December 22, 2013

Classical Beat: USM composer’s operatric ode to a heroic – and tragic – baseball legend

By Christopher Hyde

Maine composer Daniel Sonnenberg’s new full-length opera, “The Summer King,” will be presented May 8 under the auspices of Portland Ovations, but it is already attracting national attention.

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Josh Gibson

Courtesy photo

Sonnenberg recently received a grant of $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts for part of the estimated $50,000 of production costs, and auditions began last week. Dona Vaughn, artistic director of PORTopera, is spreading the word about the new production in New York, and some of the opera’s arias will be sung there in January, in hopes of attracting additional angels for a fully staged production.

Portland Ovations will be presenting a full-length concert version of the opera, with 10 singers, a chorus, which may be Maine’s new-music choir, Vox Nova, and a 16-piece orchestra. Sonnenberg is happy that noted Maine bass Malcolm Smith has agreed to sing the part of the baseball commissioner.

Baseball commissioner? “The Summer King” is based on the career of Negro League catcher Josh Gibson, who, if not for his tragic flaws, and the broken promises of some villains associated with the major leagues, could have supplanted Jackie Robinson as the first black player to break the color barrier.

Gibson, one of the most prolific home run hitters of all time, is a tragic figure who almost begs to have an opera written about him, “complete with mad scene,” Sonnenberg believes.

The USM composer in residence has been fascinated with baseball all his life and with the Negro Leagues in particular. One of the reasons that Gibson meets the definition of a tragic character – the word “tragic” is one of the most abused in the English language – is that his downfall, and the admission of blacks into the major leagues, had nationwide, and even international consequences. When Major League Baseball was opened to black players, the Negro Leagues declined, ending an entire way of life, in the United States and Mexico.

In Mexico, Gibson was treated like a king, and he considered staying there but was convinced by his mysterious lover, Grace, who was the crusader for equal rights that Gibson was not, to return to the States and attempt to join the majors.

Sonnenberg collaborated on the first version of the opera with poet Daniel Nester, but after a disagreement, completed the libretto himself, retaining, by agreement, some of Nester’s work.

Most composers do not write their own librettos, Wagner being the notable exception, and Sonnenberg was uncertain about doing it. “You do like to have one (a libretto) in place. With someone else’s work, its meter or rhythmic phrasing sometimes takes me where I didn’t know I was going. In art songs I sometimes use prose, recipes, even Facebook entries, trying to find out what’s hidden in the words.

“Writing wasn’t my choice; I tried to find another collaborator, but by that time I knew what I wanted too much. When I did write, I tried not to be a composer, I didn’t want to lose that feeling of the ‘unwieldiness’ of words.”

The arias that I have heard are lyrical, in a style that is “modern” without being dissonant. “My object was to create music that reflects a scene – a jazz club, a Mexican cantina – without the opera becoming a pastiche. The references are incorporated into my musical style, I hope. I have to take it on faith.”

So far, Sonnenberg’s faith has been rewarded. “I particularly want to thank Portland Ovations, which is taking a huge risk in putting on a new opera.”

Maybe the Red Sox will come on board. They were the last Major League team to hire a black player, infielder Pumpsie Green, in 1959.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

classbeat@netscape.net

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