A couple of weeks ago here on Umpbump, I wrote about a new opera called “The Summer King“. Written by a composer named Daniel Sonenberg, it tells the story of Josh Gibson, perhaps the most prolific hitter to have ever played in the Negro Leagues. And I’m not going to beat around the bush here. I was a total jerk for what I wrote. Without catching a glimpse, without hearing one note, I passed immediate judgment, which is obviously very unfair. But I didn’t for a second think that my post could possibly do any harm.
And then it happened.
Somehow, Daniel himself found the post. And read it. And commented it on it (check out the original post linked above to read it)…
Suddenly, I felt smaller than Eddie Gaedel (does this joke PROVE I’m a jerk? Very possibly). But after an e-mail discussion among us Umpbump writers, I was given a chance to repent. I was to ask Daniel for an interview. This was my quest. This was my journey. It was a task as arduous as Frodo Baggins’ trip to Mount Doom – if Frodo had access to e-mail and could just attach the Ring and send it to FiresofMtDm@aol.com.
So I e-mailed him, and he was very kind enough to not only respond accepting my interview request, but he took the time to answer each and every question I had in a very thoughtful manner. We talked about his love of both baseball and opera and his rationale for writing an opera about Josh Gibson. I hope you all enjoy it. And to Daniel, thank you for your participation and for not giving me a brutal beating.
What’s your earliest memory as a baseball fan? Your favorite?
When I was eight years old a business partner of my dad’s took me to see a World Series game between the Yankees and the Dodgers. But to be honest, I don’t remember it too well. I like to think that I remember watching Bucky Dent’s homer against the Red Sox in the one game playoff in 1978, but I may have just absorbed it over the years. What I do remember is walking out of Yankee stadium amidst funereal silence after the Royals swept the Yankees in the 1980 playoffs. That was the year George Brett creamed my idol, and still favorite player of all time, Goose Gossage. When I was 11, shortly after my father died, I had the opportunity to visit the Boston Red Sox clubhouse thanks to an old friend of my dad’s who was athletic director at MIT. I got a few autographs, but most memorably had the opportunity to chat briefly, one on one, with Carl Yastrzemski. He offered some consoling words, and I’ll never forget it, even though I didn’t realize to whom I was talking until someone deciphered the autograph for me later that day!
How did you come upon opera, which is an art form that, despite its successes in the English language, literally seems foreign to most young Americans? What are some of the misconceptions that people have regarding it?
It’s a great question. My background is in rock and popular music, and for years I was a singer songwriter. I did not grow up an opera fan. I think it was in college, when a girlfriend of mine convinced me of opera’s potential to offer an all-encompassing dramatic/ emotional experience. It still took me a while to be convinced, and more often than not I don’t have that all-encompassing experience at the opera. But when I do, nothing compares. I think most people’s trouble with opera is the style of trained singing, which we call “bel canto.” It’s so full of artifice, and so different from the more naturalistic sounds of folk and popular music. Yet – as Pavarotti demonstrated so well, it still can be rather thrilling, and appeal to a pretty large public. Many modern operas are written for different kinds of voices, and incorporate less foreign styles. My own opera is conceived, to be fair, in the traditional, grand opera tradition. But it incorporates elements of jazz (such as drum set and saxophone in the ensemble) and other contemporary sounds that I hope would be intriguing to music fans across genres. I think also the fact that many older operas deal with subject matter that is so far removed from every day life (kingdoms and mythology) make it feel completely irrelevant. I don’t think my opera has that problem.
What is it about Josh Gibson that convinced you that he would make a great subject for an opera?
He always seemed the perfect operatic figure to me. The tragedy, first of all, of his having died mere months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. And of course his decline, and his mental instability at the end – the tales of people having overheard Josh having imaginary conversations with Joe DiMaggio…this is straight out of the opera tradition of mad scenes. Also, I think the epic sweep of the Negro League experience, and the epic injustice of it, demands a form as holistic and potentially awe-inspiring as opera.
Gibson faced an almost unfathomable amount of adversity in his life – segregation on and off the field, alcohol abuse, a brain tumor, and an early death from a stroke in January of 1947 at the age of 35, a mere three months before Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a writer and composer, how do you tell a story such as his? What do you focus on when so many aspects of his life could have served as the main conflict?
Another great question (and interesting that we both happened on the “mere months” phrase…). And this is a problem that has taken me literally years to figure out, because in some ways Josh isn’t an obvious operatic hero [despite my comment above]. Unlike Jackie, Josh didn’t really pursue a lifelong fight and come out victorious. Despite his greatness as a ballplayer, he was in some ways a victim of history – he was a great man who either came along at the wrong time, or didn’t understand that in order to make history it was incumbent upon him to be more than a great ballplayer – he needed virtually to be a crusader. Josh wasn’t a crusader, although until Branch Rickey came along no Negro League ballplayer was really empowered to be what Jackie ultimately became. I am fascinated by the notion that history sometimes asks of its heroes something even more than greatness, so in the opera I consider Josh’s feelings toward baseball and integration. I think that Josh’s interest was ultimately in the former, which may have been equally responsible for him being the player he was, and having so few (relatively speaking) remember him even today.
I think one of the great injustices attached to the Negro Leagues is the fact that still today, the history is quite segregated. If you go to Cooperstown, the Negro Leagues are given a nice little exhibit, but the history has not been integrated into the rest of the museum (which I think is a scandal). Josh, as the last great Negro Leaguer never to play in the white leagues (and, realistically, despite his declining health and abilities, he would have had the chance, I think, if he just held on for a year or two longer), for me is representative of more than fifty years of incredible baseball history that is more or less swept under the rug. Many people today still have not heard of Josh Gibson, which is somewhat hard to believe. I didn’t know this until I started staging scenes of the opera, and audience members told me it was the first they’d heard of him. So one thing I wanted to deal with in the opera was this question of the importance of the Negro League history, as well as the mystery and lore surrounding it. I begin the opera 10 years after Josh’s death, in a barbershop in Brooklyn. An elder and younger barber argue over the relative merits of Jackie Robinson and Josh Gibson. We don’t know it at first, but the Elder Barber has a particular interest in Josh’s story, because he himself was a onetime Negro League ballplayer, but not one good enough to make the white leagues after integration came. The Negro League experience, and particularly Josh – as its greatest representative – are close to the core of this Elder Barber’s identity, and at the outset of the opera both are fading into memory.
Fairly or not, Gibson was called “The Black Babe Ruth” due to his build and hitting prowess that was rarely, if ever, seen before. But he also rivals Ruth in the number and scope of the tall tales that were told about his accomplishments. What are some of your favorite Gibson-related stories and did you work them into “The Summer King”?
I actually avoided some of the more cartoon-like ones (such as the famous, “You’re out – yesterday in Pittsburgh” line). But a central event in the opera that is revisited from several perspectives is the home run Josh is said to have hit completely out of Yankee Stadium in a 1930 game against the Lincoln Giants. To me the home run serves as a kind of metaphor for the entire Negro League experience and all of its history. The question of whether the ball really left the park could be a stand in for so many of the marvelous heroic tales of Negro League play that are ultimately viewed with suspicion by the (white) baseball cognoscenti. So The Summer King most emphatically takes the stand that the ball really went all the way out, although we don’t find that out until the very final scene – the opera’s epilogue.
Virtually all mediums of art (music, theater, film, photography, etc) have used baseball and sports in general as a subject. In your opinion, what makes athletic competition such a compelling topic?
Honestly, I’m not sure it’s athletic competition. I think it’s baseball specifically, at least when it comes to music. I mean, I would probably find a football or a tennis opera as ludicrous as you would. There’s something about baseball though, both the length and colorfulness of its history (pun only partially intended), and the way the game itself actually unfolds, frame by frame, a series of moments of endlessly varying degrees of tension, that lends itself particularly well to music. In my original planning for the opera, I thought that actually depicting any real time baseball would be absurd. But ultimately I do have a pantomime reenactment – in vastly stylized fashion – of the Yankee Stadium home run, complete w/ old- time sportscaster. It works pretty well, I think, because most of the action – or the tension, anyway – happens between the pitches. By the way, a workshop staging of that scene is available on YouTube from a performance last March.
With the recent passing of Luciano Pavarotti – a man who proved that opera could still cross into the mainstream consciousness – how would you describe opera’s current place in popular culture? What are your personal hopes for its future?
Opera is right there with contemporary art music of all forms, and that is to say it’s struggling. There is an ever-diminishing tolerance for long forms and for difficult styles. All of our attention spans are shrinking, which is why in the past baseball too has had its struggles (although I hear it’s doing pretty well these days!) I think opera has a very small place in popular culture, and I would, I think, like simply for consumers and enjoyers of popular culture to open themselves up to the kind of sustained emotional and intellectual (emphasis on the first) experience opera, and in turn all art music, can provide. Of course the responsibility is ours (composers) too – to write pieces that have some kind of relevance in today’s world, and that don’t exist in a cerebral, intellectualized vacuum. So I hope opera continues to survive and reach people, and that its relevance in today’s culture grows. But I don’t think it’s taking over the world any time soon.
On your website you mention that you’re a Yankee fan. Seeing as none of the six Umpbump writers are Yankee fans, I feel the need to tease. Let’s say for some bizarre reason that you were forced to pen an opera about the Yankees and you had to choose one of the following topics and corresponding songs. Which would it be:
- Alex Rodriguez’ quest to overtake Barry Bonds as the all-time homerun king. Song: “That’s When You’ll Love Me”
- Joe Torre’s trials and tribulations as Yankee manager. Song: “Why Can’t I Quit This?”
- Jason Giambi’s agonizing decision to take PEDs. Song: “Show Me the Way, Bruce Banner”
- The story of Carl Pavano’s career. Song: “I Made a Deal with El Diablo”
- The rise and fall of George Steinbrenner. Song: “Tampa, Tampa, Tampa”
I’m old school. I think I’d do an opera on Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner. Song (from Billy’s perspective): “Do that to me one more time.” Duet: “Happy together.” Trio (w/ Reggie Jackson): “Sooner or later, one of us must go…” (w/ apologies to Bob Dylan)
To make me feel better about unfairly criticizing your decision to create “The Summer King” before I even saw it, name three of the best examples of how music and baseball can coexist, thus blowing my contention to the contrary to smithereens.
Gosh – I’m not sure I can actually do this. I don’t think there have been many great baseball musicals or operas. Damn Yankees is the obvious choice for musicals. After that there’s the Mighty Casey, an opera written in the 1950s by American composer William Schuman – obviously an adaptation of Casey at the Bat. That piece is a nice slice of Americana – with an absolutely stunning short scene where a boy asks “Mr. Casey” for his autograph. I guess the third choice would have to be Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights,” wouldn’t it?
I think it’s a subject matter rife with potential that hasn’t really been exploited yet. So that’s where – I hope – my opera comes in.
What does the future hold for “The Summer King”? I’m aware that you had performances in Brooklyn recently. Do you have anything else scheduled?
Nothing immediate scheduled right now, although it’s likely we’ll have additional workshops with American Opera Projects in the spring. Right now my priority is to work towards finishing the piece. It’s nice to have these intermittent workshops and readings, but ultimately writing an opera is a long, lonely project, and I have to get back to that now that the fun is over!
Daniel Sonenberg is a composer, performer, teacher and scholar based in Portland, Maine.