The Fort Worth Opera announced this week that USM School of Music resident composer, Dan Sonenberg, has been selected for participation in "Frontiers," a new-works program making its debut in May 2013. Sonenberg's opera, The Summer King, is one of eight unpublished works being showcased during the last week of the company's 2013 Opera Festival.
Sonenberg describes The Summer King as a labor of love that has taken eight years to conceive and create. A fixation of the lifelong baseball fan, the composer has known for years that one day he would write an opera about Josh Gibson, having been captivated by the story of Negro League baseball more than any other aspect of the sports' storied history. According to Sonenberg, Gibson - who veritably went mad, in stages - struck the composer as a rather ideal opera character, one who is portrayed late in the work in a mad scene indignantly calling out to an imagined Joe DiMaggio.
"It took me a long time, years, to really understand just what the story was that needed to be told," explains Sonenberg. "As someone who did not fight for integration and did not really triumph - this was no Jackie Robinson - Gibson presented dramatic challenges. Also, with the scarcity of verifiable historical information (beyond box scores and statistics), many of the characters had to be imagined more fully than might otherwise have been the case with different subject matter."
Sonenberg worked initially with a librettist, the poet Daniel Nester, and ultimately took over work on the opera's text by himself, until by the end the final libretto contains about half Sonenberg's words and half of Nester's. The story that emerged was not only about Josh, but about the legacy of Negro League baseball. The injustice, yes, but also the whole universe that thrived in its sphere, the night clubs, the black-owned stadiums and ball-clubs, all of which vanished after integration when only the best of the best Negro League players found careers in white baseball, while the rest went on to uncertain and unheralded futures.
"My opera celebrates both Josh, and the countless others who were unable to cross over," concludes the composer. Sonenberg describes Josh as a kind of Moses - he lead his people to the promised land. His prodigious power with the bat created the energy that made a Jackie Robinson possible, but he was unable to inhabit the promised land himself.
In musical terms, Sonenberg reveals, "the opera's musical language makes use of everything I previously knew how to do in music, and much more. For a big tavern scene I needed to really expand my capability as a jazz composer, and for a Mexican scene I internalized mariachi music. All of this is, I hope, filtered through my own musical idiom. My hope is that the result is an opera that is at once challenging and engaging, and deeply important in historical terms."
The future of The Summer King is as yet uncertain. It will be featured in Fort Worth in May, exposing the work to opera people: directors, funders, companies - leading to the next stage. For Sonenberg the composer, it has been from the start a leap of a faith and a labor of love. Pondering the work over a batch of cookies he baked for his students, the USM faculty composer declared, "I'm sticking with it!"
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