New Opera is Selling History

Does new opera succeed by parceling history for a post-pandemic world? While Terence Blanchard’s Champion premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013, it has made an impactful impression in its Metropolitan Opera appearance this 2022-2023 season. A historical opera, it recounts the life of Emile Griffith, a welterweight boxer who dominated his sport in the 1950s-1960s, with melodic jazz and snappy dance numbers—a sort of Hamilton for the highbrow art form. In its last performance on May 13, I listened to the opera as much as looked to the audience, wondering if I was seeing the future of opera or a hopeful glimpse of what it could be.

The opera is split between present and past, with Ryan Speedo Green starring as the “young” Griffith and Eric Owens playing the elder. Owens begins the opera, bent and confused, suffering from dementia. Soon memory whisks him from his present-day haunting to his joyous youth in St. Thomas with lively singing and dancing numbers replete with bright brass and drums. But the dazzle is pierced by a fight announcer at the side of the stage, as though an unshakable voice in Griffith’s own mind and a continuous reminder of the trauma he experienced: “Only shadows in the night” as one aria goes.

The recurring announcer, appearing simultaneously on the corner of the stage and Griffith’s memory, foreshadows the centerpiece and climax of the story, a critical match at the height of Griffith’s career. In the match, he kills Benny “Kid” Paret after Paret hurled a homophobic slur at him, “maricón”—a Spanish word that the libretto and score work together to punctuate tauntingly. The scene itself is masterfully choreographed and lit, cinematic, in fact, and brutal to behold. The program notes that Griffith delivered “seventeen blows in less than seven seconds.”

One way to understand Champion is as an exploration of how memory works with and around trauma. Whenever the elder Griffith appears, he is crouched, physically weighed down by a tormented past: he carries a burden even when he can’t recall why he feels burdened. In addition to dividing past from present, the story also splits to capture both sides of Griffith’s double life as a gay man. Mirthful scenes in one of Manhattan’s gay bars fade to his courtship and quick marriage to Sadie (sung with glitz by soprano Brittany Renee) in the second act. 

The opera is built to offer a version of reconciliation, and given our current state of affairs, this is perhaps why audiences are so drawn to its story right now. The fight and its aftermath focus on Griffith’s crisis of identity and discrimination as much as on the shock of having killed a man. Phrases like “what makes a man a man” set to melodic, hum-able songs with driving bass lines and catchy percussion revolve visually around series of squares that light up blue, red, and orange, frame within a frame, that steadily power onward. It’s an opera that holds the audience’s hand to process a devastation that is both real and recognizable.

Historical operas, works that represent and recreate history, perhaps give a foothold for new audiences, telling a story in an unfamiliar way about a known entity. I’m thinking of Adams’ Nixon in China, Glass’ Satyagraha, but also operas like Handel’s Giulio Cesare—it’s not an original idea to make an opera about a historical figure, but it does seem to be trending in recent years. 

History is selling. In this opera, it’s bringing to light pain that we’ve forgotten or systemically hidden, and people are showing up for it. Notably, Champion is only the second opera the Met has staged by a Black composer, the story it tells but one erasure of many that we’re slowly unearthing. 

Classical Concessions

Classical music has been reeling from a series of slow-moving crises around its relevance in society at large. I have been writing about this for a while now (most recently in a paper at the MLA that explored artistic labor as defined by Sasha Cooke’s pandemic album how do I find you), but this month, I’ve been to a series of concerts that are grappling with the problem of relevance in new ways.

On February 26, in the exquisite chamber music room of The Phillips Collection, I heard double bassist Xavier Foley play a program of his own work and Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor (transcribed for the bass). He wrote some of the works on the program during the pandemic; one, Lament, responds to the loss of his mentor and teacher in 2014, and others explore difficult life changes or other forms of loss; all seem to focus on processing emotion and fostering acceptance in the present. 

Each of Foley’s own works hold meaningful intent but emerge as free from any listening barriers as possible. The sound of pieces like Lost Child, which he opened the program with, clearly and beautifully echo Edgar Meyer (with whom he worked while pursuing his BA at the Curtis Institute), whose simple yet serious sound I know best from Appalachian Journey. But much of Foley’s work leans further into popular music genres as if to avoid risking anyone feeling anything beyond comfort in a new music environment. The most obvious example on the program was Upright Metal, which aimed to recreate heavy metal on the double bass. Certainly, the homage was successful and delightful in the way that a familiar sound emanating from something unfamiliar always strikes a quick chord of wonder, but soon I wondered what will become of it a century from now. What will make us turn to a double bass cover of heavy metal if we can just listen to heavy metal?

Foley’s interpretation of Bach, however, was a lasting moment of awe and artistry. The timbre that he draws from his instrument is sweet, round, and delicate. The low growling range inherent to the bass emerged as if an underground deity were casting axioms upward to illuminate our human plight. It was technically stunning and emotionally transfixing. If there was any doubt that Foley is a serious player in the Classical music realm, this Bach was irrefutable evidence. Crowd-pleasing tunes buried the profound lede. 

Several weeks prior, I heard Lang Lang do the opposite at the Kennedy Center. In a 100-minute, no-intermission program, he performed a brief Schumann C major Arabeske followed by the complete Bach Goldberg Variations—that’s all 30 variations and an aria to open and close. A pianist known for flash and bravado, he hasn’t often demonstrated the finesse underpinning this particular Baroque paragon and certainly didn’t prove otherwise in this performance. The fact that he played to a sold-out theatre with a program like this at all showed artistic flex, a draw on his star reputation to get away with a complex Classical program during which many audience members fell asleep. 

With one artist burying the high-brow and the other boasting it, their chosen encores were notable. Lang Lang came out with an arrangement of “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins, followed by a favorite from Disney’s Mulan. Foley responded to his standing ovation with the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. I couldn’t help but think one was placating and winning back an audience; the other was offering a parting gift of virtuosity and reflection. Both performed a balancing act of mundane and masterpiece that are becoming increasingly common in our concert halls. If this is a concession we’re making to keep audiences showing up to Classical music concerts, then hopefully the balance remains.

Prélude, choral et fugue

At a stunning recital on Friday in the National City Christian Church in Washington, DC, pianist Yvonne Chen reminded me of a fugue’s Latin roots: coming from the Latin fuga, flight. A fugue initially introduces a lone subject, and all the entering subsequent parts chase it, imitating what it has already announced. As Ebenezer Prout authoritatively defines it, a fugue is founded on “the idea that one part starts on its course alone, and that those which enter later are pursuing it.” 

Chen closed her program of French composers with César Franck’s Prélude, choral et fugue, a masterwork of fervent tranquility. Composed in 1884, the work came to be in the midst of an intensely creative shift in Franck’s work toward the end of his life, and it shows in the complex phrase structures, the shifts between form, the bend of certain harmonic rules that, over the course of its movements, drive sensation to a pitch. Under Chen’s deft fingers, the delicate balance between control and abandon was pristine–a yearningly profound flight to the end to catch its subject.

Interview with Sasha Cooke

I’ve always been a fan of Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s vocal prowess, but after interviewing her about her latest album focused on the pandemic, “how do I find you,” I have huge respect for her as a creator, an intellectual, and a fellow human. Read a small part of our conversation in Rice Magazine.

Call for Papers (a guaranteed session!)

MLA 2023: San Francisco (January 5-8th)

At Work and at Play: Opera, Musical Performance, and Reflections on (Creative) Labor:  Many theorists have considered the relationship between art and work. This panel will both participate in and further such conversations via papers that consider the more specific relationship between work and musical performance. Submissions may consider theoretical questions (what is the nature of creative labor?), and or more practical questions regarding the economics of artistry or current conditions for creating and performing during a pandemic.

 Please submit a brief abstract and bio for this guaranteed session by March 28th to

What lies beneath

Read my latest review of a night at the Kennedy Center that revolved around Benjamin Britten. Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten; Britten’s Violin Concerto, Op. 15; and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10: a heavy program but worth the lift.

“The role of art during wartime usually revolves with broad strokes around reminding us of our humanity. Less so, perhaps, do we feel the strain put on the artist by ruling regimes, the subtle moments of defiance and camaraderie that emerge embittered yet hopeful.” 

Remembering Carlisle

Today I’m thinking of Carlisle Floyd, who died on Thursday. In 2016, I previewed his world premiere of Prince of Players at Houston Grand Opera, and, after opening night, recall feeling very lucky that I’d experienced one of the American living greats at work. He leaves behind a treasured legacy.

Lang Lang lives up to the hype

Like so many of us, the last time I was at the Kennedy Center to hear live music was in March 2020, and what a first concert back! Lang Lang playing Beethoven’s third piano concerto and a world premiere from Peter Boyer drawn from Henry Kissinger’s life–it was fascinating, inspiring, and undeniably emotional. Read my review at Bachtrack.

Variations on Water Music

I’m teaching Aldous Huxley’s 1923 essay “Water Music” this week and having been thinking of other water music I know and love. Finding a serious through-line is a stretch, but I did laugh when I saw the line-up: Maybe Handel’s Water Music, Aldous Huxley’s Water Music, and John Cage’s Water Walk relate more than I thought? (The latter two perhaps…) At the very least, what an opening line!