“The Summer King” set to appear on Pittsburgh Opera

By Elizabeth Bloom, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — In its 78th season, Pittsburgh Opera will make one of its most ambitious statements yet. The company will offer the first full production of Daniel Sonenberg’s “The Summer King,” an opera about Josh Gibson, the star catcher who played in baseball’s Negro Leagues as a member of the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.

The production marks Pittsburgh Opera’s first world premiere. It rounds out the four main stage offerings of the 2016-17 opera season, which the company announced Sunday.

“It’s a really, really big deal, a defining moment for any company, and a reach for us, which is a necessity for us,” general director Christopher Hahn said. “It’s a real opportunity to make a statement in the field.”

Josh Gibson’s story seems well-suited to scale operatic heights. Despite being one of the best players in baseball, Mr. Gibson never got the chance to play in the majors, and he died at the age of 35 mere months before baseball was integrated. He was later enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mr. Hahn said the opera grapples with the real-life tale of a bigger-than-life figure.

“We’re underlining the fact that it’s our story or a story that happened amongst us to which many of us were oblivious,” Mr. Hahn said.

“It brings together so many aspects of things we are concerned with now,” he said, “of race and sport and the effect they can have on people.”

Any time an opera company stages a contemporary opera, particularly one of this scale, it takes a risk at the box office. The composer is unfamiliar! So is the title of the opera! So is the music!

But one hopes the opera’s local connections and familiar characters — including Gus Greenlee, who owned the Crawfords and the Crawford Grill in the Hill District; center fielder Cool Papa Bell; and famed journalist Wendell Smith — will encourage audience members to take their own risk on this worthy artistic endeavor.

“The Summer King,” which features a libretto by Mr. Sonenberg and Daniel Nester, has been in development for more than a decade. In 2014, an earlier version of the opera received a concert performance in Portland, Maine, where the composer lives, but the piece has since undergone significant changes made in collaboration with Pittsburgh Opera. Mr. Hahn described Mr. Sonenberg’s score, which features a small orchestra, as rich in textures and styles. Scenes at the Crawford Grill and in Mexico, for example, evoke jazz and mariachi.

The cast includes Kenneth Kellogg, Norman Shankle, Denyce Graves and former resident artists Phillip Gay and Jasmine Muhammad. For the first time in its history, Pittsburgh Opera will feature a cast primarily comprising black performers. Stay tuned for events surrounding the production, including possible collaborations with the Pirates.

Elizabeth Bloom can be reached via email at ebloom@post-gazette.com.

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