A Negro Leagues opera will make its debut this year

Updated: 2014-01-05T00:25:05Z


The Kansas City Star

Here’s something to look forward to: an opera about Negro Leagues baseball.

The work, by composer Daniel Sonenberg, has been more than 10 years in the making, and thanks to an NEA grant is expected to be heard later this year in Portland, Maine.

The opera, “The Summer King,” is based on the life of one of the Negro Leagues greats, Josh Gibson, who died after a stroke in 1947 before having a chance to join the major leagues. He was not yet 36. Gibson was a catcher and a record-setting slugger, who spent the better part of his 17-year career with the Homestead Grays of Pittsburgh.

According to a report in the Portland Press Herald, “The Summer King” will have its concert debut — just the music, without staging — in May in Portland, where Sonenberg lives. He teaches at the University of Southern Maine.

A libretto reading and samples of the work are also expected to be featured at Opera America’s New Works Forum later this month in New York. The opera, in English, reflects jazz and other kinds of music from Gibson’s day.

“I have cherished Negro League baseball since I was a kid,” Sonenberg, 43, told The Star by email on Thursday, “and it’s hard to tell you exactly what drew me in first — just the human stories I suppose, along with all of the wonderful players, the different style of play, and the combination of humor and tragedy surrounding it all.

“Josh struck me as an operatic figure from early on — most obviously because he died so soon before Jackie (Robinson) broke the color barrier.”

Sonenberg said that early on he’d had contact with people at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City to do research, but he’d never made it out here.

Perhaps some day he’ll get here, along with a staging of “The Summer King.”

To reach Steve Paul, call 816-234-4762 or send email to Follow him at

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