Pittsburgh Opera set to host The Summer King

Dan Sonenberg’s opera The Summer King is set to make open Saturday in what will be Pittsburgh Opera first ever world premiere in its 78 year history. Photo credit: David Bachman Photography

Pittsburgh, PA — For years, Daniel Sonenberg worked on an unconventional opera, one which matched baseball with songs composed and performed in English. His end result ended up being The Summer King which tells the story of Josh Gibson and Negro League baseball.

Gibson was discovered in Pittsburgh and played for both the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays. He is recognized for his efforts with his 1972 induction in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sonenberg’s The Summer King will be Pittsburgh Opera’s first ever world premiere in its 78 year history and will open its first of four public shows this Saturday at 8 p.m.

“We needed to find the right project that would grip the Pittsburgh audience by the throat and make them want to see it and intrigues them,” Pittsburgh Opera General Director Christopher Hahn said. “I was sort of the perfect audience because I didn’t know the story. I did my homework and discovered that the reaction from Pittsburghers to the story of Josh Gibson, the history, the man, the athlete was very strong and powerful and that all began to come together.”

Sonenberg had a lot to factor in with the libretto including the various settings and used many Pittsburgh based resources to help him along his journey.

Among those was the August Wilson screenplay and movie Fences which was set in a 1950’s version of Pittsburgh. Sonenberg cited that it was not a direct influence to The Summer King but did address some of the issues in his opera.

“A lot of my opera is not just a biopic of Josh Gibson but the aftermath of integration and what it meant for the Negro Leagues to sort of crumble and fade away and for places like the Hill District in Pittsburgh which is what you really get a sense of in Fences,” he said. “Troy Maxson is sort of the embodiment of this great player who wasn’t guaranteed anything afterwards and that definitely is a central issue of my opera.”

Another critical resource to the implementation of this opera was Rob Ruck’s Sandlot Seasons. Ruck is a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the book involves many of the central figures in this opera including Gibson and what the players felt and were surrounded with during this time period.

Sonenberg first showed the full opera in Portland, Maine and it was the first time a large audience got to see the complete opera and among those in attendance was Hahn.

The experience was invaluable for Sonenberg for a myriad of reasons.

“Before that performance in 2014, this was a piece that existed mostly in my imagination,” said Sonenberg. “Opera is tricky in that until you have a performance, it’s very difficult to convey to anyone including yourself what it is you have. After that performance in 2014, suddenly I had almost 1,000 people who could talk to me about the characters and what they did and didn’t like.”

Pittsburgh Opera hopes for diverse audience

Forgive Pittsburgh Opera General Director Christopher Hahn for not being immediately aware of Josh Gibson’s story. The South African native fancied cricket before coming to America and learning baseball and its many eccentricities.

Hahn’s curiosity in the opera came at least several months prior to the Portland, Maine showing in which he along with Pittsburgh Opera Director of Administration and Artistic Operations Bill Powers attended.

The Portland showing was the tipping point as Hahn did not want to commit to the project coming to Pittsburgh until the completed product was done and revisions could be made.

“When I heard the concert in Portland it gave me a sense that I needed to continue the conversations with Dan,” Hahn said. “We then went back and talk about what changed needed to be made because writing an opera can be a very solo operation with one person having their own thoughts. As other people hear these thoughts it begins to become more collaborative.”

As much as the idea of the Josh Gibson story appealed to him, what helped Hahn believe that the opera would be successful for Pittsburgh was the various audiences it could draw. The opera could draw its traditional, core audience, but also several different communities and viewers who may otherwise not come to another performance.

“This is a great opportunity for everyone to get out of their bubbles,” said Hahn. “If you’re in a sports bubble get out of it. If you’re in an opera bubble get out of it. If you’re in a neighborhood bubble get out of it. Experience this exciting, new work that is out of the Pittsburgh experience. Throw yourself into the unknown and be brave because you’re never going to expand your horizons. That’s really the message of why we’re doing this.”

Gibson family enjoys process

Sean Gibson’s knowledge of opera was limited to one show prior to founding out that his great-father was going to be commemorated with an opera on the 70 year anniversary of his passing.

Gibson, the Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation and great-grandson to Josh has not stopped promoting the opera since.

“We were surprised because when it first came to us, we never in a million years imagined Josh Gibson and an opera,” he said. “You hear about a movie, play or documentary, but to hear about an opera based off someone in your family is great for us. We were surprised when Dan first came to us. He talked more about it and came to Pittsburgh and we got more details on how it would work. We went with it and here we are 10 years later and it’s coming to life.”

Gibson described this as being a 10 year process from when Sonenberg first approached the family with his ideas and vision.

The end result is The Summer King, an English sung opera with English super titles projected above the stage which will have four showings in Pittsburgh before moving to Detroit next year.

“What a great honor to have an opera on this 70th anniversary of Josh’s passing,” said Gibson. “Josh never made it to the majors but he’s making history having his first ever world premiere opera in 78 years, so that’s historic alone. I want to thank the Pittsburgh Opera it is a unique project that is not their typical opera project so for Christopher Hahn and Bill Powers to take this project and think outside the box to bring something like this to Pittsburgh that is non-traditional, I have to thank them.”

The Summer King will be showing April 29, May 2, 5 and 7. Tickets start at $12 but those patrons interested in 10% off tickets can visit www.joshgibson.org. The opera runs 2 hours and 12 minutes, which includes a brief intermission.

“This is a Pittsburgh story,” Gibson said. “Josh was raised in Pittsburgh, lived in the Hill District, played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays so hopefully we’ll get a whole diverse crowd.”

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