In its 78th season, a world premiere for Pittsburgh Opera
February 14, 2016 12:00 AM
Daniel Sonenberg's "The Summer King," an opera about Josh Gibson, the star Negro Leagues catcher who played with the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, will have its world premiere with Pittsburgh Opera at the Benedum Center in April-May 2017.
David Bachman Photography
Puccini's "Turandot," which Pittsburgh Opera staged in 2011, will return to the Benedum in March-April 2017.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In its 78th season, Pittsburgh Opera will make one of its most ambitious statements yet. The company will offer the first full production of Daniel Sonenberg’s “The Summer King,” an opera about Josh Gibson, the star catcher who played in baseball’s Negro Leagues as a member of the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.
The production marks Pittsburgh Opera’s first world premiere. It rounds out the four main stage offerings of the 2016-17 opera season, which the company announced Sunday.
“It’s a really, really big deal, a defining moment for any company, and a reach for us, which is a necessity for us,” general director Christopher Hahn said. “It’s a real opportunity to make a statement in the field.”
Josh Gibson’s story seems well-suited to scale operatic heights. Despite being one of the best players in baseball, Mr. Gibson never got the chance to play in the majors, and he died at the age of 35 mere months before baseball was integrated. He was later enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Pittsburgh Opera 2016-17 season
Benedum Center productions:
Verdi’s “La traviata” (Oct. 8, 11, 14, 16)
Strauss’ “Salome” (Nov. 5, 8, 11, 13)
Puccini’s “Turandot” (March 25, 28, 31 and April 2, 2017)
Daniel Sonenberg’s “The Summer King” (April 29 and May 2, 5, 7, 2017)
Pittsburgh Opera headquarters: Laura Kaminsky’s “As One” (Feb. 18, 21, 24, 26, 2017)
Additional events take place throughout the season.
Mr. Hahn said the opera grapples with the real-life tale of a bigger-than-life figure.
“We’re underlining the fact that it’s our story, or a story that happened amongst us to which many of us were oblivious,” Mr. Hahn said.
“It brings together so many aspects of things we are concerned with now,” he said, “of race and sport and the effect they can have on people.”
Any time an opera company stages a contemporary opera, particularly one of this scale, it takes a risk at the box office. The composer is unfamiliar! So is the title of the opera! So is the music!
But one hopes the opera’s local connections and familiar characters — including Gus Greenlee, who owned the Crawfords and the Crawford Grill in the Hill District; center fielder Cool Papa Bell; and famed journalist Wendell Smith — will encourage audience members to take their own risk on this worthy artistic endeavor.
“The Summer King,” which features a libretto by Mr. Sonenberg and Daniel Nester, has been in development for more than a decade. In 2014, an earlier version of the opera received a concert performance in Portland, Maine, where the composer lives, but the piece has since undergone significant changes made in collaboration with Pittsburgh Opera. Mr. Hahn described Mr. Sonenberg’s score, which features a small orchestra, as rich in textures and styles. Scenes at the Crawford Grill and in Mexico, for example, evoke jazz and mariachi.
The cast includes Kenneth Kellogg, Norman Shankle, Denyce Graves and former resident artists Phillip Gay and Jasmine Muhammad. For the first time in its history, Pittsburgh Opera will feature a cast primarily comprising black performers. Stay tuned for events surrounding the production, including possible collaborations with the Pirates.
The rest of the main stage slate centers on more familiar works. The season opens with Verdi’s “La traviata,” starring former resident artist Danielle Pastin as Violetta and Cody Austin as Alfredo Germont. Strauss’ “Salome,” last performed by the company in 2001, will bring the most exciting artist debut of the season. Soprano Patricia Racette will tackle the title role in her first appearance with Pittsburgh Opera. The production also features the debuts of Robert Brubaker as King Herod and Michaela Martens as Herodias.
The spring’s blockbuster, Puccini’s “Turandot,” showcases former resident artist Alexandra Loutsion, who will sing the challenging title role for the first time. Maria Luigia Borsi will play Liu.
The company’s annual resident artist operas take place halfway through the season. At CAPA Theater, Pittsburgh Opera presents early and contemporary operas in alternate years. Next year, it’s an early opera’s turn. The company will be joined by period instrument trio Chatham Baroque for the Pennsylvania premiere of Handel’s Italian-language opera “Richard the Lionheart.”
And at the Pittsburgh Opera headquarters, the company will produce “As One,” an opera by composer Laura Kaminsky with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. The opera, which premiered in 2014, chronicles the obstacles and triumphs of a transgender protagonist, Hannah, portrayed by two performers.
Season tickets are $43-$639. The season also features several special events, such as the annual Diamond Horseshoe Ball and New Year’s Eve celebration, and low-cost or free performances. Complete information is available at pittsburghopera.org or 412-456-6666. Individual tickets go on sale Aug. 29.
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.
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