Griffith discussed his struggle with his sexual attraction to both men and women. Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, a documentary about the life of Emile Griffith, was released in 2005.

"I kill a man," Griffith said, "and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin." Later in his life, Griffith began to suffer from dementia, and today he lives in a New York nursing home, requiring full-time medical attention.

"My father loved opera," says jazz composer Terence Blanchard, a five-time Grammy winner. "He was a baritone who studied opera, so it was impossible not to feel an emotional connection to him in writing Champion. I was drawn to tell Emile's story through music from the moment I first heard of his incredible journey. I knew there was no other way to tell this story but through the unique power of opera." Blanchard took on the project to honor his father, who was unable to realize his dream of becoming an opera singer in an era when opera companies did not hire black male singers.

Said librettist Cristofer, "Champion is the story of a man struggling to make peace with himself and to find his place in the world as a fighter and a gay man. It's the story of courage in the face of sexual oppression, of love in the face of hate, of grace in the face of physical and mental decline. For me, Emile's story not only asks the question of what it means to be a man. It asks what it means to be a human being."

Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny “The Kid” Paret (boxing gloves, left background), Aubrey Allicock as boxer Emile Griffith (center) and Denyce Graves as his mother Emelda (right).

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