The Summer King documents the life and considers the legacy of the 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 Majors). Tragically, Gibson died three months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
The opera portrays the injustice Gibson suffered at the hands of baseball’s “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” which all but officially barred black players from big league baseball; and also the thriving culture – characterized by black-owned teams, stadiums and taverns, nightlife and humor – that was created and supported by organized black ball. Ultimately, The Summer King addresses the legacy of Gibson, who never truly fought for integration, and was too ill, both physically and mentally, to participate in it when it finally came. Gibson’s last years were marked by erratic behavior, hallucinations, a brain tumor, alcohol and drug intake, and visits to sanatoriums.
While Gibson may not have been a force for social revolution, his exploits on the field, and his tireless submission to the grueling Negro League lifestyle – both of which took their toll on his mind and body – were signally important in generating the momentum that wrought the demise of segregated ball. Like Moses, he brought his people to the Promised Land, but wasn’t allowed to step upon the hallowed soil.
The Summer King additionally celebrates the legacy of all Negro Leaguers – including the many who, like Josh, never played in the White Leagues – and serves as a resounding affirmation of their ever-evanescent history.
History of the work’s development
The Summer King’s first incarnation was as the culminating project of American Opera Projects’ inaugural season of Composers and the Voice in 2003. I had long cherished the idea of composing an opera on the life of the Negro League baseball player Josh Gibson, and the workshop’s final requirement for a 20-minute opera scene was the impetus to begin serious work. I brought on poet Daniel Nester as a collaborator, and together we created a twenty-minute scene based on aspects of Gibson’s life. It was performed at South Oxford Space in Brooklyn in September 2003, and in March 2004, was selected to be featured at the Manhattan School of Music. When considering how to expand the scene into a full-length opera, we realized we had to start from scratch, and let the twenty-minute segment live on as The Summer King Suite, a separate work. Daniel Nester wrote two drafts of a full libretto, after which time he left active participation in the project. Subsequently I made many changes to the libretto, including writing four new scenes from scratch. The current version of the full libretto was completed in 2008.
The piano-vocal score to the opera was completed in 2011 during my sabbatical from teaching, and specifically at a November residency at Yaddo. I have been completing the orchestration for 16-piece ensemble for the May 8 concert premeire of the opera, which will take place at Merrill Auditorium in Portland Maine, as the finale of Portland Ovations 2013-14 season.
Between 2005 and the present, workshop performances of scenes and excerpts from the Summer King have taken place at South Oxford Space in Brooklyn, NY, at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, outside Five Myles Art Gallery in Brooklyn, at the Manhattan School of Music, at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, and at the University of Southern Maine.
Read the synopis.