'Champion' Is Timely for Opera Theatre; World Premire Comes as Gay Rights Are Expanding

By Miller, Sarah Bryan | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

'Champion' Is Timely for Opera Theatre; World Premire Comes as Gay Rights Are Expanding


Miller, Sarah Bryan, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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 states.

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 reprisal."

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. …

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