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New opera tells story of gay boxer Emile Griffith

"Champion" debuts in St. Louis and looks at a tragic and little-known figure in gay sports history.

An opera based on boxing champion Emile Griffith will have its debut in St. Louis on Saturday. With music by Terence Blanchard and libretto by Michael Cristofer, "Champion," at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, tells the story of Griffith, who was gay but did not come out until 2008. Here is a synopsis of the story, starring Arthur Woodley as Emile Griffith and Aubrey Allicock as Young Emile Griffith:

Emile Griffith was a three-time world welterweight champion and twice a world middleweight champion, fighting from the late 1950s into the 1970s. However, one of his greatest professional triumphs - winning back the title from Benny "The Kid" Paret in 1962 - was also his greatest personal tragedy. The 17 punches he landed on Paret in seven seconds resulted in not only a knockout, but also a coma from which Paret would never recover. Paret would die 10 days later. For Griffith, who had never wanted to be a boxer, the impact of the fight was devastating, and his career soon went downhill.

Before that life-changing televised fight, in a room full of press and officials, Paret had mocked Griffith with a derogatory term for homosexual. Years later, Griffith's sexuality was revealed after he was nearly killed by a gang outside a gay bar in New York. "I kill a man," Griffith was quoted to have said, "and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin." Much later in his life, beginning to suffer from dementia, Griffith met the son of his opponent, Benny Jr., who was 2 years old at the time of the match, and who forgave the aging champion. In an inspiring, moving, and painful journey of self-discovery, "Champion" presents audiences with a contemporary tragic hero - a story of strength, courage, rage, regret, and compassion.

"My father loved opera," said Blanchard, a five-time Grammy winner. "He was a baritone who studied opera, so it was impossible not to feel an emotional connection to him in writing "Champion." I was drawn to tell Emile's story through music from the moment I first heard of his incredible journey. I knew there was no other way to tell this story but through the unique power of opera."

Said writer Cristofer, who won a Pultizer Prize and Tony Award for "The Shadow Box": "Champion is the story of a man struggling to make peace with himself and to find his place in the world... as a fighter and a gay man. It's the story of courage in the face of sexual oppression, of love in the face of hate, of grace in the face of physical and mental decline. For me, Emile's story not only asks the question of what it means to be a man. It asks what it means to be a human being."

Griffith is a largely unknown figure to most gays and lesbians, yet he is an historic athlete who was at the top of his sport when being out was impossible. It is important that "Champion" reaches a larger audience unaware of his story. The opera plays June 15, 19, 21, 25, 27, and 30. Click here more ticket information.