Sometimes art imitates life. Sometimes art helps to clarify life.
That's the case with "Champion," which has its world premire tonight
at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
It's the story of boxer Emile Griffith, who killed an opponent in
the ring in 1962 and, 30 years later, was brutally beaten as he left
a New York City gay bar. When OTSL commissioned composer Terence
Blanchard and playwright Michael Cristofer to write "Champion" in
2009, general director Timothy O'Leary and his artistic staff knew
that the story of a gay athlete would be timely. They just didn't
know how timely.
Last October, boxer Orlando Cruz came out; in April, basketball
player Jason Collins became the first active male professional in a
major U.S. team sport to come out. Since the commission of the
opera, gays and lesbians have made significant strides on many
fronts, including the right to marry in an increasing number of
In their plans for "Champion," OTSL general director Timothy
O'Leary and his staff made a point of reaching out to African-
Americans, jazz fans and, especially, the gay community. Gay
advocates who have been a part of the process think the opera can
help to open hearts and minds.
"This project aligned so beautifully with our broader efforts
(for) engagement and inclusion," said OTSL marketing director Joe
Gfaller, who has coordinated those efforts. "We're committed to
building an audience as rich in diversity as our community is here
in St. Louis, and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender)
community is certainly a part of that."
Opera is known for being friendly to gays, but it rarely tells
their stories. A.J. Bockelman, 43, is executive director of PROMO,
Missouri's statewide LGBT advocacy organization. He and his
colleagues think "Champion" is "a great story, an example of an LGBT
individual who has to remain closeted in the sports industry. It's
not known for being a friendly environment. There's a fear of
But Philip Deitch said he has seen acceptance grow, in sports as
elsewhere. Deitch, 59, a financial planner, diversity trainer and
former college wrestler, is active on many fronts in the St. Louis
LGBT community. "For those who have taken time to become aware, to
become more sensitive, it's just another aspect of somebody's
identity. It alone doesn't make them or negate them. It certainly
has no impact on how good a wrestler they are, how well they can
catch or throw a football or a baseball."
Griffith proved that in his boxing career. Deitch thinks that
"Champion" "has a lesson for us all to learn, that we could honor
somebody for winning a fight that resulted in someone's death, and
later shame him when we find out that he loved a man."
One group trying to improve the acceptance of gays in sports is
Hudson Taylor's organization, Athlete Ally. Taylor, 26, who is
straight, decided to fight back against locker room homophobia in
his senior year at the University of Maryland, speaking out and
wearing an LGBT equality sticker on his headgear when he wrestled.
He took heat for it, but also got favorable media attention and
2,000 emails from gay athletes, thanking him.
When he graduated, he had a career. Today, Athlete Ally trains 50
school athletic departments a year; more than 13,000 coaches and
athletes have signed a pledge "to respect and welcome all persons,
regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender
identity or gender expression. …