Sometimes taking a risk pays off. Portland Ovations went out on a limb when it decided to stage the world premiere of “The Summer King,” an opera about baseball great Josh Gibson by Maine composer Daniel Sonenberg.
A large and appreciative audience at Merrill Auditorium on Thursday night demonstrated loudly that they had made the right choice. That the opera was performed without a set detracted little from its effect, because of the dramatic talents of the cast and clever stage direction by Lemuel Wade.
Sonenberg’s music for the tragedy – he also wrote the lyrics, in collaboration with Daniel Nester – is eclectic, containing modern classical, jazz and Latin styles, but also has a voice of its own, sardonic, wistful, lyrical or tragic, illuminating nearly every situation expressively.
I use the word tragedy advisedly. All operas end badly, but is the famous slugger of the Negro Leagues, Josh Gibson, a tragic figure? His rise, betrayal and fall influenced a large, self-contained world (the Negro Leagues), and helped make possible the integration of the American pastime, while he had enough hubris for King Lear.
In some ways he seems childlike, but as played and sung by Stephen Salters, Gibson was aware of how much had been lost, even in his final madness.
“The Summer King” has a number of what Sonenberg calls “set pieces,” most of them effective and some – such as the love duet between Josh and his wife, Helen, sung by Candice Hoyes and reprised at the end of the opera – quite moving.
Villains always steal the scene, and the slimy Washington Senators owners, Clark Griffith, sung by Patrick Miller and his nephew, Calvin Griffith, sung by Kyle Guglielmo, are no exception as they cry crocodile tears over the possible ill-treatment of Josh in the major leagues.
There is even a mad scene, as Gibson holds an imaginary conversation with Joe DiMaggio.
All of the singers in the opera are first rate, but Lori-Kaye Miller, as Josh’s ambitious girlfriend, Grace, deserves special mention, as does the crusading reporter, sung by Rishi Rane, and Josh’s friend, Sammy, sung by Kenneth Kellogg.
The premiere was further enhanced by two outstanding choruses, Vox Nova Chamber Choir and The Boy Singers of Maine Concert Choir, which appeared in a short, uplifting epilogue, plus a large professional orchestra under music director Steven Osgood.
Predictions by music critics have a way of falling flat, but judging by the audience response on Thursday, “The Summer King,” sails trimmed and fully staged, could become an American classic.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at [email protected]