Daniel Sonenberg teaches a class at the University of Southern Maine last week. The 46-year-old composer hopes his original opera, “The Summer King,” brings some attention to Josh Gibson, a Negro League star whom he has long admired. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Daniel Sonenberg felt defeated.

A cast of singers and musicians had staged “The Summer King” at Merrill Auditorium, capping a decade of work for Sonenberg on a new opera about an under-appreciated giant of baseball’s Negro League, Josh Gibson. On one hand, it was a euphoric moment. The audience seemed to love it. Gibson’s family, who came from Pittsburgh for the staged concert, said nice things, as did the creative team from the Pittsburgh Opera, which was considering including “The Summer King” in an upcoming season.

But after the prolonged standing ovation, the congratulations and the celebratory pats on the back, the criticisms started coming in, and they were significant: Josh Gibson’s character wasn’t well-developed, and when his life took a tragic turn in the opera’s second act, the audience didn’t have a reason to care.

Sonenberg, a Portland composer and associate professor of music at the University of Southern Maine, had work to do if his opera was going to get to the next level. It was already 10 minutes longer than Pittsburgh Opera wanted, and now the company was asking for a major rewrite.

“I knew early on there were going to be revisions, but this was a painful process for me,” Sonenberg said. “I was being asked to add all this stuff, and we already had to cut 10 minutes. I was very resistant.”

Josh Gibson at bat. The Negro League star was considered as good as Babe Ruth, but never got the same recognition. Photo courtesy of Josh Gibson Foundation Collection

Ultimately, Sonenberg stopped resisting. Today, the composer and lifelong baseball fan feels triumphant. After an intense year of writing and refining, Sonenberg’s baseball opus gets its world premiere Saturday at the Pittsburgh Opera, and it is already on the schedule for May 2018 at Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit.

“The Summer King” represents a success story in Maine art, and an unlikely one at that. A lot of art comes out of Maine that gets national attention, but not many operas, let alone a contemporary opera about segregation and civil rights, and one that tells that story through a heroic baseball figure.

“You expect these things to come out of New York or Chicago,” said Portland Ovations Executive Director Aimee Petrin, who worked closely with Sonenberg to develop the opera and helped stage the concert version at Merrill in 2014. “You don’t always expect the next great opera to come out of a non-major metropolitan area.”

‘UNAMBIGUOUSLY AN AMERICAN HERO’

“The Summer King” grew out of Sonenberg’s love of baseball and music, his vision for the story and his desire to pay tribute to a baseball player whose record he admired. A lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, Sonenberg always viewed Gibson with the same reverence he had for Babe Ruth: one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, regardless of his era or his league. Even though Gibson was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1972 – he was the second Negro League star chosen for the hall – Gibson never received the recognition that Ruth had, despite being considered Ruth’s equal on the field.

Sonenberg hopes “The Summer King” helps bring attention to Gibson for what he achieved on the field and overcame off it. Jackie Robinson is rightly viewed as an American icon for breaking the color barrier in baseball in April 1947, three months after Gibson died at age 35. Gibson deserves similar recognition, said Sonenberg, who has become close to Gibson’s family, including his great-grandson, Sean Gibson.

“Josh is unambiguously an American hero,” Sonenberg said. “Josh wasn’t passionate about breaking the color barrier. He wasn’t political. He was a ballplayer, and he loved the game.”

And he would love the opera that is being staged about his life and career, even if opera wasn’t part of his world, said Sean Gibson, who heads the Pittsburgh-based Josh Gibson Foundation.

“I think he’d be amazed and I think he would be very proud,” Gibson said. “Josh has been dead since 1947, and there have been several documentaries and he has been in several movies. But never an opera. I think he’d be shocked. He didn’t get this much recognition when he was alive.”

Gibson played the game under grueling conditions, without the prospect of the lasting fame or relative wealth accorded white players in baseball’s Major League. He endured the humiliation and degradation that all Negro League players experienced, and he thrived despite it. Negro League records were poorly kept, but baseball historians believe Gibson, a 6-foot-1-inch catcher who weighed 210 pounds, probably hit about 800 home runs, more than Ruth or any other Major Leaguer before or since.

But Gibson’s greatest accomplishment, which he shared with all the other great Negro League ballplayers, Sonenberg said, is that he helped create a league every bit as compelling as the Major League and forced owners to integrate.

Josh Gibson, second from left, poses with teammates during a 1946 ballgame in Washington, D.C. Baseball historians believe Gibson, who stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 210 pounds, probably hit around 800 home runs in his Negro League career. The ballplayer died at age 35 in 1947, three months before Jackie Robinson broke the major leagues’ color barrier. Courtesy of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, Josh Gibson Foundation Collection

“Branch Rickey wasn’t just some angel who decided to right a terrible wrong,” Sonenberg said of the Brooklyn Dodgers owner whose signing of Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. “He was a smart businessman who saw an opportunity, who understood that baseball was being played on an extraordinary level by a group of players that no white owner had attempted to sign. So as much as the Negro League story is an American tragedy, it is also a great American success story, a story of triumph over adversity. And Josh, who excelled in that context at a unique level, and who suffered as well at a unique level – and then was ultimately denied entry into the promised land to which he led his people – has always been, for me, the supreme exemplar of this deeply under-appreciated struggle in the history of civil rights. If his heroism was not entirely clear to me in the early part of this process, it is crystal clear to me now.”

TAPPING INTO GIBSON’S PAIN

Gibson’s personal story is the soul of “The Summer King.” Born in Georgia in 1911, he moved to Pittsburgh with his family as a young boy. While his father labored in the steel mills, Gibson played baseball. He began his professional career with the Homestead Grays, a Pittsburgh team, in 1930. He also played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords over a career that spanned 16 seasons.

As he excelled on the field, Gibson suffered away from it. His wife, Helen, died while giving birth to twins. His wife’s parents raised their children, and Gibson eventually began abusing alcohol and drugs. In 1943 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which caused painful migraines.

He refused surgery and died of a stroke at his mother’s home in Pittsburgh in January 1947, three months before Rickey signed Robinson, leading to the integration of baseball.

In the original version of “The Summer King” that audiences saw at Merrill in Portland in 2014, Gibson’s pain wasn’t obvious, and his character lacked a powerful aria to convey his feelings. Sonenberg was adamant that “The Summer King” not only be historically accurate, but that it also reflect Gibson’s words and character. Gibson had suffered in silence, internalizing his feelings and pain and leaving little to historical record. Out of respect, Sonenberg was reluctant to put words in Gibson’s mouth.

But for the opera to resonate it needed more humanity, so Sonenberg began developing Gibson’s character more prominently. He worked closely with the Gibson family foundation and with longtime musical acquaintance Mark Campbell, a librettist best known for writing the lyrics to the opera “Silent Night,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012.

Campbell and Sonenberg met while both were residents at The MacDowell Colony, an artist retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in the late 1990s.

Campbell attended the staged-concert version of “The Summer King” in Portland three years ago and happened to sit next to Christopher Hahn, Pittsburgh Opera’s general director. They talked about the merits of “The Summer King,” and Campbell agreed to help Sonenberg sharpen the story by writing the text for a new aria that strengthened Gibson’s character.

Pittsburgh Opera committed to the piece in February 2016, giving Sonenberg a series of deadlines to complete both the rewrite and updated vocal-and-piano and orchestra scores.

Sonenberg had plenty of other partners in this project, including his employer, USM, which granted him a sabbatical before the staged concert in 2014. The university also accommodated Sonenberg this past year by giving him flexibility when he rewrote the opera while also teaching classes, and the time to travel to Pittsburgh this spring for last-minute revisions.

It was Portland Ovations, best known for bringing performers to Portland, that put “The Summer King” in front of a national audience by securing about $70,000, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, to develop and stage the concert version of the opera.

“Our connection to (the opera) is rather large, and I mean that from an emotional standpoint,” said Petrin, the executive director. “This is about everything we stand for as an organization in our ability to present and promote and support art and artists.”

Portland Ovations backed the project because it was timely and contemporary with historical and cultural importance, she said.

Portland Ovations will send about a dozen people to Pittsburgh this weekend. They will tour the city’s cultural landmarks, including the ballpark where Gibson played and the neighborhood where he grew up. They’ll hobnob with Sonenberg and Gibson’s family, and attend the premiere on Saturday night and a cast party afterward.

A FIRST FOR PITTSBURGH OPERA

Sonenberg’s contemporary musical influences are apparent in “The Summer King.” It’s sung in modern English, and the score includes jazz and blues, as well as Latin-influenced music to reflect the time that Gibson spent playing baseball in Mexico and Cuba.

Sonenberg, 46, infuses the traditional form of opera with contemporary sensibilities. “It looks like something you know but sounds completely different,” Petrin said.

Hahn, the general director of Pittsburgh Opera, said his opera company has a lot riding on “The Summer King.” It’s the first time in its 78-year history that Pittsburgh Opera has premiered a new work, he noted. The stars have been making promotional appearances to drive ticket sales, previewing arias at local libraries and singing the national anthem at a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. In February, Pittsburgh Opera teamed with the Josh Gibson Foundation for events tied to Black History Month.

The opera company is running TV ads in Pittsburgh, and “The Summer King” has received a lot of media attention locally and in national opera publications.

It’s unusual for a regional opera company to originate such a large new work, Hahn said. There has been “a massive uptick in the development and creation of new operatic work in the last 15 years,” but much of that has been smaller, chamber-style operas, conceived for alternative and smaller spaces. It’s less common for a company like Pittsburgh Opera to mount such a large, ambitious new work, Hahn said.

Pittsburgh Opera is presenting “The Summer King” in a hall with 2,800 seats. It’s a full production, with a large orchestra, stage sets and costumes. “I didn’t want it to be in a smaller venue,” Hahn said. “I wanted to put this front and center on a big stage, because I wanted to make a statement that this is a story worth telling to a large audience.”

Pittsburgh Opera got involved, he said, because “The Summer King” is a perfect fit for the company and the community. The story is centered around an iconic, historical figure who is well-known locally and internationally and whose story ties directly into race relations in America.

The combination of those elements “resonated very deeply for us,” Hahn said. “I could not have created myself a more perfect combination. The only more perfect thing would be if the composer was from Pittsburgh.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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