The Summer King, an opera based on the life of Negro Leagues baseball legend Josh Gibson, made its world premiere in April 2017. It’s also been performed at Michigan Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre in May 2018.
The opera is composed by Daniel Sonenberg, who has worked tirelessly to bring this project to the stage. As for my role, I am credited as the co-writer of the libretto with Daniel Sonenberg, along with additional lyrics by Mark Campbell.
The Summer King had been a long time coming. In a nutshell: I was on board for the first couple years before my life and job took over. It’s been so long that I don’t remember how my stepping away happened. Here is Sonenberg’s account:
In the early going I collaborated with the wonderful poet, Daniel Nester. We played catch, visited a Negro League shop in Brooklyn, talked about Josh Gibson books, exchanged emails, and Dan wrote an initial scene which I set for American Opera Projects’ inaugural season of Composers and the Voice. The only surviving bit from that first scene, which I now call The Summer King Suite, was Grace’s Aria, which you can hear right here. Subsequently Dan and I went back to the grindstone, hammered out draft after draft of a full two-act treatment, met in consultation with folks at American Opera Projects and other fine artists, and Dan wrote me two full libretto drafts, one of which was given a public reading at Symphony Space in New York.
Josh Gibson famously said “I don’t break my bats, I just wear them out.” And that, I fear, is what I did to poor Dan Nester. In my search for the meaning of Josh’s story, and my need to create a work that was compelling, true to history, and at once heartbreaking and uplifting, I badgered the poor man with endless emails, requests for rewrites, revisions, further amendments to the treatment. As has happened previously in opera history, we ultimately had a parting of the ways, with Dan amicably allowing me to retain what portions of his work I chose for the final libretto in accordance with our signed collaborator’s agreement. About half of his excellent words remain in the finished opera.
I don’t remember being worn out so much as overextended. I had moved to Albany in 2005 for a tenure-track job and my wife and I were trying to conceive a child. I did, however, feel like I was in over my head, writing my first libretto and all.
The opera was also in great hands with Sonenberg and he had support. From the start, it was produced in conjunction with and support from American Opera Projects in Brooklyn. Then came other support, from the National Endowment for the Arts, Bob Crewe Foundation, Maine Arts Commission and University of Southern Maine.
There was a reading of the first draft of the libretto–no singing, just a read-through by opera singers–at New York’s Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia theatre, presented as part of American Opera Projects Libretto Reading series, with Ned Canty as director, back in May 2004. I was there for the Q&A afterwards. It was overwhelming.
More performances followed as the years went by. To name just a few: at the Manhattan School of Music, some pieces were presented, with Caren France at director, in 2004; at University of Southern Maine, where Sonenberg teaches, March 9, 2007; at Manhattan School of Music, in March 2007. The Summer King was first performed in full in an earlier form in 2014 at Merrill Auditorium, Portland, Maine under the auspices of Portland Ovations in collaboration with the University of Southern Maine. Steven Osgood was Music Director.
Mark Campbell, a professional librettist, then came on board. The opera was then fully revised and then received its World Premiere by Pittsburgh Opera, the first that company has ever presented, on April 29, 2017.
I am really happy for Daniel Sonenberg, and proud it’s finally been brought to its fruition. Long may The Summer King reign!