Revised Edition (2016)

Music by Daniel Sonenberg

Libretto by Daniel Sonenberg and Daniel Nester

with additional lyrics by Mark Campbell

The Summer King documents the life and legacy of the great Negro League baseball player Josh Gibson. A hulking catcher, Gibson’s prodigious talent with a bat earned him the moniker “the black Babe Ruth,” and secured him a spot as the second Negro League ballplayer ever inducted into the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame (the first never to have played in the white Major League). The opera presents his life against the backdrop of the slow march towards baseball integration that culminated in Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947, four months after Gibson’s death at the age of 35. Gibson’s own inner demons, engendered by the loss of his young wife in childbirth, the grueling toll of Negro league barnstorming, the indignities and disrespect offered to him by the white baseball establishment, and his own struggle with the historical responsibility placed by circumstance upon his shoulders, prevented him from being tapped to break the Color Barrier. 

Despite never having made it to the Majors, Gibson’s exploits on the field were signally important in generating the momentum that wrought the demise of segregated ball. The Summer King situates his story in the broader context of Negro League baseball—considering both the injustice of its very existence, and the thriving communities of players, fans, and business owners who drew their sustenance from it, and lost a critical sense of identity when the Leagues gradually disbanded in the wake of integration. Gibson, though never a crusader for social revolution, emerges as a catalyst for change, a Moses-like figure who led his people to the Promised Land but was forbidden from stepping on its hallowed soil. 

The Summer King was commissioned by Portland Ovations, with development by American Opera Projects, and deeply appreciated continuing support for the Pittsburgh Opera world premiere from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Summer King has received major support from American Opera Projects, the National Endowment for the Arts, Bob Crewe Foundation, Maine Arts Commission and University of Southern Maine. In its original form, The Summer King received its first public presentation in a concert performance on May 8, 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. 

The opera was fully revised for its staged World Premiere, which took place at Pittsburgh Opera on April 29, 2017. Michigan Opera Theatre will present the Summer King in four performances beginning May 12, 2018. 

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Premiere photos

Press about the opera

News: There is now a 2nd Revised edition (2018)! 

Michigan Opera Theatre will present a newly revised (again) edition of the Summer King. 

The new additions addresses narrative and orchestrational concerns that were revealed by the first production by Pittsburgh Opera in April and May, 2017.  Updates include: 

  • Clarification and tightening of the opening and closing scenes (barber shop, Brooklyn 1957). Particularly the role of the Elder Barber, and his connection to and investment in the story has been crystalized. 
  • Expansion of Josh's role. Josh spends less time as a mute bystander in the first act, helping the audience to both empathize and sympathize with his plight. 
  • Pacing has been tightened in various spots. 
  • All orchestration adjustments made in the rehearsal process in Pittsburgh have been formalized, and all corrections have been entered into the revised materials. 
  • The running time remains the same! (about two hours, not including intermission). 
Bow from Pittsburgh Opera's production of The Summer King, April 29, 2017

Bow from Pittsburgh Opera's production of The Summer King, April 29, 2017