Lucky

Flying home from Pittsburgh to Maine via Detroit. Through a series of mishaps my flight was changed, I barely made it, and then found myself on a plane with only 3 other passengers. Everyone upgraded to first class. Drinks on the house. It’s been that sort of couple days. 

Rehearsals have begun for the Summer King. All of a sudden the fantasies and imaginings of a quarter of a lifetime have materialized in live bodies, in voices, in an opera company aflutter with activity, all dedicated to this crazy dream I held onto for an improbable amount of time - a time beyond reason. 

 Mezzo soprano Denyce Graves with Dan Sonenberg

Mezzo soprano Denyce Graves with Dan Sonenberg

Yesterday I met the great mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who is playing the role of Grace in the Summer King - Josh Gibson’s later-in-life love, about whom very little is known. Her first words to me, upon learning I was the composer, were: “So you’re the one responsible for these rhythms!” And though there was a hint of jest to her statement, there was also a true, if gentle, scolding. My rhythms are death on singers. I transcribe vocal rhythms over-exactly. I displace the grid, so that the vocal “downbeats” don’t align with the metrical downbeats. On first glance it looks like I don’t understand prosody. There’s a lot of counting. I know it to be true, my lifelong goal to be interesting yet simple, rather than naturalistic at the expense of excessive complexity, is to date rather minimally achieved. Yet after singers learn my style, at least so I’ve been told, they detect a method to the madness, the counting falls away, phrases lock into place and begin to scan. Singers in this production who have worked with me before simply nod and say, "I'm used to it with him."

Today, day two, Ms. Graves and I had some further conversation. [This after my having a first encounter with the splendor and commitment she brings to the role of Grace.] She asked me where this obsession with the Negro Leagues, with Josh, came from. And I gave her the answer I give everyone who asks: I don’t know. I’ve had it since forever. Since I was a boy, avidly consuming baseball history, drawn immediately and deeply to the sad story of baseball’s terrible “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” but also to the larger-than-life heroes, clowns, and villains of the Negro League universe. Satch’s amazing way with words, and supreme, almost preternatural confidence and ability. Josh’s childlike zeal for the game, mythical power, but also the agonizing arc of his life through to its ultimate tragedy. 

The interest took hold when I was a child. And I see my own children, who of course are now learning this story, stare at the bare facts of it with incredulity. Why on earth wasn’t the greatest hitter in baseball allowed to play Major League baseball? Ever. In his life. Because of the color of his skin? Is this some kind of joke? I like to believe I’ve raised them in a household, and in a value system, where such facts immediately stink of absurdity and vileness. Where they need to be explained, and yet remain unexplainable. But I know I’ve raised them in a world where such facts don’t so deeply contrast our current situation. For its ability to widen my eyes and shock my imagination into motion, the story of the Negro Leagues, and especially of Josh, lodged in me from a very young age. And I’ve always known it to be a story whose relevance was eternal.

So I tried to explain to Ms. Graves why I wrote the opera, why I stuck with it for so long, why I felt a compulsion to continue - for years before anyone had even the slightest interest in it, and when it felt like the most impractical project ever conceived. And she looked at me and said: “This is a gift. To all of us. You were born to write this opera.” And then she said, “I am proud of you.”  

In a brief instant, Ms. Graves gave me the answer I could never seem to formulate, to the project's obvious Why. Born to write this opera. And what's more, proud of me. One of the greatest opera singers of our time. Ten-time Sesame Street alumnus and iconic, definitive Carmen, bringing Grace to life, and proud. As moments go, this one's a keeper. 

So, as my journey home continues (and now I’m on the second leg, this time back in coach, cramming my six-foot frame into the middle seat of a three-seater, but still riding those waves of rapture so that I don’t hardly care (and anything is tolerable for one hour and twenty-four)), I take Ms. Grave’s words, and the miracle of these last several days, and let them swish warmly around inside. I leave behind the most talented group of musicians I’ve been fortunate to work with on a major project, and a creative and musical team who are hellbent on bringing this vision, MY vision, to robust, complete fruition. I have absolute faith in stage director Sam Helfritch, Maestro Antony Walker, and everyone toiling under their guidance. The attention to detail, the striving for accuracy, for vision, for perfection; the love and craft all of these brilliant artists have now directed squarely on my little opera, which I don’t think anyone really believed I’d finish once upon a time, fills my cup beyond capacity. 

In this life we make our own luck. Or rather, we make ourselves available for luck to smile upon us. I worked at this opera for a long time. In the early years, I moved at a glacial pace, well aware that I was overmatched by both the musical and narrative demands of this epic tale. The process was learning the musical language of this opera, the musical necessities of all opera, and the vast, complex history that underlay my singular hero’s poignant and meaningful life. I found talented collaborators, Daniel Nester in the early days, and Mark Campbell for the home stretch, who brought poetry, dramaturgy, and clarity to my sometimes muddled vision. And somehow I stayed in the game long enough for luck to find me. For organizations and individuals with a crazy, imaginative bent, to encourage me, give me opportunity, and eventually, take an outsize risk on the dream. 

I have posted an extensive thank you further down on this blog, so I won’t repeat here the ever-growing list of people and organizations to whom this opera veritably owes its life. But they must all know that my debt of gratitude to them is lifelong. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to be this grateful; and so lucky to take my turn at telling the story of an essential American hero on a grand stage with a cast and team whose talent so thrillingly amplifies and exaggerates my own.