Sometimes art imitates life. Sometimes art helps to clarify life. That’s the case with “Champion,” which has its world première 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.” Athlete Ally, founded in 2010, now has 40 chapters at colleges across the country.
While Taylor said that the reaction “has been overwhelmingly positive,” there’s room for improvement. “Certainly we still have relatively few (openly) LGBT athletes compared to what statistics tell us there should be.”
He said he’s excited about “Champion” for a number of reasons. “Sport perpetuates a very aggressive physical culture. Emile was praised for the violent side of him; the loving, compassionate side of him was demonized. I think that’s a very current issue in that there is still this ideal of traditional masculinity, of ways that men should look, act, dress and love. I hope ‘Champion’ will help break down some of those stereotypes, and help us all be truer in our lives.”
Alice Tejada, 54, is the president of Team St. Louis, a group dedicated to LGBT participation in local, national and international sporting competitions.
Tejada, a volleyball player, took part in the international World Outgames in 2006 in Montreal and 2010 in Cologne, Germany. “Being part of international competitions like that opens your eyes in terms of other countries and how they’ve progressed, with gay marriage, civil unions and being out at the workplace,” she said.
Team St. Louis has 200 active members who take part in volleyball and kickball leagues, as well as rugby, softball, ballroom dancing and running. The group is about 70 percent male. “We’re trying to level that playing field,” Tejada said. Sport, she believes, “is a great equalizer. All we ask is that you get out there, do the best that you can and be a great sportsman.”
Learning about “Champion” has overturned some of her own assumptions, Tejada observed, including what opera singers look like (white, overweight) and who attends operas (wealthy older people).
Team St. Louis will be one of several LGBT groups at “Champion” on June 25, putting up tables and talking with patrons about what they do. The group is using Opera Theatre’s openness in a campaign to bring the 2016 North American Outgames here. A host city must have three components: sports, culture and human rights. “We feel St. Louis has a strength in the cultural element,” Tejada said.
She said she thinks that “Champion” “will initiate conversation for theatergoers. With dialogue and conversation come understanding. Open your eyes and ears a little bit, and we can work from there.”
Bockelman, of PROMO, agrees. “I think the arts can play a part in educating the public,” he said. “We so seldom see people of color on the larger screen of life, and this is a man who lived a closeted life. This is a great, great story, and it’s going to help break down barriers.”