One of the highlights of the fourth annual Back Cove Festival of Contemporary Music at the Portland Conservatory of Music, scheduled for Saturday and April 15, will be duets and arias from Daniel Sonenberg’s opera, “The Summer King,” based on the life of famous Negro League baseball player Josh Gibson.
Sonenberg, who teaches at the University of Southern Maine, completed the full-length, two-act opera while on sabbatical last semester.
Although Sonenberg has been a baseball fan since his boyhood in New York, the sport doesn’t seem to lend itself very well to operatic treatment — until you begin to think about it, and the tragic career of Josh Gibson. He might, if not for alcohol and bouts of madness, have been the first black player to enter major-league baseball in 1947 instead of Jackie Robinson.
In fact, Gibson’s career reads like a combination of “Carmen” and “King Lear.” (The opera has real “mad scenes.”)
“He’s rather like Moses,” said Sonenberg, “who took his people to the promised land but couldn’t enter it himself.
“I’ve always been interested in Negro League baseball, and I wrote the first scene of the opera back in 2003 as part of a workshop for the American Opera Project in New York.”
Gibson’s career fits the Greek definition of tragedy, Sonenberg believes, not only because he was a king in his own field, but also because the entry of the Negro League’s best players to the major leagues after 1947 led to the demise of an entire cherished institution and all that went with it.
Players in the league often went to Mexico for games, where they were regarded as heroes by the entire population. Gibson wanted to stay there, but was convinced to return to the U.S. by his mysterious lover, Grace, who was the crusader for equal rights that Gibson was not.
In May and June, with the support of grants from the Maine Arts Commission and the University of Southern Maine Faculty Senate (and in cooperation with the USM Chamber Singers), Sonenberg will be recording the opera’s Mexican scene. It’s scored for mariachi band, piano, chorus, vocal trio and vocal soloists, something he calls a “death-defying endeavor.”
The opera is difficult music to perform, Sonenberg noted, but tonal and readily accessible to opera audiences. The duets that will be sung at the festival are lyrical in nature.
Sonenberg finds that baseball lends itself to musical notation, with its pauses for contemplation before the next action, its tension and relaxation. There is a pantomime scene in the opera showing Gibson hitting a home run and the other players reacting to it in slow motion.
Like all composers of opera, Sonenberg is looking for an angel to enable him to mount a fully staged production. Maybe the Yankees?
The rest of the festival promises to be equally interesting. It always has a relaxed, intimate feel to it, which makes listening to new works, no matter how far out, an enjoyable experience. Pianists will enjoy a performance of Elliott Schwartz’s “Test Drive” duet, written for the installation of a new piano at the Freeport Performing Arts Center in 2007, at 5 p.m. April 15.
The opera performances will be at 4 p.m. Saturday, with another composer’s concert at 7:30 p.m. A student recital is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. On April 15, there will be a composers’ round-table discussion at 1:30 p.m., and a third concert at 5 p.m. Admission to all performances is by donation.
Other featured composers include Beth Wiemann from the University of Maine at Orono; Joshua DeScherer, Mark Tipton, Gia Comoli and Richard Nelson of UMA; and USM composers Paul Thomas and Josh Newton. Connecticut composer Elizabeth Austin and Amherst College composer-pianist Eric Sawyer will also be taking part.
Christopher Hyde is a Pownal writer and musician. He can be reached at: