In the creative life of an artist, there’s one pivotal moment, maybe two, when someone takes a chance.
That happened for Maine composer Daniel Sonenberg a year ago this spring, when he sat down with Portland Ovations Executive Director Aimee Petrin to discuss the opera he had been working on for a decade. “The Summer King” tells the story of Negro Leagues baseball star Josh Gibson.
On Thursday, Sonenberg will experience the moment that he doubted would ever happen when Portland Ovations presents the premiere of “The Summer King” at Merrill Auditorium. It will be performed with a cast of 11 singers from New York, a 16-piece orchestra and vocalists from Maine-based Vox Nova Chamber Choir and the Boy Singers of Maine.
Conducting will be Steven Osgood, assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera.
In the audience will be representatives of national opera companies. If they like what they hear, they might stage Sonenberg’s opera in an upcoming season.
“It has as good a chance as any contemporary opera does,” Osgood said in a phone interview from New York, where the cast rehearsed. “Dan’s music is fascinating. It’s a combination of an intense, jagged, chromatic contemporary musical language, but mixed with this jazz, blues and rock ’n’ roll sensibility. There is a lyrical tunefulness that is not to be turned-your-nose-up at.”
Sonenberg, who lives on Peaks Island with his wife and three sons, is a confident fellow, but he wasn’t thinking big when Petrin invited him in to discuss “The Summer King.” He assumed Petrin might offer to produce a concert version of the opera with piano accompaniment at the University of Southern Maine, where Sonenberg works as composer in residence.
Petrin had other ideas.
“I’ve decided we really need to do this, and we need to do it right,” she told him. “I want to produce this at Merrill Auditorium.”
Sonenberg didn’t believe her.
He smiled, and thought to himself, “It’s never going to happen.”
Until then, Sonenberg had received encouragement and support, particularly from his university employer, but this was different. This was secure financial backing, and it helped transform Sonenberg from being, as he said, “a guy with a paperweight,” to somebody with a real chance at seeing his work produced in a proper environment and with the full attention of motivated artists.
“In your life and in your career, it is not so often you can point to a pivotal moment when someone is willing to take a chance,” Sonenberg said. “This is that moment for me.”
Petrin has stitched together a budget of about $70,000, securing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and support from American Opera Projects, a national organization that encourages the creation and presentation of new work. Sonenberg also received a Composer Assistance grant from New Music USA.
Thursday’s opera will be a staged concert. There will be no scenery and props, but there is a stage director who is helping the singers with dramatic movement. Between 40 and 50 musicians and singers will be on stage.
It’s the first time the piece has been performed with an orchestra. Since Portland Ovations committed to this performance a year ago, Sonenberg has written all the parts for the orchestra, some 4,000 bars of music. He finished that task just hours before rehearsals began in New York in late April.
Sung in English, “The Summer King” tells the tragic story of Gibson, a catcher and star of the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and 1940s. He dreamed of playing in the major leagues but died in 1947 just as baseball was integrated. He was 35.
He was known as the “black Babe Ruth” and is the second Negro Leagues player inducted in baseball’s hall of fame. Sean Gibson, Josh’s grandson, will be Sonenberg’s guest at Thursday’s performance.
The piece is populated with real-life baseball legends, including Clark Griffith and Calvin Griffith, the white owner of the old Washington Nationals and his nephew and protegé, and Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed baseball’s first black player, Jackie Robinson.
Charles Jarden, American Opera Projects’ general director, said several companies are interested in “The Summer King,” including Pittsburgh Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York.
“Those are companies in cities whose citizens have baseball on their minds,” said Jarden, who is bringing a representative of the Pittsburgh Opera with him to the performance.
Representatives of other companies have said they would attend, and Petrin has booked hotel rooms.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, and Kansas City is home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Pittsburgh is a big sports town with a large black population.
“All of them have legitimate interest, and other companies are sniffing it out,” said Jarden. “This is a true American story about baseball and a specific time and place. Josh was one who did not break the color barrier, so it’s a sad story from that angle. But the overall effect is very uplifting. It’s a very American story.”
American Opera Projects is based in Brooklyn, New York, and part of its work involves testing new musicals and operas in front of audiences to gauge reaction. As early as 2007, American Opera Projects tested scenes from “The Summer King” at parks and street fairs in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. “We could see back then the opera was working. We got instant feedback … and saw immediate opportunities to put it in front of our opera colleagues around the country,” Jarden said.
The timing is right, he said. Many producers and presenters are eager to stage new work, especially in metropolitan areas where audiences are diverse.
“We have a completely different generation and a completely different set of needs than we did a generation ago, and fortunately we have a completely different set of choices for them,” Jarden said. “Twenty years ago, if you gave audiences the choice of Daniel Sonenberg or (German composer Johannes) Brahms, the only person who would have chosen Daniel Sonenberg was his mom. But I think many audiences can actually go for this now.”
Osgood, who will conduct the piece, met Sonenberg in 2003 when the composer participated in an American Opera Projects program that Osgood was leading. Sonenberg was just starting work on “The Summer King,” and Osgood has tracked its progress.
He called the opportunity to help foster this piece “tremendously exciting.”
“What it has going for it is that big companies see new work as an important part of their mission. Its challenge is that it’s a big piece,” he said. “Not every regional opera company could do ‘The Summer King.’ ”
In addition to support from American Opera Projects, “The Summer King” also has received showcase performances arranged by Opera America. The showcases and Thursday’s performance guarantee the piece will be heard by producers, Osgood said.
“Now they can see it,” he said. “They do not need to use their imaginations. That is gold right there.”
For Sonenberg, Thursday’s performance caps 11 years of work. He turns 44 this month, which means that he has spent a quarter of his life writing “The Summer King.”
His work slowed when he and his wife had triplets – boys, born in 2008, named Satchel, Pablo and Levi. Satchel was named for Satchel Paige, also a Negro Leagues star who made it to the big leagues late in his career.
Sonenberg also paused when he and his original collaborator, librettist Dan Nester, had an amicable split. Sonenberg looked for another collaborator to finish the job, and ultimately decided to do it himself.
“Just mustering up the courage to do it took some time,” he said. “I love to write, but have never really ever attempted anything like this.”
He solicited advice from friends, including Mark Campbell, the librettist for “Silent Night,” which in 2012 won a Pulitzer Prize, and continued his research.
As an academic, he felt pressure to produce finished work, and wrote several smaller pieces while he was working on “The Summer King.”
Ultimately, what he needed most was the time to mature into a composer capable of writing this opera.
By 2011, he only had four scenes written. But that year, things changed. He took a sabbatical from teaching and a residency at Yaddo, an artist retreat in upstate New York.
When Petrin offered him the premiere, he had the deadline, motivation and backing that he needed to finish the job.
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: