Ball Canto

Photograph by Will Wohler

A University of Southern Maine professor’s unlikely new opera takes a run at a pioneering black baseball legend.

Composer Daniel Sonenberg has 8-year-old triplets named Satchel, Pablo, and Levi. “The names were sort of loosely inspired by historical figures,” he says, “and yes, Satchel was for Satchel Paige.” A decade in the making, Sonenberg’s new opera, The Summer King, melds his interests in music and pro baseball’s pre-integration “Negro leagues,” in which Paige played. We talked with the USM associate professor before The Summer King’s premiere run this month in Pittsburgh, the hometown of the opera’s subject, Hall of Famer Josh Gibson.

Few people would read the life story of the “black Babe Ruth” and immediately think opera! Why did you?

Years ago, the idea of Josh Gibson as the perfect tragic opera figure just lodged in my brain. He died in January 1947, just as Jackie Robinson was going to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier, but Josh was never able to enjoy that breakthrough for himself. He’d suffered mental difficulties later in his life. He was overheard having these imaginary conversations with Joe DiMaggio. That was really the point of entry to thinking about this story as an opera.

You staged a trial run of the show in Portland in 2014. What was the response?

That was important because this was a very impractical opera, for lack of a better word: It had no track record, it had a large cast, and it was an almost entirely black cast. To my knowledge, there isn’t a single black professional opera singer living in Maine. And yet we had a great turnout and a great review in the Portland Press Herald. It was, so far, the greatest night of my life. But really, it’s a Pittsburgh story — that’s where Josh played, and that’s where I wanted to wind up.

How are USM and Portland as settings for creativity?

Being surrounded by so many talented musicians and composers and performers provides fuel. My first teaching work was in New York, and pulling together The Summer King in New York would have been so much harder. My move to Maine has definitely helped foster my development as a composer.

So do you have an opera about Maine percolating?

I’ve had discussions about some smaller operatic projects that would be more local in nature, but I can’t talk about them yet . . . The thing about an opera is that, unlike a book or a film or an album, you just don’t really know what it is until you see it produced. — Rob Sneddon

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Rob Sneddon

Contributing editor Rob Sneddon is the author of The Phantom Punch, the story behind the controversial 1965 bout between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston in Lewiston.