PORTLAND – Composer Daniel Sonenberg and Portland Ovations are taking a leap of faith together this spring.
May 8 will mark the world premiere of Sonenberg’s “The Summer King,” an opera in two acts on the life of Josh Gibson. Gibson was a catcher for baseball’s Negro Leagues in the 1930s and 1940s and is regarded as one of the best in the sport. The opera will debut at Merrill Auditorium.
“This is an essential story of the 21st century,” said Sonenberg. “It’s a question of equality, equal rights which keeps coming up again right now.”
A self-described “lifelong baseball obsessive,” Sonenberg said he was aware of the Negro Leagues from a young age. “You can’t know about the history of baseball without knowing some of that history,” he said.
“Everybody seems to think it’s important, but they’re OK with relegating it to this corner of history which is black American history. Even at the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown there’s one room where all the Negro League players are and then the rest of the museum doesn’t have any of those players,” he said.
Opera’s epic scope seemed a natural fit for such a dramatic subject, said Sonenberg, who is an associate professor and resident composer at University of Southern Maine.
“As somebody who is a classical composer that’s the medium I’m going to gravitate towards. That’s where my comfort zone is, although I’ve never written an opera,” he said.
Sonenberg’s body of work includes vocal music and chamber pieces, many of which have been inspired by his first love, popular music.
“Josh Gibson always struck me as a great, clear operatic tragic hero complete with mad scene. Integration, segregation, injustice”¦ something about opera is suited for treating stories of epic sweep and emotional content,” he said.
Sonenberg moved to Peaks Island in the Casco Bay in September. There he is completing the orchestration and conductor’s score for the opera.
“When you cross the Casco Bay, you have three miles of water to let go of your worldly troubles,” he said, and finds the quiet of Peaks conducive to creative work. Sonenberg has written several new chamber pieces since completing the opera’s piano/vocal score last year.
“It adds a little complexity to my life but a lot of beauty,” he said of island life.
The opera, which Sonenberg has been writing and composing for ten years, will be produced in concert format by Portland Ovations. The Summer King will be the non-profit organization’s first producing venture.
“I don’t think we could take this leap of faith with just any project,” said Portland Ovations executive director Aimée Petrin, who has worked closely with Sonenberg for the last year and a half to bring The Summer King to fruition.
“It is the exact right project. He’s a Maine artist, and it is a wonderful way to feature a Maine artist on our series in a way that really highlights what the arts in Maine can be,” she said.
The production will include Maine talent in the two choruses and in the 16-piece orchestra, Petrin said.
“Most of the orchestra will be faculty members at the USM School of Music,” she said.
The production is being cast with singers from New York and Europe, said Petrin.
“I’m on the phone with Aimée almost every day dealing with various logistics of the performance, rounding out the cast, every day we’re talking about money and where we’re going to get more,” Sonenberg said.
Petrin estimated the production cost at $65,000.
“That’s everything, that’s cast, that’s rent and production at Merrill, marketing, box offices fees, all the things that go into it. Most of that is artist fees because it’s a concert version,” she said.
As a concert production, the show will be produced without costumes, scenery or staging.
“Because it’s opera, it’s acoustic so there’s certain things production-wise where we get to take advantage of the natural acoustics and amenities at Merrill,” Petrin said.
Petrin said the May presentation will be a showcase for opera producers in the hopes that the production can be fully staged in another state. Opera America, in New York, gave The Summer King a full day of workshops in January, from which some of the Portland Ovations production will be cast, she said.
“We’re getting some fantastic national attention,” she said. “To us, the most exciting thing is we hope it will bring a national spotlight on the arts happening in Maine that’s worthy of that kind of attention.”