's first-ever world premiere is The Summer King
, and the title, with its mythic connotations, is apt for the opera's subject matter, the life and times of Pittsburgh-based Negro Leagues giant Josh Gibson.
Photo courtesy of David Bachman Photography
Alfred Walker and Denyce Graves in "The Summer King"
The opera's tragedy lies mostly in forces beyond Gibson's control — especially Major League Baseball's vile "gentleman's agreement" that barred African Americans for decades.
If Gibson's on-field exploits were legendary, his private life was little documented, but the opera's composer and co-librettist, Daniel Sonenberg, has credibly fleshed him out. The Gibson of Summer King
is a regular fellow, if possessed of prodigious athletic talent, who never got over his first wife's death during childbirth, and who doesn't seem to want the hassle of trying to break Major League Baseball's color barrier — even as he longs for the chance to showcase his abilities on a bigger stage.
It's a beautiful production, with special kudos to media designer Darrel Maloney for his inventive three-screen video displays. Agreeably, part of the action takes place at the Hill District's legendary Crawford Grill, where the production reproduces the venue's famed mirrored bartop upright piano.
And while bass-baritone Alfred Walker comes through strong as Gibson, Sonenberg's score gives particular opportunity to shine to soprano Denyce Graves as Grace, Gibson's girlfriend, who pushes him to try to take his skills to the major leagues. Several folks I talked to at the performance this past Tuesday also singled out the clear tenor of Sean Panikkar, who plays Pittsburgh Courier
sportswriter Wendell Smith.
Here's Michelle Pilecki's review
for City Paper
And here's the preview
of the production that I wrote, featuring interviews with Walker, Sonenberg and the Opera's general director, Christopher Hahn. I also chatted with Gibson's great-grandson, Sean Gibson, who now runs the Josh Gibson Foundation
(and whom I spotted in the lobby at Tuesday's show).
There are two more performances of Summer King
, tonight at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Tickets are $12-155 and are available here