The First Pitch Pittsburgh Opera Is Ready for the Premiere of 'The Summer King: The Josh Gibson Story'

By Bloom, Elizabeth | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 27, 2017 | Go to article overview

The First Pitch Pittsburgh Opera Is Ready for the Premiere of 'The Summer King: The Josh Gibson Story'


Bloom, Elizabeth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


A decade ago, composer Daniel Sonenberg was walking Downtown after his first Pirates game at PNC Park. By that time, he had already been working on his opera about Negro Leagues star Josh Gibson for four years. The opera was nowhere near completion, but while passing by the old Pittsburgh Opera offices in Downtown, he had a revelation.

"Oh my God," he thought. "This is the place where this opera needs to land."

Ten years later, Pittsburgh Opera will stage the world premiere production of Mr. Sonenberg's opera, "The Summer King: the Josh Gibson Story," which opens Saturday at the Benedum Center, Downtown. The production marks a major moment in the history of Pittsburgh Opera. In recent years, the 78-year-old company has made a tilt toward contemporary opera, but until now, it had never produced a world premiere.

"In a way, we are waving our flag proudly that we are of that group of companies that feel it's important to do and are able to do it," general director Christopher Hahn said.

The opera follows the life of Josh Gibson (1911-47), the former Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords star who died at age 35, a few months before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier.

While the juxtaposition of opera and baseball may baffle opera lovers and baseball lovers alike, the story's central figure, at times tragic and heroic, makes for a natural operatic story, Mr. Sonenberg said. Gibson's physical gifts were well known - he was reputed to have hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium - but his life presented myriad challenges: systematic racism, mental health issues and the death of his wife in childbirth among them.

"It's not a super simple operatic drama," Mr. Sonenberg, 46, said. "I didn't just want it to be the biopic of Josh Gibson. I wanted to do something more."

Opera is a notoriously complex art form, but staging on a new work, especially in this visual age, offers many more obstacles: The score must be singable and playable; the musicians must learn to sing and play notes they have never heard; the story must be conducive to the operatic stage; and the stage needs new sets and costumes. On top of that, marketing an opera that nobody has heard, or heard of, proves particularly difficult. It's a team effort that involves singers, directors, dramaturges, conductors, producers, instrumentalists, composers and librettists.

You don't have to tell Mr. Sonenberg that. A lifelong baseball lover and an associate professor at the University of Southern Maine, Mr. Sonenberg wrote the first notes of "The Summer King" for an opera workshop in 2003, and he has worked on the project, on and off, ever since. As part of his research, he conducted interviews with Gibson's family members, pored over old issues of the Pittsburgh Courier and looked at archives at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Sean Gibson, the ballplayer's great-grandson and the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, gave Mr. …

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