As the music swells, at center stage the spotlight illuminates a young street ball player in uniform striding forward, her upraised fist triumphantly clutching a baseball. The stage fills with the chorus – the youthful street ball team plus a large crowd of baseball fans singing as the opera comes to an exultant finish, paying tribute to baseball player Josh Gibson’s magical hit that sent the ball soaring “clean out of Yankee Stadium.”
The audience at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh leaps to its collective feet as the cast takes its well-earned bows. Composer Dan Sonenberg is brought to center stage, and basks in the emotion of an extended standing ovation and outpouring of shouted “bravos” from the appreciative crowd.
Sonenberg, a composer and professor at University of Southern Maine’s School of Music, never could have dreamed of such a perfect ending for his opera – a project 14 years in the making. The opera received a tremendous amount of press with critics praising the world premiere performance with statements such as “a vibrant and enchanting score,” “musically sound and emotionally moving,” and “a compelling theatrical experience and a serious, thought-provoking addition to the repertory.”
While America’s pastime is perhaps an unlikely topic for an opera, “The Summer King” has all the elements of an operatic tragedy. As a lifelong baseball fan, Sonenberg found himself intrigued by the history of the Negro Leagues of the 30s and early 1940s, particularly the story of unsung baseball hero Josh Gibson.
Under other circumstances, Gibson would have rivaled Babe Ruth. His feats include the story of him hitting a home run out of Yankee Stadium as an 18 year old. Apocryphal story aside, historians consider Gibson to be among the best to ever play the game.
Tragically, Gibson died at age 35 from a brain tumor, just three months prior to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. His short life was full of joy for the game, but also fraught with pain with the tragic loss of his young wife in childbirth, and as noted by Sonenberg, the indignities and disrespect offered to him by the white baseball establishment, and his own struggle with the historical responsibility placed by circumstance upon his shoulders.
In a 2014 interview with Opera America, Sonenberg said, “I didn’t want this to be a cerebral exercise ... I think it’s going to move people. It’s an opera about baseball. This is an opera about civil rights and social justice in American history. It’s an opera that has the capacity to pull in groups of people who aren’t necessarily the most likely opera audiences. This is the opera I had to write.”
Coming to music originally as a rock drummer, Sonenberg didn’t experience opera until college, and that split identity came together in creating the music for “The Summer King.” Sung in English, the score features elements of jazz, ragtime, swing and even mariachi music.
When asked in an interview with DownEast Magazine about working on such a project in Portland and at USM, he said, “Being surrounded by so many talented musicians and composers and performers provides fuel ... My move to Maine has definitely helped foster my development as a composer.”
“The Summer King” was commissioned by Portland Ovations, led by executive director Aimée Petrin. In collaboration with the University, they first presented the opera to the public as a concert performance in 2014 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. That performance attracted the interest of Christopher Hahn, Pittsburgh Opera’s general director, who decided to produce the show, working with Sonenberg to refine certain aspects of the opera to take it to the national level.
Sonenberg collaborated on the libretto with Daniel Nester, and Mark Campbell provided additional lyrics for the revised final version. In both 2014 and in the past year, University of Southern Maine School of Music composition major Aaron Clarke worked on the score with Sonenberg, his faculty advisor and professor.
Clarke said when they received word that Pittsburgh Opera Company was picking up “The Summer King” for its staged world premiere, “We began work on revisions, which I assisted with essentially in real-time. As he (Sonenberg) would revise a scene, he would pass it on to me for proofreading and formatting ... the experience was life-changing.”
The opera has received major support from American Opera Projects, the National Endowment for the Arts, Bob Crewe Foundation, Maine Arts Commission and the University of Southern Maine; and support for the Pittsburgh Opera world premiere from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The cast was led by internationally known artists baritone Alfred Walker as Josh Gibson and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Grace, Gibson’s girlfriend. With original sets, costumes, a 60-piece orchestra and a large chorus, all of which executive director Christopher Hahn said brought this colorful, vibrant world to life, the world premiere cost about $1.8 million.
Having seen the opera through from its beginnings, Portland Ovations organized a trip to Pittsburgh from the Portland area to enjoy its fully staged world premiere. Among several dozen attending were Portland Ovations staff and board members, who’d been proponents of the project throughout most of its development; enthusiastic supporter Dan Crewe; and several staff from USM, including President Glenn Cummings and School of Music Director Alan Kaschub.
As reported in the Portland Press Herald by arts reporter Bob Keyes, a trio of former USM students even planned a 13-hour round trip drive, coming just to see the opera. “I’ve been excited about this since the get-go,” said Sam Chandler, one of the students. “I needed to be here to support Dan.”
Seated in the audience, at his faculty member’s world premiere, Kaschub eagerly drank in the performance. At the intermission, he expressed his enthusiasm, including how impressed he was at the orchestra’s precise handling of the difficult score, having played some of the music himself early in the opera’s development.
In looking back at the whole experience, Kaschub said, “My feelings about the opera are a mixture of happiness for Dan, pride for USM and of course all the feelings that come from seeing this important story told in such a beautiful way. I have heard parts of this opera develop, I have seen scenes in various contexts and I even played some of the trumpet parts in the early demos and performances.”
“The story of how this opera came to be is a success story of an engaged university supporting a professor and a visionary arts organization (Portland Ovations) championing a local artist,” he said.
Sonenberg is by no means finished composing and collaborating on musical ventures. In March of next year The Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit will be presenting “The Summer King.” He also has an upcoming project collaborating with USM School of Music’s Opera Workshop and Portland’s The Telling Room to compose a short opera for Opera Maine (formerly PORTopera). This project will involve young people (between the ages of 12 and 18) co-writing the libretto with guidance from a workshop hosted by The Telling Room. The resulting opera will have its premiere in April 2018 at USM and other venues yet to be announced.
By Danielle Vayenas, Office of Public Affairs (for USM Connects magazine).
Photos by David Bachman for Pittsburgh Opera (except head shot of Dan Sonenberg, by Will Wohler '08, and cast bows, by Danielle Vayenas).