Review: Champion at the Lyric Defines Opera in Jazz With Story of Boxer Emile Griffith

Champion is the story of welterweight boxer Emile Griffith's career in boxing with a life-defining fatal bout in 1962 against Benny "Kid" Paret. I believe that an opera in jazz is the perfect format for telling a story filled with violence, sex, and the hustle for love and respect. This was jazz great Terence Blanchard's first opera before Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which played at Lyric and The Met in 2023. The libretto for Champion is written by Michael Cristofer with all of the beauty and rawness of Black immigrant culture. It is flawlessly directed by James Robinson with equally flawless conducting by Enrique Mazzola.

The story of Griffith and Paret made headlines in 1962 when Griffith beat Paret into a coma reportedly after Paret called Griffith a maricón (gutter Spanish for homosexual) and taunted him about his closeted life in the gay bars. A lot of controversy surrounded that fight. Paret had just come from a previous fight with pain in his head and the referee should have stopped the fight once Griffith leaned into the fatal blows. It was obvious that Paret was unconscious on his feet. The incident gave Griffith a cachet as a feared boxer but also tainted the rest of his life.

Sankara Harouna and Reginald Smith Jr. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Champion weaves the life of Emile Griffith III (born in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands) as a child (Naya Rosalie James), a young man (Justin Austin), and an old man in the grips of dementia (Reginald Smith Jr.). I will say right out of the gate that Smith is the star and center of this opera. His baritone reaches the rafters and his acting is on point. I have witnessed dementia many times and most of the heartbreak is seeing how hard the person is struggling to make sense of everything. Smith gave a seamlessly beautiful performance with a tragic role that can become maudlin or mawkish. Smith's performance is imbued with all of the fear, regret, and pain.

Emile's life has been whittled down to a small room with him dependent on routine and his son Luis (Martin Luther Clark) to give him a point of focus. In one scene, Emile has lost one shoe and sits on the bed repeating where it goes and where he goes. Luis gently tells him that he found it in the refrigerator. Clark plays a loving and patient son and he has a tenor that I hope is heard more. His solo in the second act is a showstopper with a pure and clear timbre that eases through the phrasing filled with emotion.

Austin does a great job in the role of Emile in the prime of his career and portraying his evolving sexuality. He has a nice voice but it does not sound like a true baritone and is overwhelmed by the orchestra. He has a tenor-leaning pitch and does not have the punch to the top of the Lyric house. Austin has the physique and moves of a boxer and is also a pretty good dancer keeping up with the choreography by Camile Brown. However, Emile is a central role and his voice should be as powerful as the older Emile. He has great chemistry with soprano Whitney Morrison who plays his erstwhile mother Emelda. Morrison, an alumna of Lyric's Ryan Opera Center and a Chicago native, played Billie in Fire Shut Up in My Bones.

L-R Justin Austin, Whitney Morrison, and Paul Groves with Champion company. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Morrison gives a raw and naturalistic performance as the mother who did not recognize which of her seven children had tracked her down. Her solo about how she went along with being used sexually to survive is as beautiful as it is sad. She carries off the role with great style and hits that St. Thomas patois on the nose. Her Emelda has swagger and she thoroughly enjoys the life that Emile can give her. She looks fabulous in the costumes by Montana Levi Blanco.

Veteran tenor Paul Groves is excellent as Griffith's boxing trainer and manager Howie Albert who dreamt of being a trainer instead of a hat manufacturer. Groves tears into the role of a brash New Yorker with swagger and singing with a great accent. Groves played the same role at the Met in 2023. I enjoyed his solo about how the media gives almost none of the truth and what is heard is bullshit. That applies to the media today in the climate of "reality" television and politicians acting for the camera rather than on behalf of their constituents.

The role of Benny "Kid" Paret is played by baritone Sankara Harouna as an opening night understudy for Leroy Davis, who was ill. Harouna did a splendid job as Paret and as his ghost frightening a confused and guilt-ridden Emile. He also plays Paret's son Benny Jr. giving older Emile absolution of sorts telling him that he must forgive himself. Harouna will be joining the Ryan Opera Center and is already a standout with a wonderful sound.

Far L-R Justin Austin and Reginald Smith Jr with Champion cast. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Other performance highlights are Naya Rosalie James as young Emile being made to hold a cinderblock over his head by a religious fanatic Cousin Blanche (Krysty Swann). James has a sweet voice and did well playing the physical toll under the punishment of being left with a family member who said that he had the devil in him. Meroe Khalia Adeeb plays Emile's wife Sadie who marries unaware that her husband is gay but has the beginning of boxer's dementia. Adeeb has a beautiful soprano and sings a duet with Morrison as they both wait for him to come home. Chicago acting veteran Larry Yando gives a fun performance as the Ring Announcer. He has played Ebenezer Scrooge for 14 years in A Christmas Carol at the Goodman.

The production is spectacular along the lines of a Broadway musical with a layered set by Allen Moyer (The Flying Dutchman and Fire Shut Up in My Bones). It changes from Emile's room to St. Thomas during Carnival, to the gay bar called The Hole, and the boxing ring. The Carnival scene (shown at the top of this review) features dancers choreographed by Camille A. Brown and Christopher Figaro Jackson with a riot of color and feathers by Montana Levi Blanco. The drag performers that populate The Hole are fantastic.

Champion has a more straight-ahead jazz sound even while being sung by operatic voices. Conductor Mazzola weaves the orchestra in seamlessly with some of the songs backed only by percussion. I would place it in the canon of American opera that should be performed in every opera house. You should see it and keep in mind that there is adult language and themes meant for a mature audience.

Champion plays through February 11 at Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. For tickets and more information please visit

For more information on this and other plays, see

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.