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Josh Gibson's triumphs, tragedies at core of 'The Summer King' opera

| Thursday, April 20, 2017, 1:06 p.m.
David Bachman Photography
Sean Panikkar as Wendell Smith, Alfred Walker as Josh Gibson and Denyce Graves as Grace in Pittsburgh Opera's 'The Summer King.'
David Bachman Photography
Alfred Walker as Josh Gibson in Pittsburgh Opera's 'The Summer King'
Carnegie Museum of Art
Portrait of Josh Gibson, Homestead Grays baseball player, standing on Forbes Field, October - November 1942
Tribune-Review
Sean Gibson, executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation and great-grandson of Josh Gibson

It has taken Pittsburgh Opera 78 years to present a world premiere, but this week's powerhouse production appears to be worth the wait.

With "The Summer King: The Josh Gibson Story," running April 29 to May 7 at the Benedum Center, general director Christopher Hahn and company have pulled together an amazing pool of talent. Expectations are high, locally and nationally. Michigan Opera Theatre has already scheduled the new opera as part of its next season's lineup in Detroit.

Alfred Walker stars in the role of Josh Gibson, with Denyce Graves as Grace, his girlfriend. Other characters include several from Pittsburgh sports history — Gus Greenlee, owner of the Crawford Grill and Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team; Wendell Smith, baseball player and Pittsburgh Courier journalist; teammates Cool Papa Bell and Sam Bankhead. (And as a note of interest, baritone chorister Skip Napier's grandfather, Eudie Napier, was Gibson's teammate on the 1946 Homestead Grays.)

Pittsburgh Opera has been holding community discussions and mini-preview concerts for the past three months to bring the story to the public. A handful of local sports greats — Al Oliver, Sean Casey, Franco Harris and Charlie Batch ­­— are offering their support for the project by participating as supernumeraries (non-speaking extras) in some of the performances.

For those who imagine opera telling centuries-old stories sung in Italian, the idea of an opera based on an American baseball player might seem unusual. But Gibson's story of a man who found fame in the Negro Leagues holds just as much triumph and tragedy.

"It was clear to me Josh would make a great operatic figure," says composer Daniel Sonenberg, who had been a fan of the legendary Hall of Famer since childhood. "The arc of his life, his struggle with his family, having been overheard having imaginary conversations with Joe DiMaggio — that was one of the first things that really grabbed me. And then, the sad story of having died just a few months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier."

Gibson, born in Georgia in 1911, moved to Pittsburgh in the '20s. He made it through the ninth grade before going to work and, by the age of 18, he was a professional baseball player for both the Crawfords and the Grays. His wife died giving birth, leaving him a single father to twins. His athletic performance was so exceptional, he is now considered to be one of the sports' best hitters and catchers of all time. He died of a brain tumor at the age of 35.

With a story that includes settings from the Hill District and Homestead to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and Yankee Stadium, Sonenberg's score has an equally expansive range. He combines contemporary classical music with blues, jazz, gospel and rock in this, his first opera.

Sonenberg's idea for "The Summer King" was spinning in the back of his mind for about 25 years. The tangible labor took about 10 years between his work as an associate professor and resident composer at the University of Southern Maine.

"One of the things that made this opera take a long time for me was to learn how to write an opera," he says. "I needed to understand what kind of music this opera needed. And this is a story that actually has a lot of music in it. The Crawford Grill was a major jazz destination. … So to have a score that was devoid of jazz made no sense."

When the baseball players moved to Mexico, Sonenberg says, "there needed to be Mexican music of a sort, but it had to be somehow incorporated into the larger language of my musical style and the musical style of the opera."

Having "The Summer King" make its premiere in Pittsburgh was a dream come true for Sonenberg.

"This history is so central to my appreciation of the game of baseball, so Pittsburgh is like a hallowed place," he says. When he visited Pittsburgh in 2007, he toured the former sites where the opera takes place. "It was like I was visiting the Holy Land."

Creating the set required another level of research for stage director Sam Helfrich and his team. Photographs from the Teenie Harris collection were helpful tools, providing fashion advice for costumes. For scenes in the Crawford Grill, they took pains to get the red, tufted banquette seating just right. And they even re-created the iconic mirrored piano. Some of the signage in the ballpark scenes are re-creations of actual advertisements, while others are designed in the style of the time.

To play Gibson, Walker did research, too, beyond the scripted page to find insights into his character, including meeting with the Gibson family. He wondered, for example, if Ginson had any distinctive ways he approached the plate, the way Willie Stargell did.

"There was so little that was filmed then," Walker says. But he did learn that, "Josh rolled up his sleeves all the time because he had big biceps and it intimidated the pitchers.

"So, I've got to get into the gym and do some bicep curls," he says, laughing.

Singing the starring role is challenging for the baritone. "I'm in almost every scene whether I sing or not, so I never have a break," he says of the part, which demands a huge vocal range. But playing a significant role in a new work provides a sense of ownership, too.

"I feel like I am part of the creative process because I am the first one to put it on," Walker says.

For baseball fans in the audience who might not be familiar with opera, Walker assures, the experience will be entertaining.

"This opera is full of baseball in a way," he says. "If you're a fan of baseball culture, you'll get a lot of things in the staging and in the music. This story — it's a tragic story, ultimately — but it's told in a really cool way. I think they may leave being opera fans."

New works with modern themes and current subjects often reach audiences who might not otherwise have had an interest in opera. Supporting and encouraging new works is imperative, opera executive director Christopher Hahn says, to keep the art form vibrant.

"And so, we're constantly having to refresh and add to the repertoire," he says.

"The popular imagination is that opera is dead and is 19th century Italian," Hahn says. "There is actually more opera being written now than in any former periods of history. And the interesting thing now is the diversity of the writing."

Today, he points out, operas are not necessarily written for opulent theaters, "with the orchestra in tuxes. It's exploded way beyond that, which is very exciting," he says. "The range of circumstance and venue and possibility is ever expanding."

A balanced opera diet would include the classics from the past, along with the new pieces, he says.

"Opera is about expressing the human experience through music. And as we know, there is a lot of human experience that is happening now," he says with a laugh. "It's not just retroactive."

Sally Quinn is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

A family affair

Sean Gibson, director of the Josh Gibson Foundation (joshgibson.org) and great grandson of Josh Gibson, was consulted early on as the composer and production team did their research. He and his family hope those who make it to "The Summer King" recognize Gibson's story outside of baseball.

"When we talk about Josh Gibson, most people talk about his baseball stats, his baseball career, home runs, the Pittsburgh Crawfords," he says. "But the opera and projects like this will give you the man outside the uniform. Josh was a father, a single parent. He was a brother, he was an uncle. So those are the stories for us, the family, those are the stories we want people to hear."

He hopes people will learn more about the work the Hill District-based foundation does with kids. They provide after-school programs, including tutors from Duquesne University, a summer camp, and scholarships for high school students heading to college.

A sports curriculum called BOSA — Business of Sports Academy — offers college credit.

"So many kids look at being a professional athlete, and that's fine," Gibson says. "But there's so many opportunities to be involved in sports — sports agents, sports commentators, grounds crew. Those are some of the things we teach the kids.

"We want people to know there are opportunities for kids through our foundation," he says. "And we just want to carry on the legacy of Josh Gibson."

— Sally Quinn

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