University City

UNC Charlotte voice professor stars in boxing opera

Brian Arreola’s résumé reads like that of any seasoned opera performer: roles as the short-tempered Tybalt in “Roméo et Juliette;” the murderous Don José in “Le Caberet de Carmen;” and the callous Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly.”

But last month, the 37-year-old assistant professor of voice and opera at UNC Charlotte took a departure from what’s considered the traditional operatic character.

For six sold-out shows, Arreola played Luis Rodrigo Griffith, the gentle gay caretaker and adopted son of an aging boxer who suffers from dementia pugilistica, more commonly known as boxer’s brain.

Not only was the role a changeup for Arreola, but the opera itself – from its subject matter to its musical style, even to its debut locale – strayed far from any semblance of what most would consider opera.

“Champion,” which saw its world premiere this June in the Opera Theater of St. Louis, is the true story of welterweight boxing champion Emile Griffith, a man whose life was tragic enough to warrant an opera based on it.

Boxing fans may remember the infamous 1962 championship match between the skinny-framed fighter and Benny “The Kid” Paret, nationally televised from Madison Square Garden.

Griffith, set off by a gay slur Paret had spat at him earlier, during the afternoon pre-match weigh-in, delivered 17 blows to his opponent’s head in seven seconds that night in the ring. Paret lapsed into a coma and died a few days later.

In the macho world of boxing, to admit to being a homosexual was a career risk.

Even decades later, it’s rare in any sport. Not until this April did the first major sports figure actively playing – NBA player Jason Collins – come out publicly as gay.

For an opera company, producing an offering so far from the norm was a big risk, too.

Not only was the subject matter a break, but so was its music. “Champion,” composed by five-time Grammy Award winner and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, is one of the few jazz operas ever created.

Blanchard, more typically known as a Hollywood composer, has scored the soundtracks for dozens of movies, including several of Spike Lee films.

Even the locale for the unique opera – the Midwest – was not a setting many would expect.

“It was bold for St. Louis,” Arreola said of the opera’s world premiere. “With a gay African-American athlete at the core of the story, I think the only way to take a bigger risk is to do it in the South.”

Although a few opera companies have expressed an interest in producing “Champion” as well, Arreola doesn’t know whether the opera will ever make its way to Charlotte.

“Opera Carolina – they do the great tried-and-true canonical masterpieces – what people think of as opera. It’s not really their cup of tea,” said Arreola. “Not to say they couldn’t do it. It would just be a departure for them.”

But nearly everything about “Champion” is a departure from opera, including the idea that one of the characters portrayed is still alive, and might even be watching from the audience.

“Luis actually came to the premiere, but I didn’t get to meet him,” said Arreola. “He only stayed for the first act, and it became too much for him. You can only imagine how surreal it could be to see your life, that you’re living right now, re-enacted in an opera.”