"Champion: An Opera in Jazz" at The Boston Lyric Opera is a concert-style production that tells the story of Boxer Emile Griffith, a Black man born in Saint Thomas. At the height of his boxing career in the 1960s, Griffith was openly bisexual. The opera covers his entire life, including his most famous fight, a 1962 title bout with Benny Paret. Paret insulted Griffith's sexuality before the fight, and in the ensuing boxing match, an enraged Griffith knocked Perry out so brutally he later died. Terence Blanchard, the opera's composer, joined GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath to talk about the show. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Arun Rath: Let's just dig right in talking about this this opera and this amazing individual. I don't think I would have known about him had it not been for your opera, which makes it kind of weird because he's such an amazing individual.

Terence Blanchard: Emile Griffith was an amazing fighter — a reluctant fighter, because ... he wanted to be a dancer.

Terence Blanchard
FILE - Terence Blanchard poses for a portrait at the 91st Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon on Feb. 4, 2019, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Chris Pizzello Invision/AP

I think the amazing thing about his story to me is that it's all about redemption and his inner strength, you know, dealing with his sexuality at a time when people weren't openly proclaiming who they were, being outed at a press conference and then subsequently killing his opponent by putting him in a coma — and having his life just spiral out of control after that. But I think one of the main things [that struck me] out of all of his experiences is the comment that he made and in the later years of his life where he said: “I killed a man and the world forgives me; I love a man and the world wants to kill me." That particular phrase was the reason why I wanted to do this story. It really hit me really hard to think that somebody could reach the highest level of achievement in whatever endeavor they ran to and couldn't share that openly with somebody they love, which was heartbreaking to me.

Rath: It's amazing because he was openly bisexual during a time when nobody did that.

Blanchard: I mean, nobody did that. Nobody talked about it, especially in the sports world. People may have known about your sexual identity, but they didn't really bring that up. And with Benny Paret — both of those guys had fought each other twice — and Benny was trying to find a way to gain some advantage over Emile in this third fight. So he just tried to get inside of his head, and outed him at a press conference.

Rath: One might think, as you mention now, he had a triumph in the ring, but his opponent died from a brain hemorrhage. That stayed with him?

Blanchard: It stayed with him. In the opera, we have a line that says you hit him 17 times in less than 7 seconds because that's what happened. Benny Paret backed into a corner and Emile went after him. Now, the amazing thing and the sad thing after that is then Emile continued to fight. And if you watch some of his fights, whenever somebody would back into a corner, he wouldn't follow them, because the memory of killing Benny Paret — who was his friend, they used to play basketball together — it really haunted him.

Rath: Now, in the opera, breaking down this amazing life, you have three different individuals playing him at different stages in his life, right?

Blanchard: Yeah. Michael Cristofer, who's the librettist, we talked about and we talked about how we wanted to see Emile growing up as a kid. And so that could give us a frame of reference. And we needed to see him as a fighter, obviously living his life, the young man. But it's all told through the thoughts and memory of all the Emile who's suffering from dementia, who is on his way to meet Benny Perry Jr., you know, to have that meeting in Central Park. And that's how the opera starts. And the entire opera is based on his life flashing before him and him going back and being with his memories.

Rath: You have, among other things, been one of our greatest of film music composers in America. And this is a life that, hearing the story laid out, it sure sounds like it should have been made into a movie. When you're writing an opera, obviously it's a very different kind of thing. But does any of your experience in writing that kind of narrative styled music work into that process for you?

Blanchard: Well, that was one of the reasons why they commissioned me to do it. It does in some ways because telling the story or I'm helping a director to tell a story in film, there are a lot of moments where it is not about the music, it's really about an emotion or it's really about an atmospheric sound or creating tension or creating drama. In an opera, music is there all the time, so you have to fluctuate in between those moments where you're having very beautiful, melodic things being sung into drama, into tension, into comedy even in some some regards. So I think, you know, my background in film definitely aided me in that regard. But man, learning how to write for voice was a totally different thing.

Rath: Writing for voice and writing for a really amazing character, right?

Blanchard: Yes. Well, the thing about writing for for for the character is that, you know, you want to make sure that you kind of embody everything that the character has. So for me, that entails how did he speak? Trying to make all melodic lines feel natural. It's really about how would somebody say something? How would they say it into natural voice, and then trying to take the rhythm of that and write a melody to it.

Rath: And the life again that we're talking about. Think about things that are operatic and the trajectory of his life. It certainly is operatic.

Blanchard: Oh, for sure. To go from Saint Lucia to New York and to meet his mother and you his mother in New York, and she didn't recognize him at first. To go from that to being a welterweight champion to being outed as a gay man. There's so many things in his life that were just incredible. It's amazing to see he had this level of success with so many distractions in his life.

Rath: Is there something that kind of complicated or difficult about him to get our heads around? What's the reason why more people don't know about him?

Blanchard: I don't know why a lot of people don't know about him because that fight was part of a series that was called Friday Night Fights. And because of that fight, boxing had been taken off the air for about ten years, I think, until more strict regulations were implemented. But he's regarded as one of the greatest of all time. When we think about Ezzard Charles, we think about Joe Louis, ae think about all of those people, Emile Griffith's name is up there with the best of them.

Rath: Tell us about this production, how it came to the Boston Lyric Opera, because we're really excited to get this here.

Blanchard: I was excited when Boston called and said that they wanted to produce "Champion" years ago — and all of a sudden the pandemic hit, and then it kind of just threw things out of whack. But I'm glad to see that we're back on track. And I'm excited because, you know, Boston is one of those towns that has a serious music history. I used to teach there for a number of years, played there, still play there with my own group. So having the heart to come, there is a real honor and a pleasure for me.