It might not have been evident to just anyone, but to Daniel Sonenberg, the tale of a baseball player from Pittsburgh who rose to greatness in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and 1940s “was an obvious idea for an opera.”
The true story Josh Gibson — who emerged from the sandlots of Pittsburgh’s North Side to ultimately be honored in the National Baseball Hall of Fame — is significant on many different levels, said Sonenberg, the composer of “The Summer King.”
Not only was Gibson a “tragic figure,” who died at the age of 35 shortly before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but many of the inequities Gibson faced throughout his life still persist today, Sonenberg said.
The opera will have its world premiere at the Benedum center on April 29 and run through May 7, produced by Pittsburgh Opera. “The Summer King” will be Pittsburgh Opera’s first world premiere in its 78-year history.
The opera follows Gibson at key points in his life, including his days in the Negro Leagues — playing for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords — as well as in Mexico, tracking his struggle with mental illness and the death of his wife, Helen, who succumbed during childbirth.
Because Gibson was black, he was prohibited from playing in the Major Leagues despite being known as the “black Babe Ruth,” and despite being considered by many historians to have been one of the best power hitters and catchers in the history of any league.
Sonenberg, who grew up in New York an avid Yankees fan, always had an interest in baseball history, particularly the history of the Negro Leagues.
“People might say, ‘You’re a Jewish white kid from New York; why is this your story?’” Sonenberg said. “But I don’t think this is an exclusive story of African-American history. Josh Gibson is an American hero. While I don’t share the personal lived experience that can inform what it means to be a black man living now, let alone in the 1930s, I have wondered if there is a link with my family’s own extreme discrimination.”
Sonenberg’s maternal grandmother was a Holocaust survivor who lost most of her family to the carnage of the Nazis.
“I don’t know where this burning interest in this story first took hold,” said Sonenberg, who began working on this opera in 2003. “But my mom is super proud. She said, ‘I think you got your deep concern for social justice from you grandmother.’”
Even today, iniquities continue, he said, pointing as an example to his recent visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., where the stars of the Negro League are relegated to a separate room and not integrated into the whole of the museum.
The fact that “The Summer King” is having its world premiere in Gibson’s hometown is particularly poignant, said Sonenberg, who recounted his first visit to the Steel City in 2007 to do research and meet with Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of the baseball hero. While in Pittsburgh, Sonenberg went to many of Gibson’s haunts, including the Hill District, the street in Homestead where he grew up and the two remaining fields where he played.
“When I came here in 2007, I had no contact with any opera company,” Sonenberg recalled. “I went to a Pirates game with Sean Gibson, and walking back to my hotel, I walked past the old headquarters of the Pittsburgh Opera. I had this moment … I didn’t even know if there was a Pittsburgh Opera. I was so excited to see that. I thought, ‘This would be great.’”
For the Pittsburgh Opera, “The Summer King” may be exactly the right production for its first world premiere.
“What’s been intriguing about this is the wide range of people with interest in this sort of history,” said Christopher Hahn, general director of Pittsburgh Opera. “The story has a big resonance across lots of areas.”
World premieres of operas are “rare” because they are so expensive to produce, Hahn said, and the decision to stage a new work “is not taken lightly.”
“We knew we had to do something that would resonate in Pittsburgh,” he said.
Hahn is convinced, he said, that the opera will appeal to a wide population, including the sports community, the African-American community and those interested in history.
“The Pittsburgh nature of this story intrigued me,” he said. “But the reason we’re doing it is much bigger than that. It’s really a vital story.”
More than 2,800 students in grades three to 12 will attend a matinee of the “Summer King” on May 4, “heavily subsidized by a number of generous donors and foundations,” according to Hahn.
Four local sports legends — Charlie Batch, Franco Harris, Al Oliver and Sean Casey — will all appear at the May 7 performance, recognizing Gibson as one of their own.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.