Outer Banks Native Tshombe Selby Makes His Solo Opera Debut at the Met
With his solo debut in the new opera Champion at New York’s Metropolitan Opera—the Met, Tshombe Selby, who grew up in Manteo, seems on the cusp of realizing a dream that has been part of his life since childhood.
Someone once remarked that “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” That’s usually attributed to Thomas Edison, but there’s a lot of research that says, “Not so.” To be safe, we’ll attribute it to anonymous.
Regardless, it’s a true statement and Tshombe is living proof of that, although in his case it’s more than just perspiration. There is also having a dream and refusing to let go of it.
It’s been quite the journey, a trip that includes driving a school bus and seven or eight years of intense operatic voice lessons on top of the degree in vocal performance from ECSU. There were the two years or so of being an usher at the Met, innumerable auditions, and finally singing in the chorus of opera productions in New York and Chicago.
And now this.
It is not a large part; he is on stage for perhaps two or three minutes. But it’s a solo and the part is pivotal to understanding what happens in the story—or libretto since this is opera.
Tshombe plays Manuel Alfaro, the manager for the doomed fighter Bennie Paret.
That takes some explaining.
The opera, composed by Terence Blanchard with a libretto by Michael Cristofer, is based on a real-life incident—the March 24, 1962 bout for the welterweight championship of the world. It was the night boxer Emile Griffith beat Bennie Paret to death in front of a live television audience.
What the libretto makes clear and why Tshombe’s performance is so critical is that the fight should never have taken place when it did.
Paret, who was the reigning welterweight champion at the time, had recently been successful in defending his title in a brutal bout against Gene Fullmer.
In the opera, Paret’s wife pleads with him not to take the fight. But Alfaro (Tshombe) tells them emphatically they need just one more fight to have all the money they’ll need.
As a lyric tenor with a powerful voice, it is a role perfect for Tshombe, and he absolutely nailed it.
Operatic voices aside, as it turns out, there is reason to believe that’s exactly what happened. There was a lot of research that went into putting the libretto together, and people who knew Alfaro often felt he saw making money as more important than the health of his fighters.
The fight itself is one example among many of the outstanding choreography brought to the stage by choreographer Camille Brown. The fight was close until Griffith pinned Paret against the ropes in the 12th round and pummeled him with, as the chorus sings, “…17 blows in seven seconds.”
Paret fell to the canvas, unconscious, and would never regain consciousness, dying 10 days later.
Although the fight is the pivotal moment of the opera, in creating his opera, Blanchard uses that moment as a way to explore Griffith’s life. Sitting in an upstairs room, the elder Griffith, his memory shattered by far too many blows to the head, can barely remember anything except that he delivered 17 blows in seven seconds and that they would not let him visit Paret in the hospital
Below him, his life plays out—the colors and vibrancy of his Native American Virgin Island home; coming to New York to be with his self-absorbed and manipulative mother—who calls him by the wrong son’s name the first time she sees him.
There are disturbing scenes—the emotional and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of the religious fanatic cousin who was supposed to be raising him; the older Griffith who cannot even remember how to put on his shoes at times.
And the opera does not shy away from Griffiths’s personal life. He was, he admitted in interviews, equally attracted to men and women.
What emerges is a complex character study with some amazing choreography, wonderful acting, fantastic operatic voices, and truly memorable staging.
Bringing all of this together was the final scene where Griffith, as an old and broken man, finally meets Bennie Paret’s son and asks for his forgiveness. The son tells Griffith he must forgive himself, that he as Paret’s son understands what happened.
It is at that moment that Griffith realizes that he does have the power to forgive himself, and in a heart-wrenching and beautiful scene, he does so.
In short, this was great theater—in this case, an afternoon of theater since the production we saw was a simulcast at the R/C Kill Devil Hills Theater.
What made it truly special, though, was seeing Tshombe, who has been so much a part of Outer Banks life, be a part of such a wonderful production.