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  • Angela Allyn

Black History Gorgeously Portrayed at Lyric

If you don’t know the tragic story of champion boxer Emile Griffith, who achieved world boxing titles in three weight classifications, you might want to brush up on his remarkable life before heading to the Lyric Opera House for the magnificent Champion, Terence Blanchard’s landmark jazz opera now on view until February 11. 

Griffith is most remembered for, and in this telling most haunted by, his 1962 title match with Benny Paret which he won by a knockout: Paret never regained consciousness and died 10 days later.   The opera tells the story jumping back and forth from his old age where, riddled by the dementia that strikes most athletes whose sport is filled with head blows, he looks back at his childhood and youth. And the tale centers his sexual identity which was problematic in the man’s man world of pugilists: apparently Paret whispered the Spanish slur for homosexual to taunt Griffith during the fight to goad him on. According to this version of Griffith’s life story, he wanted to be a hat designer and never wanted to hurt anyone.  But, in one of the most moving moments of the work, baritone Reginald Smith Jr. as the older Emile sings “The world forgave me for killing a man, the world wanted to kill me for loving a man.”  

The boxing world is filled with tragedy and engenders conversations on race and class and this beautifully constructed opera layers these topics even as the set and timeline are impressionistic, revealing cities and personalities and questions. Griffith comes from a hard scrabble background and is used, just as Paret is used, to make their handlers’ money. Boxing harkens to an indentured servitude and a gladiatorial past, where the wealthy entertain themselves by using up the bodies of people without other career options. What choices do these men actually have when everyone wants the glamor and cash that comes with these careers? And where is everyone that benefits from their being used up when it all ends? For this fighter, he is left confused and old in a Long Island apartment, cared for by his adopted son Luis, played with tenderness by Martin Luther Clark. 

Director James Robinson fleshes out a magnificent story with evolving sets by Allen Moyer and fantastic costumes by Montana Levi Blanco.  Enrique Mazzola batons the rich score that blends classical forms with jazz seamlessly. Camille A. Brown’s choreography is outstanding, creating gay bar scenes and city frenzy. Chuck Coyl’s violence choreography and Jyreika Guest’s intimacy direction are essential to understanding the inherent physicality of this tale. 

Special shouts out to our Chicago grown soprano Whitney Morrison who plays Emile’s difficult and complex mother Emelda, and to Larry Yando the crass Ring Announcer who is an unofficial over the top narrator to a significant portion of Emile’s professional life, and of course Naya Rosalie James who plays Little Emile with the voice of angel.  Sankara Harouna stepped in on opening night and at the matinee to play Benny Paret and his son, who never knew his father, but agrees to meet with Emile late in Griffith’s life, because Griffith wants to say he is sorry.  Paret Jr. notes that Griffith needs to forgive himself first. Harouna's voice and acting honored the role.

This was the first audio described opera I have attended.  My family is an opera frequenting bunch, and now with a sight impaired member we have had to regroup a number of our cultural habits. We are always on the lookout for audio described offerings.  Opera is so much about sound, but a huge part of the show is the visuals and I was nearly thrown out of the theater last year for trying to describe something  happening onstage to my confused family member in a whisper.  Now, I was thrilled to go to the accessible performance which included a touch tour to feel costumes and props and listen to and  hold a trombone backstage prior to the performance. After the tour, staff bring an audio description device to you in your seat and check up to make sure it is working. In your ear, audio describer Martin Wilde verbally recounts the action in real time.  Martin also described the sets and projections (an artwork on their own by Greg Emetaz). His audio description added so much enjoyment and comprehension to the experience.  In addition to these necessary accommodations for sight impaired patrons, there were sign language interpreters at this matinee for the hearing impaired audience members and the Lyric has recently added sound shirt technology to their adaptive tech offerings:

If you or your family member would like to attend a performance that features special adaptive offerings in Chicago head to

Do not miss this significant opera: Champion makes for a perfect Black History Month commemoration, with a short run ending February 11.2024 at the Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive in Chicago’s Loop. For tickets and information go to

For more information on accessibility at the Lyric Opera of Chicago go to


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