Initially renowned as a jazz trumpeter, composer and bandleader, New Orleans native son and five-time Grammy winner Terence Blanchard, 55, has since delved into music from numerous angles. He became director/producer Spike Lee’s go-to guy for film scores, has composed classical pieces and continues to be deeply involved in music education. Blanchard was once the head of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and he currently teaches one week a month at Boston’s Berklee College of music.
In 2011, Blanchard took on the challenge to write his first opera. His selected subject was the life of Emile Griffith, a boxer who, being bisexual and having pummeled a man in the ring who subsequently died, faced overwhelming battles of his own. “Champion: An Opera in Jazz,” which premiered in 2013 in St. Louis, will be presented on March 9 and March 11 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. It will be performed by the New Orleans Opera with music by the Louisiana Philharmonic and a four-piece, jazz rhythm section. The jazz group includes all local talents with pianist Michael Pellera, guitarist Steve Masakowski, bassist Jason Stewart and drummer Herman LeBeaux. The performances will feature the creators of the original roles, vocalists Arthur Woodley, playing old Emile, and Aubrey Allicock, playing the young Emile.
“The thing that’s been freaking me out and what’s so ironic about it is that my life has come full circle,” Blanchard reveals. “What a lot of people don’t know about me is that my father was a big fan of opera. He was a baritone and he sang in church and did recitals.”
Even so, the hugely talented trumpeter never actually, and he says regrettably, saw an opera until 2011 when he attended the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ production of John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles.”
Blanchard understands that some of his fans might be intimidated by the prospect of going to an opera. “The thing I would tell people is to stop thinking opera,” he offers. “Think musical theater in its highest form performed at a high level of proficiency by great musicians and great singers. That’s the way I really feel about it.”
While composing a large-scale opera with international sights was a first for Blanchard, boxing, he explains, was familiar territory. He began heading to a boxing gym some 20 years ago and continues hitting the bag to this day.
How did your being commissioned to write an opera for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis come about?
What happened was that they wanted to broaden their audience and they kept thinking that jazz had to be a part of the equation. So they talked Gene Dobbs Bradford who heads Jazz St. Louis about the possibilities of doing this. He remembered the conversations that I had with him about my father years ago. So he said I have the perfect person. So when they met with me they said we want you to write an opera. And I said, ‘Wow.’ At first they wanted me to do something about Hurricane Katrina but I thought it was too close. So I kept saying I didn’t want to do that.
I had this thought about Emile on my mind. Michael Bentt, who was a good friend of mine, also was a heavyweight boxing champion, and I would always have conversations about fighters and fights. He’s the one who told me about Emile Griffith and when I learned of his story I kept saying wow, that’s a powerful story. I mean it’s not about boxing, it’s about redemption and forgiveness. And when I read the line in his [Griffith’s] biography, ‘I killed a man and the world forgave me. I loved a man and the world still hasn’t forgiven me,’ I said, you know what, this is what the story [for the opera] has to be.
When I first brought the idea to them they turned it away thinking it was going to be about boxing. I said no, it’s not really about boxing. I told them to get the book [Nine… Ten… and Out!] and look at the documentary [Ring of Fire]. They agreed it was powerful story.
Why is it called an Opera in Jazz rather than a jazz opera?
The reason I didn’t want to say jazz opera is because I didn’t want people to think there would be swing throughout the entire thing with a rhythm section and maybe a big band. I use the language of jazz throughout the opera but there are moments when it’s totally just orchestra. I’m using that European language to tell the story. It’s a combination of both things.
When it was mentioned to a friend that you had written an opera and it was about boxer Emile Griffith, he laughed and said, “Oh so they won’t be wearing Viking hats?”
[Terence laughs.] There has always been stereotypes about opera just like there are about jazz. People who don’t venture out are missing out. What I tell people is just go check it out for yourself. Don’t allow pop culture to dissuade you from having what could possibly be a very beautiful experience. Me, myself being one of those persons. It took me until 2011 to actually go and see opera for the first time—and that’s a shame—and I was totally floored and blown away by the entire experience. To me it’s like 3-D before 3-D ever existed—bodies moving around a stage, singing lines and telling stories through music. It’s amazing.
Was the first opera you saw sung in English?
Yes, it was. I think Opera Theatre of St. Louis does all of their operas in English. It’s been met with some blowback but they have a thriving opera company that’s supported by the community and a lot of people show up to the performances. So hurrah for them for understanding how to broaden their audience.
Your jazz and classical compositions are instrumental pieces. Have you written lyrics? Did you and Michael Cristofer, who wrote the libretto, work cooperatively?
No, I haven’t written for lyrics—well, maybe years ago for something Spike [Lee] did. It was a totally different experience for me. The way I worked with Michael is that he wrote the libretto first. There was a bit of going back and forth but not a whole lot. I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic whenever I write because of my film background. I just felt like a fish out of water throughout the entire experience. In fact we all did. They [the vocalists] thought I was going to ask them to be like Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams. Everybody was a little nervous but once we got to the workshop and got to rehearse, we started to realize that this is music, this is just storytelling so let’s go from that vantage point.
The cool thing about it, when we were working on it, the singers were expecting me to just come in with written music and say, ‘Sing this.’ Well I have the written music but I kept telling them that I’m open to suggestions. They helped me learn by constantly asking me questions. Denise asked me, ‘Hey can I do this in the libretto? It gives me more time to take a breath.’ I’m like sure.
In any great art form, there’s the craft of it, there’s the theory of it and there’s the history of it. When a practical application comes, it’s all about how you make your statement. What differentiate our statements is the little adjustments we make. It’s the same way playing jazz. You play with one drummer and you swap it out [for another] and you have to learn how to adjust. Boxing is always about adjustments. You may train because the guy may have a strong jab and then you get into the fight and he might not jab at all and you have to learn how to compensate.
You’ve been into boxing a long time. How did you get into it?
I’ve been boxing for 20 years, though I’ve never been to a professional fight. I love going to the gym and I love hitting the heavy bag and sparring with some of those young boys who are much quicker than me. There was a guy called Charlie Gallager here who had a boxing gym and I walked by—I had been doing some kickboxing—and when I saw it I just walked in. He was my first trainer. Charlie got me into it and I haven’t looked back.
Did your boxing experience help you in writing the music for “Champion”?
Oh, definitely. It helped me in telling the story. For any guys to make it into the ring is a serious accomplishment and they work extremely hard. We wanted the element in the opera of him [Emile] working hard, learning and training. Not making it seem as if these guys are up there just throwing punches. We do it through the libretto. I have some rhythmic grooves that are going on underneath to give people an understanding of the tempo and the pace that these guys are working at.
As you know, the first opera house in the United States was in New Orleans. Does that impact the significance of this performance?
One of the things about being from New Orleans is the history of our culture is always there no matter what you do. It’s so embedded in us. The most interesting thing about this for me, because people look at me as a jazz musician, is that the culture of choral music has made an appearance in this project. I grew up listening to that. I grew up in the church. I grew up hearing that all of the time. A lot of the prominent African American singers that do opera—a good portion of them—started singing in the church. And you can hear that.
It’s profound for me—it’s not lost on me—to have an opera that I’ve written be performed in my hometown. I still remember when I would go to the symphony performances and how in awe I was of the orchestra. When I finally got to play with those guys, it was an amazing experience. Now to have something like this be put on the stage of the Mahalia Jackson Theater, it’s an overwhelming thing. I get a little emotional about it sometime because my father is not around to see it. My dad used to rehearse every Wednesday night with a guy named Osceola Blanchet. He was guy who taught a lot of young African American men opera. My dad learned opera from him. He was the organist in our church and he had a group called the Osceola Five. Every now and then, my dad would bring me over there [to the rehearsals]. I played the piano at the time and as soon as I walked in the door, he would say, ‘Play your piece Terence, play your piece.’ That was the culture that I grew up in, with these black men sitting around singing operatic excerpts. They sang them in their native tongue—Italian, German—as well as doing spiritual music.
I’m still pinching myself. You would think that with all my music, I wouldn’t be that way, but I am. It’s monumental for me. Being a jazz musician is what I love but I know that this is what my mom and my family love so I know it’s going to be big for them.
You always seem to have many projects going on at the same time. What else are you up to?
I’ve written another opera based on the New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. I also have a new album, Liar, coming out in April that was recorded live in Cleveland, Minneapolis, Dallas and New York where there was gun violence against unarmed African Americans. Also, Spike Lee’s new film, Black Klansman, [which Blanchard scored] is now in post-production.