New Orleans, “the Opera Capital of North America”

Terence Blanchard’s “Champion" jazz opera about boxing and other Crescent City operatic experience

Dressed in all black with yellow-rimmed glasses, Terence Blanchard looks every bit the jazz great he is, speaking to an intimate crowd gathered at the Loews New Orleans hotel. The multiple Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer, who graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts before touring with such legends as Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey, is perhaps best known for his many movie scores (from 1991’s “Jungle Fever” to 2016’s “The Comedian”). But it’s the National Opera Conference he’s returned to his hometown to address.

A jazz musician at an opera conference? An opera conference in the birthplace of jazz?

Composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard

“New Orleans has had a tradition in the music world that people don’t really get,” says the 2018 USA Fellows awardee, who currently teaches at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “Jazz is what people talk about, but opera has been a big part of this community for decades. My family didn’t listen to jazz; I was the one who brought that into the house. They listened to spiritual music and to opera. My father, mother, uncle and aunt—and a lot of our church members—were all fans of opera. And I thought they were the strangest people on earth.”

Even stranger was when the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis commissioned him to write an opera of his own in 2010. “At first I thought they were drunk,” Blanchard chuckles. “Jazz was my passion. But I kept thinking about life cycles and how things come back. When I look back on it, I never strayed far from opera because of my family; I heard that music all the time.”

What audience members will hear when the New Orleans Opera Association mounts Blanchard’s Champion: An Opera in Jazz March 9 and 11 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater is what the Huffington Post called “a unanimous winner” when it was performed at the SFJazz Center in 2016, prior to last year’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts staging. Based on the tragic, true-life story of boxer Emile Griffith and his legendary 1962 Madison Square Garden bout against Benny “The Kid” Paret, the plot line touches on everything from homosexuality to dementia.

 An Opera in Jazz"

“Most people in the sports world knew Griffith was gay,” Blanchard explains, “but he never put that out in public. At a press conference [before the fight], in an attempt to gain a psychological edge over Emile, Paret called him a very derogatory term and it upset Emile to no end.” So much so that Griffith pummeled his opponent with 17 punches in seven seconds, resulting in Paret’s subsequent coma and eventual death. Griffith would himself nearly die a few years later from a beating he received after leaving a gay bar.

“There was one line from his autobiography, ‘Nine…Ten…and Out!,’ that just floored me,” adds Blanchard. “He said, ‘I kill a man and the world forgives me. I love a man and the world wants to kill me.’ To me that was a very, very powerful line; being champion of the world and not being able to share that with someone you love.”

Not your conventional opera…or is it?

“Opera goes well beyond what people think it is,” says Blanchard, who is now at work on a new opera based on “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by journalist Charles Blow. “Opera is about telling stories, it’s about life and things that are real. It’s about varied issues, societal issues, societal ills. To me, opera is great when you forget you are listening to opera.”

Other Voices, Other Rooms

Opera is nothing new to New Orleans. Since the late 1700s the city as laid claim to the first opera company in U.S. In 1859 architect James Gallier, Jr. erected the massive French Opera House on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets, helping establish the city as “the Opera Capital of North America.” A mix of Greek Revival and Italianate influences, the ornate building held up to 2,600 patrons from all walks of life.

French Opera House New Orleans

Destroyed by fire in 1919, the French Opera House was replaced by a hotel during the 1960s. Now a Four Points by Sheraton, you can still hear live opera on the site every second Wednesday of the month when Bon Operatit!, an ensemble of classical singers, performs for free in the hotel’s Puccini Bar. Also performing monthly at the Sheraton is Opera on Tap, an offshoot of the New Orleans Opera Association (which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year) that takes opera out of theaters and into area bars.

Named among Southern Living’s 2017 Southerners of the Year, mezzo-soprano Giovanni Joseph and daughter Aria Mason founded OperaCréole in 2011, breathing new life into the circa-1853 Marigny Opera House and providing an much-welcome vehicle for rarely staged works by early African-American composers. The Marigny Opera House is also home to the Marigny Opera Ballet.