PITTSBURGH: The Summer King
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In Review > North America

The Summer King

Pittsburgh Opera

In Review Pittsburgh Summer King lg 717
Alfred Walker and Denyce Graves in The Summer King in Pittsburgh
© David Bachman

A BASEBALL PLAYER is an unlikely hero for an opera, but Josh Gibson (1911–47), a member of the Negro League’s Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, was an American hero whose life had the scope of an operatic tragedy. Acknowledged as one of the greatest baseball players of his time, Gibson was labeled “the black Babe Ruth” but was denied entrance into the major leagues because of his race. He suffered a brain tumor, turned to drug use and died of a stroke at the age of thirty-five, just before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. 

Composer Daniel Sonenberg saw the potential in Gibson’s story and created The Summer King, an opera with a libretto by Sonenberg and Daniel Nester, later revised by Mark Campbell. Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn believed that The Summer King’s connections to the city of Pittsburgh and the work’s treatment of timely subject matter—racism, drug and alcohol abuse, mental and physical health issues—made it an ideal choice for the company’s first world premiere in its seventy-eight-year history. 

Pittsburgh Opera expended its best efforts on this production, and audience reception at the premiere on April 29, with Gibson’s great-grandson in attendance, was far more positive and enthusiastic than is usual here for a new or unfamiliar work. The Summer King is a compelling theatrical experience and a serious, thought-provoking addition to the repertory. There are some weaknesses, mostly in the libretto. While the action moves swiftly in a cinematic succession of flashback scenes, some segments go on a little too long, and there is a confusing assortment of supporting characters, several taken by a single singer. The final scenes, following the protagonist’s death are anticlimactic, detracting from the impact of the situation. 

The score is quite strong. Sonenberg’s eclectic aural landscape incorporates jazz, ragtime, swing, even extending to mariachi in a scene where Gibson goes to Mexico to play for the Veracruz Azules. Sonenberg’s vocal writing is demanding—he favors extremes of the range—but almost always idiomatic and gratifying. 

The opera calls for a multi-racial chorus, lead singers who have strong personalities to match their vocal proficiency and a large supporting cast. It also calls for a state-of-the-art physical production to depict its rapid sequences of contrasting scenes. Sam Helfrich’s staging kept things moving, imbuing some of the minor players with individuality, while Andrew Lieberman’s sets and Kaye Voyce’s costumes provided the correct period feel. On the musical side, the chorus, prepared by Mark Trawka, was superb, and Antony Walker conducted with a sense of authority that made one feel he had known this new score all his life. 

Alfred Walker sang colorfully in the leading role of Josh Gibson, capturing the player’s contrasting sides while swinging a bat with ease and confidence. In an aria that describes his wife’s death in childbirth and his determination to concentrate only on “the game,” the versatile baritone expressed the gamut of feelings, later managing to convey the less likable aspects of his character.

Veteran mezzo Denyce Graves, as Josh’s girlfriend Grace, stole the show every moment she was onstage. At fifty-three, her low range remains a grand phenomenon, although her high notes are not quite in the same realm of richness. But that’s irrelevant given the way Graves illuminates the stage and makes her audience feel that she is making direct one-on-one contact with each of them. Her solo turn, in which Grace laments the dreary life she must return to when she leaves Josh, brought the emotional level of the show to its highest point.

The sheer beauty of Sean Panikkar’s tenor sound enhanced the role of Wendell Smith, the journalist from Pittsburgh’s black newspaper, The Courier, and this most appealing artist made the most of every word and phrase in a memorable solo about “lightning,” the quality that sets Josh apart from the others. That scene has a counterpart in Act II, when Josh’s friend Sam, movingly portrayed by dark-toned basso profundo Kenneth Kellogg, compares Josh to Moses, “the Summer King,” who led his people to the Promised Land but could not enter it. Jacqueline Echols sounded shrill but was touching as Helen, Josh’s ill-fated wife; Jasmine Muhammad was fetching in both sound and presence as the coquettish Hattie. Multiple smaller parts were handled with expertise by tenors Martin Bakari, Norman Shankle and Raymond Very, along with resonant bass-baritone Phillip Gay.  —Robert Croan 

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