Justin Austin Talks ‘Champion’

“Champion,” an opera about welterweight boxer Emile Griffith will have its run at the Lyric Opera of Chicago from Jan. 27 to Feb. 11. Photo by Scott Suchman – Washington National Opera.
“Champion,” an opera about welterweight boxer Emile Griffith will have its run at the Lyric Opera of Chicago from Jan. 27 to Feb. 11. Photo by Scott Suchman – Washington National Opera.

 Justin Austin Talks ‘Champion’

By Tia Carol Jones

The story of welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, in the form of an opera written by composer Terence Blanchard, is coming to the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Saturday, Jan. 27th.

Justin Austin portrays young Emile in the Lyric performance of “Champion.” Both of his parents are opera singers and he was exposed to the theatre at a very young age. Being around Black opera singers at a young age helped him realize that was something he wanted to do.  He started singing at the age of 3 and professionally at age 4, performing the boy Soprano part of Scipio in “Porgy and Bess.”

“It was the first thing I wanted to do with my life and I never waivered,” he said, adding that because he was surrounded by Black opera singers growing up, he never felt that he couldn’t participate in the art form or that the art form wasn’t for him. It wasn’t until he got to college that he realized that he was going to have it harder as a Black opera singer.

This is the second Terence Blanchard production Austin has been in. He covered the lead role in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Metropolitan Opera before Chicago did its production. When Chicago did “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” both performers for the lead got COVID-19, and they needed a performer who knew the part. It was a new opera that had been performed just a couple of times. Austin was called to step in as the lead for the Chicago performance.

“Daniela Candallari, who is the conductor of this production, I know her from us working together in the past, so it wasn’t a nerve racking thing. I knew that she was going to take care me, in a sense. The cast was so supportive … It all worked out,” Austin said.

It turned out, Austin was pretty good in the lead role of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” The Lyric Opera of Chicago wanted to have him back to perform. Blanchard was also blown away by Austin’s performance and wanted to see if there were any other opportunities for Austin to perform his music. A couple seasons later, Austin is performing the lead role in “Champion.”

To prepare for the role of Emile, Austin did a lot of research about him. He researched the island of St. Thomas, where Emile was from, and hired a dialect coach so he could perform the role in Emile’s dialect. Austin thought it was important to pay homage to the culture of St. Thomas and not misrepresent Emile or the culture. He also worked with a boxing trainer to make sure he was being respectful to the sport of boxing and representing it accurately.

“It wasn’t a matter of bulking up. A lot of people when they think of ‘Champion’ and the role of Emile, they think you have to bulk up so you can play this boxer, but he actually was a welterweight boxer and at his championship weight he was only 160 pounds,” Austin said, adding that at 6’2”, he was able to slim down enough to look the part.

Austin hired a music coach and saw his voice teacher on a weekly basis. His goal is to do Blanchard’s work justice, while maintaining the standard of excellence that is expected at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He also has been performing with other opera companies, which include the Washington National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.

Austin wants people to see his performance in the production of “Champion” and to love one another, to not judge so quickly, to embrace differences. He thinks the message of the opera is very clear and he hopes people leave the performance with that message in their hearts.

“The story of Emile is a powerful one because in our country, there’s very few things that are more masculine than a professional fighter: A big Black man fighting for a living. I think the fact that he was a queer man was somewhat ironic in the past, but irony shouldn’t be applicable, because there is no particular way to be a man, there is no particular way to be a woman. It’s all fluid. We are who we are, we need to embrace who we are,” Austin said.

“Champion” will end its run at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Sunday, Feb. 11th. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit lyricopera.org/champion or call 312-827-5600.

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