The Summer King: Pittsburgh Opera’s First World Premiere

On April 29, 2017 at the Benedum Center, Pittsburgh Opera launched a world premiere performance for the first time in the company’s 78-year history. Adding to the significance of this event was the subject matter of the chosen opera—The Summer King by Daniel Sonenberg explores the life of the Pittsburgh-native African American baseball player Josh Gibson, whose success in the Negro Leagues predated Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, which effectively broke baseball’s color barrier. While this premiere was a PR dream—a show for opera devotees and baseball fans alike, the story of a local African American hero, Gibson’s family in attendance—the actual performance fell short in a number of ways.

The first issue was comprehension of the passage of time in the plot and stage action. The Summer King presents a series of vignettes that depict significant events in Josh Gibson’s life—however, the through-narrative is lost due to erratic jumps through both time and place. Gibson’s story is presented as a kitschy and ultimately unnecessary flashback sequence that originates in a barber shop in the late 1950s. An elder barber reminisces about the heroes of the Negro Leagues before segueing into Gibson’s story. From there, scenes are often multiple years apart, yet there is next to nothing on stage to indicate where and when the scene is taking place. At the end of the opera, the audience is left with the sense that somehow, over the course of 2 hours, nothing has happened.


Daniel Sonenberg–Photo by Wohler & Co.

Time, place, and the events of Gibson’s life are not clear in the libretto either—however, there are more troubling issues with the libretto than lack of a coherent narrative. Sonenberg wrote most of the libretto for the 2014 concert version of The Summer King himself, but it was revised for the Pittsburgh Opera staged version by co-librettists Daniel Nester and Mark Campbell. In what could have been an opportunity to focus on issues that persist today—particularly social injustice and systemic racism—the libretto comes across as a shallow and trivial recollection of events from Gibson’s life. One of the most alluring qualities of opera, particularly arias, is the ability to express intense personal emotions through the characters on stage, but Gibson’s personal perspective is the thing that is most notably missing throughout.

Sonenberg’s score suffers from the same disjunct quality as the plot action. The orchestration is a frenetic pastiche of styles that is constantly changing yet never contrasting or evolving. The same handful of stylistic models—quirky syncopation, jagged klangfarbenmelodie, approximated jazz, soaring Romantic lyricism, and echoes of Gershwin and Bernstein—are on a rotation that shifts roughly every four measures. This juxtaposition of musical ideas results in a score that is lacking a unique stylistic thumbprint.

A highlight of this production was the incredible musicianship of the cast and the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra. Though the opera is frequently over-scored, the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra laudably performed far-from-idiomatic writing for many of the instruments. The constantly-shifting styles and tempi were executed with precision and conviction. Despite the thick orchestration and vocal writing that mostly operates at registral extremes, the cast—particularly Alfred Walker as Josh Gibson, Jacqueline Echols as Gibson’s wife Helen, and Denyce Graves as Gibson’s later-in-life partner Grace—gave stunning and committed performances that navigated disjointed and rhythmically-complex melodies with apparent ease. Walker’s powerful and resonant bass-baritone, Echols sparkling and agile soprano, and Graves dark and rich mezzo-soprano all made for outstanding and memorable performances.

Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker) and Grace (Denyce Graves) get swept up in the excitement of going to Mexico--Photo by David Bachman Photography

Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker) and Grace (Denyce Graves) get swept up in the excitement of going to Mexico–Photo by David Bachman Photography

During the final bows, one could not help but notice the all white, mostly male creative team joining the multi-racial, predominantly African American cast on stage. While one might assume that the issue here is an appropriation of black culture or an attempt to talk about being black in America using a white-washed narrative—it is actually that race and social injustice played a surprisingly negligible, borderline non-existent role throughout the opera. In the wake of social media campaigns such as #HearAllComposers that bring attention to issues of gender, race, and socio-economic discrimination and encourage inclusive programming, Sonenberg’s opera allows the subject of discrimination to passively exist in the background and instead focuses on non-controversial elements from Gibson’s biography. The composer’s notes in the program describe his life-long interest in the history of the Negro Leagues, and he states that composing an opera about Josh Gibson “became an imperative,” but the final product feels like a missed opportunity to explore turbulent social issues that continue to plague our country through the perspective of a real historical figure.