It was truly a “gala” occasion in the long history of Pittsburgh Opera, at the Benedum last evening, when the much publicized and widely heralded The Summer King – the company’s first ever “world premiere” – was performed for the first time. With music by Daniel Sonenberg, set to a libretto that is a collaboration between the composer and Daniel Nester and Mark Campbell, the opera tells a necessarily condensed version of the life of Josh Gibson, referred to by many in his day as “the black Babe Ruth.” Today he is remembered at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but in his lifetime, like all African-Americans, was barred from a place in the Major Leagues. Christopher Hahn, General Director of the company, who has proven on previous occasions that he is not shy when it comes to taking the great risks inherent to the production of new, contemporary works, is to be especially congratulated on his latest – and greatest – innovation, as a work never heard by anyone before is indeed a giant leap to lofty heights.
The composer and the librettists were on hand, as was a large and very enthusiastic audience, and Mr. Sonenberg possibly received the greatest ovation of the evening when he was coaxed to the stage at the conclusion of the performance. He well deserved it, as his orchestration of the piece is rich, full, exquisitely colorful, and carries the action on the stage quite vividly and with a masterfully arranged appropriateness, finely honed to each of the many scenes which make up the opera. Antony Walker and the remarkably gifted instrumentalists of the orchestra had a field day (no pun intended) in bringing the vibrant and enchanting score to life.
Gibson’s tragically short life fits operatic treatment like a glove. The opera encapsulates not only key events in his career and sad decline, but is a reflection on an era; an unenlightened era of segregation in our own backyards, when sharply defined division permeated far beyond the sandlots. The work is well staged and makes effective use of creative media and lighting effects.
The action takes place in two acts of multiple scenes, beginning with men reminiscing about Gibson in a barber shop about a decade after his death. The action then fades back to 1930, when his wife Helen tells him in a Homestead park of a pregnancy she ultimately would not survive, then progresses over the period leading to his death at 35 in 1947. This is the time of Gibson’s career as a stellar hitter for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, and when his regular “jook joint” was the long gone, legendary Crawford Grill in the Hill District, where he meets his girlfriend Grace after she hits on the daily number by playing his batting average of 440. Encouraged by a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, as well as Grace, he considers trying to break the “color barrier,” by aiming for the Major Leagues. A meeting is arranged with the Washington Senators, but the story is simply a humiliatingly cruel ruse to appease the African-American press. Gibson heads south of the border, with a few of his teammates and Grace, since race is not an issue in the Mexican League, where he plays for the Rojos del Águila de Veracruz, is crowned “The Summer King,” and enjoys tremendous but brief success, as Grace is anxious to return to Pittsburgh – since the Second World War is over, and her husband will soon be home.
Back in Pittsburgh, talk of integration in the Major Leagues begins to appear as just over the horizon, as indeed it was, but by this time Gibson is drinking heavily to self-medicate excruciating headaches, hallucinating about his late wife, and having one-sided, imaginary conversations with Joe DiMaggio. He is visited by his old friend Sam Bankhead, who tells him that Jackie Robinson will join the Dodgers, before Josh drifts in and out of delirium and reflections on his lifetime, then dies.
The very large cast faces a daunting task in interpreting the vocal line of the opera. The voices parts are difficult, oddly rhythmed, and fragmented declamation of recitative from the beginning until the fourth scene of the second act. Occasionally a hint of melody suggests sustained singing is about to happen, but it rarely does. Alfred Walker, whose large repertory encompasses the major baritone roles in Richard Wagner’s epic music-dramas, made his Pittsburgh Opera debut in the title role. He is a world-renowned singer quite capable of handling the demands of the score, and his acting was charmingly amusing in the few light moments of the story, and powerfully dramatic through the rest. He made an engaging picture, and it is difficult to imagine that he could have achieved a greater success in the role. Much the same may be said of Denyce Graves, also making her local operatic debut, as Grace. She, too, is a top notch singer of international acclaim, and her rich mezzo-soprano voice was in fine condition and a true thrill to hear. She was a delight to the eye in the period costumes of the era. She and Mr. Walker were at their best in the fourth scene of the second act, which allows them the best opportunity to display their abundant vocal abilities.
Another singing part that stands out vividly is the character of Wendell Smith, of The Pittsburgh Courier, which was sung by Sean Panikkar, a former Resident Artist with the company who has gone on to make a name for himself with most of the American opera companies and on international stages as well. His pure tenor voice rang out resoundingly in the role, and he acted the part in a highly engaging manner. Other newcomers to Pittsburgh who stood out in the crowd were Kenneth Kellogg, in the baritone role of Sam Bankhead, and the lyric soprano Jacqueline Echols, as Helen Gibson.
For the rest, it must suffice to say that tenors Martin Bakari (as Scribe and a “Trash Talking Player”), Terrence Chin-Loy (as Double Duty Radcliffe), Robert Mack (as Judy Johnson) and Norman Shankle (as the Elder Barber and Gus Greenlee) made their local debuts; current Resident Artists Brian Vu (as Calvin Griffith), Eric Ferring (as Señor Alcalde), and Taylor Raven (on the program as “Girlfriend”) made the most of their brief opportunities; former Resident Artists Phillip Gay (as the Younger Barber and Cool Papa Bell), Kyle Oliver (as Dave Hoskins), and Jasmine Muhammad (as Hattie) return for these performances; Pittsburgh native Ray Very did triple-duty (as a Radio Announcer, Branch Rickey and Clark Griffith), Gregg Lovelace was on the program (as Broadway Connie Rector), and George Milosh, Robert Spondike and Scott Cuva made a brief, entertaining appearance as Mariachi singers.
As usual, the singers in the magnificent Pittsburgh Opera Chorus, under the direction of Mark Trawka, were a prominent and very successful feature of the evening. Such a large group of singers keeping time and tune in such difficult music was a truly remarkable accomplishment. In the curiously constructed epilogue/prologue combination which ends the opera, the children’s chorus, which gradually builds into the full chorus, provided some of the most beautiful music of the performance.
Whether the opera will go on to other venues, only time will tell. But it is certain that The Summer King is a major milestone in local operatic history, and the remaining performances deserve capacity audiences.
For tickets, performance dates and times, a complete synopsis, and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.
Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for the two complimentary press admissions.
The “Artistic Team” for The Summer King –
Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Sam Helfrich; Set Designer, Andrew Lieberman; Costume Designer, Kaye Voyce; Lighting Designer, Robert Wierzel; Media Designer, Darrel Maloney; Wig and Makeup Designer, James Geier; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.
Photography: David Bachman