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Maine-Composed Opera Explores Tragic Life of Black Baseball Pioneer
12/23/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

A Maine-based composer has chosen an unusual subject for his debut opera. "The Summer King," by Daniel Sonenberg, examines the life and early death of the legendary African-American baseball player Josh Gibson, known as the "Black Babe Ruth." Tom Porter has more.

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Originally Aired: 12/23/2013 5:30 PM

Daniel Sonenberg

Daniel Sonenberg (above), a longtime baseball fan and associate professor and resident composer at the University of Southern Maine, has been working on the opera for about 10 years. The project took a major step forward recently when Sonenberg was awarded a $15,000 grant by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The composer describes the hero, Josh Gibson, as a tragic figure who failed to fulfil his potential.

"The most basic fact is that he died in January of 1947, and Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in April of that year," Sonenberg says. "So, you know, most intelligence points to the fact that if he had managed to hang on for another year or two, he probably would have had a chance to play in the white leagues, although he was pretty far gone by that point."

Josh Gibson PlaqueGibson died of a stroke at the age of 35, but he was also suffering with a brain tumor, alcohol and drug addiction, and mental illness - a shadow, says Sonenberg, of the brash 18-year-old dynamo who burst onto the so-called Negro Leagues in 1930, playing for the Pittsburgh-based Homestead Grays.

Gibson (depicted on his Hall of Fame plaque, right) spent some years in Latin America, where black players they were better paid and more appreciated, says Sonenberg. One scene of The Summer King is set south of the border, where Gibson played in the Mexican League for a season during the early 1940s.

Tom Porter: "Why an opera?"

Daniel Sonenberg: "Yeah, that's a great question."

Tom Porter: "Why not a musical?"

Daniel Sonenberg: "Well, there is something about the story that, to me, is very suggestive of opera. What opera has is the capacity to tell an emotional story in a visceral way, so that members of the audience really can feel like they're really part of the story - and especially a painful story, like Josh's.

And the Josh Gibson story, he says, is nothing if not full of pain.

Another interesting observation about Gibson, says Sonenberg, is that he was not a civil rights crusader. "What he was was a ball player, who played with a kind of infectious child-like zeal and enthusiasm, and great skill," he says. "And what happens over course of the opera is you really get to see how his spirit is somewhat broken."

"It's funny because I never really think in biblical terms," Sonenberg says, "but Josh really emerged for me as a kind of Moses figure, who led his people to the promised land and wasn't able to cross over. It really was the greatness of a handful of really spectular players, like Josh and Satchell Paige, who made Negro League Baseball economically viable, who got the attention of the white owners. You know, Jackie Robinson would not have happened if it were not for Josh Gibson, but Josh Gibson was somebody who did not get to enjoy that victory."

The musical challenge of the opera, says Sonenberg, was to mix his own compositional style with different types of music from the early 20th century - from ragtime, to jazz to mariachi.

"There definitely are various styles that kind of co-exist with the more general style of mine," Sonenberg says, "and I think are integrated - I hope are integrated."

The world premiere of The Summer King, an opera by Daniel Sonenberg, will be on May 8, 2014, at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

Photo:  Tom Porter

Black and white photo: Courtesy Daniel Sonenberg


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