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Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard is breaking new ground in opera

BY Sammy Stein

6th Apr 2023 Music

Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard is breaking new ground in opera

Award-winning jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard speaks about creating opera with the Met, working with Lady Gaga and music's emotional punch

Q: Is Champion based on the boxer Emile Griffith, who held three world titles?

A: Yes, I felt strongly about his story when I read his autobiography. The boxer, Michael Bentt is one of my closest friends and he made me aware of Emile. Emile was bisexual and never spoke about his sexual preferences or even thought of himself as gay, but at a press conference he was cruelly “outed”.

"I loved a man and the world wanted to kill me"

He wrote in his book, “I killed a man (his opponent Benny Paret died after a contest in 1962) and the world forgave me; I loved a man and the world wanted to kill me”. This had a powerful effect on me.

Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard's Credit: Zenith Richards / Met Opera. Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard's "Champion"

Q: The cast for the opera is impressive. Did you write it with them in mind?

A: No, the original opera was created in 2013 and had a different cast, two of whom have passed away. James Robinson and the staff at the Met have put this wonderful cast together. Being relatively new to opera, I’m still learning about singers and finding new ones to listen to all the time, it’s a learning curve.

Q: You have been part of many projects including the Magnetic Studio Sessions, New York Second Line, the E-Collective, and The Branford Marsalis Quartet. How does it feel to be able to use music to broach contentious social issues?

A. It feels like the normal course of action. I grew up listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, who were all incredibly socially aware. John Coltrane wrote “Alabama” for the four little girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Bombing.

Music is universal to society and for me it has become part of the lexicon to document events and perhaps bring about change. Opera for example can open minds.

Q: How different is the audience at the opera from those at a jazz gig?

A: It is a hugely different audience. Many die-hard opera fans are hearing something different, but it’s also bringing new listeners to opera.

When Fire Shut Up in My Bones ran for eight shows at the Met, the audience was incredibly diverse. One journalist wrote that in 30 years of covering opera, he had never seen such a diverse audience.

Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard's Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera. Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard's "Champion"

Q: Can you describe what music means to you?

A: Music has always been a wonderful medium for connecting. I never realised this as a kid, but I spent many nights stuck on one tune because it spoke to my soul. It’s a necessity and I need music to deal with life. Music is part of my being.

"As a kid, I spent many nights stuck on one tune because it spoke to my soul"

Being a musician, it’s important to realise you have a huge responsibility and you take that seriously.

Q: What was it like to perform with Lady Gaga in her jazz and piano show?

A: Oh, that was an incredible experience. She’s a beautiful person. We met when both of us were up for the Oscars, and we were put at the same table for the luncheon. Once she realised I was a jazz musician she suggested doing a show together.

When we got together, she led prayers before the show and prayed for people who were suffering. It felt very honest and real. From that moment I was a fan of her as a person as well as a musician.

At the Oscar ceremony, she jumped up and hugged me. I think people wondered, “How does she know Terence Blanchard?”

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I am working on an album with the E-Collective. It’s a tribute to Jimi Hendrix and I’m working with a bunch of great artists.

I have been commissioned to write another opera for the Met. And I have written music for Perry Mason for HBO, a film called Swagger for Apple, and I am working on MLK/X about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith and Eric Greene as Benny Paret in Terence Blanchard's Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera. Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith and Eric Greene as Benny Paret in Terence Blanchard's "Champion"

Q: Can you sum up what it feels like with the opera coming to the Met?

A: Firstly, it’s amazing to be at the Met. They do everything to the highest quality, from the orchestra to the singers. On the other hand, I’m the first African American to have an opera at the Met, and that really shouldn’t be when New York City is meant to be the melting pot of diversity.

I saw a ledger at the Met and William Grant Still was rejected three times. To think he never had his work performed at the Met is tragic. There were comments, like “he doesn’t know what it takes to write real opera." That is what happens when people not well-versed in music make decisions.

I am however elated to be at the Met. When I take out my Met ID, I ask myself, “is this real?” Peter Gelb, general manager at the Met, is trying to right the ship by doing my opera and the Met is commissioning works by diverse composers.

"I’m the first African American to have an opera at the Met, and that really shouldn’t be"

I may be the first African American to have an opera performed at the Met, but I want to be a turnkey, not a token.

I am shocked to be at the Met, but I am also shocked to be in Reader’s Digest, as I grew up with this magazine. Now, here I am!

Terence Blanchard’s Champion will have its Met premiere this April. See it in cinemas across the UK Saturday 29th April, book on Met Live's website

Banner credit: Cedric Angel

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