Daniel Sonenberg’s opera about Negro Leagues baseball star Josh Gibson has made it to the big leagues. Pittsburgh Opera will produce Sonenberg’s “The Summer King” in spring 2017 as the centerpiece of its upcoming opera season.

“I couldn’t have scripted it better,” Sonenberg said Monday, after spending the weekend in Pittsburgh for the announcement. Sonenberg teaches at the University of Southern Maine and lives in Portland. A longtime baseball fan, he’s been working on “The Summer King” for more than a decade. Portland Ovations premiered the opera as a staged concert in May 2014.

A fully staged version will be part of Pittsburgh Opera’s 2016-17 season. The company’s general director Christopher Hahn called the opera “a defining moment” for Pittsburgh Opera, and “a real opportunity to make a statement in the field.” It will be the company’s first world premiere, he said.

Gibson grew up and played baseball in Pittsburgh. He was one of the top players in the Negro Leagues, but never got the chance to play in the Major Leagues because he died at age 35 before baseball was integrated. He was posthumously elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Aimee Petrin, executive director of Portland Ovations, called the announcement “huge news” for Sonenberg and Portland Ovations. The two began collaborating in 2013, when Portland Ovations backed the opera, then still in the development stage, with funding during a critical time. It invested $70,000 in the project, securing grants from state and national agencies and arts organizations. That led to the concert version of “The Summer King” at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Several opera producers attended that concert, including representatives of Pittsburgh Opera.

Sonenberg was in Pittsburgh over the weekend to do interviews with local media and meet with producers and members of the artistic team. Despite the commitment from Pittsburgh Opera, Sonenberg still has work to do. The opera has undergone a substantial rewrite since its premiere in Portland. “I got a lot of feedback from that performance,” Sonenberg said. “A lot of positive stuff, but definitely some criticism. Based on that feedback and my own experience, I am making fairly extensive changes.”


He’ll spend the next few months working on a revised piano-and-vocal score, which is due in June. The full score is due by Jan. 1, 2017. The opera will be produced April 29 to May 7, 2017.

The production in Pittsburgh will be fully staged, with lighting, costumes, sets and a pit orchestra. In Portland the singers were not costumed, and shared the stage with a small musical ensemble.

Sonenberg, who wrote the libretto with Daniel Nester, credited Portland Ovations, USM, the Maine Arts Commission and the Bob Crewe Foundation for supporting his work on the opera over the years. But he singled out Petrin at Portland Ovations, because she always envisioned “The Summer King” in a national context.

“What we are seeing now is exactly what Aimee Petrin wanted to have happen from our very earliest discussions,” Sonenberg said. “I was focused on, ‘Let’s just make it happen.’ She said, ‘We don’t want to just make it happen. We want it to have a life.’ It’s really gratifying to see it go forward. It just proves that when you get behind something like this and support local artists, it can lead to something wonderful.”

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


Twitter: pphbkeyes

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