Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Opera from the Infield: Daniel Sonenberg's "The Summer King"

PORTLAND, ME—After a decade in the works, “The Summer King” opera debuts this week, portraying in music and words the life of Negro League baseball player Josh Gibson. The work was composed by Daniel Sonenberg, University of Southern Maine professor of music and resident composer. Portland Ovation stages the world debut Thursday, May 8, at 7:30 p.m. at Merrill Auditorium.

Sonenberg, who has previously lived in New York City, said he never thought his opera would premier in Maine. With an almost exclusively African-American cast, and singers from around the world, the opera is the first major production of this type for Portland Ovations.

They don't really do this, they're not a producing company,” Sonenberg said. “This has been a real learning experience for both of us.”

Baritone Stephen Salters, who plays Gibson, said he auditioned for the part in December and has been practicing since January. Salters, who lives in Brussels, Belgium, has performed major opera roles in Asia, Europe and the U.S.

Sonenberg said when auditions were held in New York, Salters' name was thrown into the mix as a potential fit for the part.

“He showed up, which surprised me because he has pretty big gigs,” Sonenberg said. “He's clearly the guy for the part. He really has, not just dramatic capability but musical chops. He's a force of nature.”

Salters said both the honor of playing Gibson as well as debuting “The Summer King” makes him feel that he is a part of history.

I hope this piece will be taken across the world and become one of the great new American operas,” Salters said. “I do feel it is one of those great pieces. It's Dan's voice. He has mixed standards, really contemporary idiomatic music, classical contemporary music, with jazz, with swing … and with great emotional depth, but it doesn't sound like another composer's music. He's pulled little snippets of a feeling of jazz here, or a composer here or there. but it's his voice. I even hear some gospel sometimes and I think, 'Where did that come from?'--so skillfully put in there.”

Salters said a gratifying part of working on a premier is seeing the composer's reaction when the piece starts to come to life.

For (Sonenberg), this is a huge labor of love and it's very interesting watching him in rehearsals,” said Salters. “He got teary-eyed, was like a dumb-founded kid. 'Was that what I wrote?' For them to hear their work is a special thing … And I negotiate with him, change a note here and there. I love having those discussions because everybody grows.”

The opening scene of “The Summer King” takes place in 1957, ten years after Gibson’s death, as the Dodgers move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Two barbers argue whether Gibson or Jackie Robinson was the better player. Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African-American to play in the Major League when he joined the Dodgers in 1947, months after Gibson’s death.

From there, the opera explores Gibson's life—his relationships with women, his baseball career and his health struggles at the end of his life. A brain tumor is the suspected cause of his death in 1947.

Known as the “black Babe Ruth,” legend suggests that Gibson is the only player to ever hit a ball completely out of Yankee Stadium. Considered to be one of the best catchers and power hitters in baseball history, Gibson was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972—the second Negro League player to be honored in the hall.

I'm very exciting about how Dan set the relationships with the women in (Gibson's) life,” Salters said. “He has a very different relationship with (wife) Helen than with (mistress) Grace … and the other part we get to hear, and I think not enough of, is that he's going crazy. We hear it musically. I think we'll feel it in a visceral force in the portrayal and the music.”

Helen Mason was Gibson's wife early in life; the 18-year old died while giving birth to twins. Grace Fournier was a “headstrong, ambitious woman” who loved Gibson in his later years, Sonenberg said.

Sean Gibson, a great-grandson of Josh Gibson and Mason, said he met Sonenberg in 2007 at a game in Pittsburgh, and has known that Sonenberg's opera was in the works.

“It's an honor, anytime you can have an opera about a relative,” Sean Gibson said.

Sonenberg said he has kept in touch with Sean Gibson over the years. Sonenberg even took a tour of Josh Gibson's old stomping grounds in Pittsburgh, including the original locations of Greenlee Field and Crawford Grill.

“Considering the history involved, there were very few markers (to find them),” Sonenberg said.

Sean Gibson, who is attending the debut, said he is excited “to see how Daniel is going to make this work.”

“It's different in an opera, than in a documentary or book,” Sean Gibson said. “Someone singing about the life of Josh Gibson—to see how this all comes out will be interesting."

Sean Gibson is the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation; Sonenberg said he would like to form a partnership with the foundation in the future.

As for the music, Sean Gibson said he hasn't heard any of it because he wants to experience it for the first time at the opera's debut.

“I'm glad I didn't (hear any). I want to do the best I can to critique it,” said Sean Gibson. “I want to be surprised and listen. I'm looking forward to it.”

Ben Meiklejohn can be contacted at

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