Welcome to my new website. I have been essentially without one since a horrific hard drive crash (we all have at least one in our lives, right?) wiped out my old site back in 2007. In the intervening years I have maintained (and then stopped maintaining) two blogs: one about just about everything, the other more narrowly focused on my (if I do say so) rather engaging offspring. This website - and certainly this blog - will also be narrow in focus. It will be about music, and a lot of the time, about my music.
Part of the reason that I am a) able and b) motivated to make this little splash in the cyber-verse is the recent completion of my opera, The Summer King. Able, because I'm staring down the first summer in nine years when I don't have an opera to complete, and motivated because I want the world to know about my opera, and to have a place to come geek out to the soothing sounds and tales contained within my most tragic of baseball operas. Since The Summer King is a large part of why this website and blog are coming into existence at this moment, I thought it'd be an appropriate place to launch my blogosphere resurgence.
I barely remember a time when I was not at least talking about writing an opera about Josh Gibson. (I'll provide several hyper-links to histories of the man, since one thing I've come to know over the years is that he is unjustly not a household name, at least not universally). What drew me, a baseball-obsessed white Jewish kid from the suburbs of New York City, to Negro League ball in the first place is difficult to surmise exactly - but the attraction took hold early. Of course the figure of Satchel Paige - who we should be able to agree is the most colorful character in baseball history - loomed large in my childhood imagination, a hero who triumphed over injustice with humor and catch phrases, a lanky, mythical god who veritably defined the position I dreamed of playing in little league. I devoured stories of Negro League ball as a child, even as I cheered my beloved Yankees to three penants and two World Series victories (I'm not counting '76, I was too scant) before my 11th birthday.
When Josh emerged as THE player for me, I do not know. I was certainly drawn to the injustice of segregated ball, and perhaps no player better embodies the great tragedy of black ball before integration than Gibson, who died three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Some say he died of a broken heart at not having been chosen to be the one, and some say that's apocryphal. But of course his heart was broken - at 35 years old, suffering from a brain tumor (most likely), weight gain, alcohol and drug abuse (most likely), imaginary visitations by Joe DiMaggio, alive just long enough to experience his own obselecence, knowing he had been among the greatest ballplayers ever, maybe the greatest hitter, but that he had been passed over, and that his induction to Cooperstown was not forthcoming. It was, of course - but not until 25 years after his death. He would be the second Negro League player afforded such an honor, and the first never to have played in the white majors.
So Gibson, fun-loving and child-like in youth, brooding and unsteady in premature old age, was what drew me. What story seemed to need telling. In the early process of planning for the opera, several people urged me away from him. I should write an opera on Satchel, or Jackie, those were the true operatic heroes - they fought for something, stood for something, triumphed, each in his own way. What did Josh fight for? Was his story truly tragic, or only sad? I did not have answers to these questions, but I knew that this was the piece I needed to write, that Josh was my protagonist, and that if I spent enough time with him, with his story and his world, its meaning would become clear to me - whatever knowledge simmered deep in my unconscious would bubble eventually to the surface.
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.
Following our breakup came a period of drift for me, uncertainty about whether this opera I so dreamed of making could ever be finished. I pursued other potential librettists, before ultimately coming to the conclusion that my vision for the opera was so thoroughly my own (and still evolving) that it just wouldn't work to bring on another collaborator. I am probably a difficult person with which to collaborate - emotional about the work, at times unyielding...I suppose life brings us to a place where we discover such things. I wrote the remainder of the words myself (with one secret and, by the author's request, unattributed contribution in Act I Scene 3).
A seminal moment came for me when I attended a performance of Janacek's opera Jenufa at Glimmerglass Opera. By the final act, I found myself weeping, completely forgetting that I was a composer, just swept up in the emotional arc of the masterpiece. I understood then that I wanted my opera to do THAT. Not to be cerebral, overly artistic, or abstract, but to be clear, narrative, deeply expressive, accessible and challenging, and most of all, to go for the jugular. Opera, I decided then, was not the best medium if what one wants to be is subtle. My story was SAD, and I didn't want to beat around that bush.
But, there is also joy in my story. After meeting with Josh's grandson Sean Gibson of the Josh Gibson Foundation, and the Negro league baseball historian Rob Ruck, and walking through Josh's old neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Homestead, and reading, reading, mulling, mulling and talking with various other folks, particularly AOP's former artistic director Steven Osgood, I came to truly understand the tale I had to tell. About Josh - how he was like Moses and led his people to the promised land, even if he could not, would not, traverse its border. How his greatness on the field, and his perserverence through the grueling Negro League lifestyle created the momentum that allowed for a whole new generation, led by Jackie Robinson, to tear down that wall. And also about the Negro Leagues themselves, shrouded to this day in mystery, conjecture, incomplete statistics, one maybe-apocryphal tale after another, and yet a glorious world unto itself, populated by black-owned teams and businesses, fans, larger-than-life ballplayers, a bustling, thriving universe with Josh at its very core, which rather quickly ceased to be after integration.
The story is one of injustice, to be sure, but not only injustice - which is how it is often portrayed. Segregation was a great historical crime - but there was a wealth of culture and tradition surrounding black baseball, and it brought a lot of people tremendous joy. Josh Gibson led his people to the promised land of integration, but not all of his people. Because when integration first came, only the greatest of Negro League players (even if many were past their prime) were allowed through the doorway. Many others saw their livelihoods and their whole social environments decimated. Workaday, skilled ballplayers, the kind who today make slightly above minimum wage, say half a mil per year, found their glorious world crumbling, and faced inglorious professions, uncertainty, and signficiant loss of stature. Alongside Josh's, I wanted to tell their story as well, and it is embodied perhaps most directly in the character of the Elder Barber in The Summer King. He is a former ballplayer who carries on endlessly about the great Josh Gibson, only momentarily (in the first scene) begrudging his own sad fate ("I cut when I should be taking cuts...").
My opera is about those Negro Leaguers who didn't make it to the white leagues, particularly their greatest champion, but also his lesser, or perhaps older, colleagues. Throughout the opera a question is raised about a famous home run Josh was reported to have hit completely OUT of Yankee Stadium as a youngster in 1930. The recurring tale becomes a kind of metaphor for all of Negro League history. We have so little film footage, the stats are so incomplete, did it really happen? Does anyone really know? The Summer King answers that question with a resounding yes. It portrays the injustice Josh suffered, the way in which he was celebrated by his many fans at home and abroad, the too-little-known and extremely beautiful corner of history he made brilliant, and the cost - on him and his colleagues - of both segregation and integration.
It is my greatest work to date, and I hope you (and I!) will hear and see a full production soon. In the meantime, I hope you will spend some time exploring the synopsis, audio and visual excerpts, and other info here.