Features

King of Diamonds

This month, Pittsburgh Opera offers The Summer King, an opera about baseball legend Josh Gibson.
by Allan Kozinn.

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Set designs by Andrew Lieberman for Pittsburgh Opera’s Summer King
Andrew Lieberman/Pittsburgh Opera
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Negro League legend Josh Gibson in 1940
© Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images
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Composer Daniel Sonenberg
© Will Wohler

IT IS NOT SURPRISING that Christopher Hahn, general director of Pittsburgh Opera, sees similarities between fans of opera and fans of baseball. His company is about to present the world premiere of The Summer King, Daniel Sonenberg’s opera about the great Negro League slugger Josh Gibson. 

“Just as opera fans are obsessed with deep details and history, and can tell you everything about a single performance that a singer they adored gave in 1952,” Hahn says, “baseball fans have exactly the same profound fascination with detail. And Dan Sonenberg is a mixture of the two.” 

The Summer King, which is almost certainly the only opera in history to include a mad scene in which the main character sings to Joe DiMaggio, opens on April 29. It is Pittsburgh Opera’s first world premiere—although, like Roger Maris’s record-breaking 1961 home run tally, that assertion requires an asterisk: Portland Ovations, an arts promoter in Maine, presented a concert version of the work in Portland in May 2014. But the Pittsburgh version, which is fully staged under the direction of Sam Helfrich, is a substantial revision. 

Hahn, who was born in South Africa, was not particularly attuned to baseball when he first heard scenes from the work in January 2014, at an Opera America New Works Forum workshop presented by American Opera Projects. But he was intrigued by Gibson’s links to Pittsburgh, where he was a power-hitting catcher for the Homestead Grays. Known in his day as “the black Babe Ruth,” Gibson is reported to have hit almost 800 home runs in a seventeen-year professional career. But he never made it to the white major leagues. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1943, he was plagued by recurring headaches in his last years and died of a stroke in January 1947, at age thirty-five—three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. 

“When I returned to Pittsburgh,” Hahn says, “I mentioned Gibson to everyone I could find, and 99.9 percent knew absolutely everything. And it’s not just Pittsburgh—he was a national figure who holds a place in legend, and who was on the cusp of integration. All that resonated enormously with me, because coming from South Africa, issues of social justice are high on the list of interest.” 

That was also what attracted Sonenberg, a baseball fan since age seven. Born in Manhattan in 1970, Sonenberg has lived in Maine since 2004, when he took a teaching and resident composer position at the University of Southern Maine. He also has a pop alter-ego as a singer/songwriter and as the drummer in a rock band, Lovers of Fiction. 

“When I read about the Negro Leagues,” Sonenberg says, “I was drawn to the injustice of it, but also the characters and their vibrancy. But there was a lot of blowback when I talked about the project. People argued that Josh Gibson was not a crusader and not an operatic hero. They’d say, ‘Write about Jackie Robinson, or Satchel Paige.’

“But I always knew that Josh was the guy. Branch Rickey, who hired Robinson, said that the greatest reservoir of untapped talent in baseball was in the Negro Leagues. He got that these guys were legends, and no one had a greater reputation among white players he played against than Josh. Josh’s greatness on the field, in his heyday, generated the groundswell of enthusiasm that made Jackie Robinson possible.” 

The opera touches on some uncomfortable subtleties. While integration was necessary, morally and otherwise, as part of baseball’s development, once the major leagues siphoned off the top players, the Negro League collapsed.

“It’s complicated,” Sonenberg says. “Obviously, segregation is bad and integration is good, and that’s an important message. But one thing I wanted to show was that the integration of baseball actually hurt a lot of people in the African–American community. There were a lot of people whose identity was tied to the Negro Leagues, and when the top three percent of players went into the major leagues, and everything else just fell apart, there was a lot of loss there.”

Sonenberg and his original librettist, Dan Nester, began work on the opera in 2003. A year later, when Nester bowed out of the project, Sonenberg completed the libretto. (Mark Campbell contributed additions in 2015–16.) With no prospect of a production, Sonenberg set it aside. Then, in 2013, Portland Ovations—for which Sonenberg had given preconcert lectures about contemporary music—commissioned him to complete and orchestrate the work. 

Hahn went to Portland to hear the full work and told Sonenberg that he would present it in Pittsburgh, if Sonenberg was willing to revise it considerably. Sonenberg says Hahn’s suggestions—which included fleshing out the main character—made the opera tighter and better. 

Hahn sees The Summer King as the kind of work that may lead opera-resistant listeners to reconsider. “The world outside the [opera] field continues to see opera as a nineteenth-century Italian form—something for other people. So we need to find pieces that resonate with audiences, that break down the stereotypes. This work lifts the veil on an era and a history that has been much forgotten.” spacer

Allan Kozinn, for many years a music critic for The New York Times, is a freelance writer about music and culture.



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