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Whitney Morrison at the Lyric Opera of Chicago 2024

Whitney Morrison, a formally trained soprano from Chicago’s south suburbs, says ‘Champion’ offers an opportunity to play a nuanced Black female character, something that’s still rare in opera. ‘Champion’ runs through Feb. 11 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

The ‘subversive’ pursuit of bringing more nuanced Black characters to opera

Whitney Morrison’s character in the new opera, Champion, is complicated, and that’s not something you always see in opera. She plays a mother who, in survival mode, makes decisions that have long repercussions for her children, including the welterweight boxer Emile Griffith at the heart of composer Terence Blanchard’s story.

For Morrison, a suburban Chicago native and soprano, the role offered another chance to play a multidimensional Black woman — a type of character audiences still rarely encounter on operatic stages.

“It’s difficult to play someone who doesn’t necessarily have a moment of redemption, but that isn’t necessarily a villain – that is where we find a lot of people in life,” said Morrison, 34, a Ryan Opera Center alum and Lyric artist-in-residence who was nominated for a Grammy for Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 2022 recording of The Life and Times of Malcolm X. “I’ve experienced different shades of that in my personal life. Like ‘Yeah, you’re not a villain, but you also did not live up to some sort of Hollywood redemption story. ’”

Morrison is pictured here sitting on the steps inside Chicago's Civic Opera House.

Morrison, pictured here inside Chicago’s Civic Opera House in January 2024, is the Lyric’s first artist-in-residence and was nominated for a Grammy in 2023.

Jamie Kelter Davis for WBEZ

Champion, Blanchard’s first written opera, offers Morrison a lot to work with, narratively and musically. It tells the harrowing true story of Griffith, a real-life boxer who left his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands for New York City in the mid-1950s. He took a job as a stock boy in a millinery factory where his mother, Emelda, already worked, and the factory’s owner, Howard Albert, urged him to try boxing as a career. The young pugilist did — and became a world champion.

But in 1962, Griffith infamously threw a fatal blow in the ring after being ridiculed for his sexuality by opponent Benny “Kid” Paret. Paret’s death would haunt Griffith until his death in 2013.

Blanchard’s production, which runs through Feb. 11 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, takes an in-depth look at Griffith’s life. Morrison’s character has a strained relationship with her son, so the soprano said she took a nuanced approach to bringing her character to the stage.

“Emelda made some decisions that have been very hard on the people that [she] would and should have been responsible for,” Morrison said. “A role like this takes a lot of complexity. She was dealing with some immaturity and some self-centeredness — but was also in survival mode.”

Morrison on stage

Morrison sings the role of Emelda, the mother of welterweight boxer Emilie Griffith and a woman who was, in real life, a complicated figure.

Photo by Michael Brosilow / Courtesy of the Lyric Opera

That same penchant for portraying complicated women drew Morrison to the roles of Malcolm X’s mother and wife, Louise and Betty, respectively, in The Life and Times of Malcolm X. She made her highly anticipated debut last year with Michigan Opera Theatre in those parts and reprised them with Opera Omaha and Odyssey Opera, before recording with Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

Later this year, she will reprise the part of Billie in another Blanchard production, Fire Shut Up In My Bones, which is a landmark opera all its own: It was the first opera by a Black composer to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (Morrison will perform in the X production.)

When it comes to tackling these characters, Morrison said she doesn’t feel pressure as much as an obligation to fully represent their humanity.

“It is about dedication to telling the truth – I don’t have to add anything to these people. It is about excavating the truth of dignity that is so often denied or overlooked. My job is excavation … and because that’s so active and so interesting to me, it doesn’t feel like pressure.”

“My highest art is a life well lived and so I’m constantly thinking: what does it mean to show up and with the fullest extent of my dignity and engage with others in that way?” she added.

Like Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Blanchard’s Champion draws from across multiple musical genres, with the composer himself describing it as “an opera in jazz.” For the formally trained Morrison, being a Black woman in historically white opera spaces has been no easy feat. Productions like Champion present her the opportunity to celebrate an African American aesthetic in classical music, essentially combining traditional operatic singing technique with gospel components. “Audiences will hear a lot of jazz and African American influenced style in the singing that may be unusual to what people think about as operatic singing,” Morrison explained.

Terence Blanchard's 'Champion' is an operatic retelling of story of welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, portrayed as a young man by Justin Austin.

Terence Blanchard’s ‘Champion’ is an operatic retelling of story of welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, portrayed as a young man by Justin Austin.

Photo by Michael Brosilow / Courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago

She said she hopes audiences appreciate the choices that the storytellers are making — choices that “really speak to the different African American genres of music that are influenced in the score.” Morrison also stated that onlookers will be impressed by her Champion co-stars Justin Austin (young Emile Griffith) and Reginald Smith Jr. (older Emile Griffith) and their musical abilities.

“In particular for this show and this production, the interpreters of this music – like Justin and Reggie – are very skilled in standard rep and also have a deep skillset in those genres. They know how to blend both in a way that really makes a difference to the storytelling – I want audiences to be able to relate to and appreciate the depth of storytelling that this awesome cast has the capacity to offer them.”

Morrison also has observed over time that Black female creatives often end up with fewer resources to make their art — and that gets in the way of how they are portrayed on stages and screens. She hopes to invest her time in projects that offer a more sophisticated portrayal. “When the real people have what they need to create, then that’s when we start to get the real depictions. Artists should have the resources to express themselves in a way that affirms their worthiness.”

Her impressive accolades, which also include winning the National Classical Singer University Competition and training at the Georg Solti Accademia di Bel Canto in Italy, don’t necessarily define Morrison’s success. She insisted that doing good work and telling powerful stories – like the one of Emile Griffith – is what matters to her.

“My highest values are in alignment with my faith, with my spirituality and with honoring the dignity that’s in me … that’s in somebody else,” Morrison said. “I think with creativity and a kind of subversive mindset, you can continue to move forward.”

If you go: Champion runs through Feb. 11 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive. Tickets from $49.

Candace McDuffie is a senior writer at The Root. She is based in Chicago.

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