The Summer King

The Josh Gibson Story

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 has been fully revised for its staged World Premiere, which will be given by Pittsburgh Opera on April 29, 2017.

bow from Portland Ovations' concert premiere of the Summer King at Merrill Auditorium, May 8, 2014.

bow from Portland Ovations' concert premiere of the Summer King at Merrill Auditorium, May 8, 2014.