American Opera Projects


The Summer King

Music by Daniel Sonenberg
Libretto by Daniel Nester

The Summer King is based on the life of Josh Gibson, one of the greatest Negro League baseball players. A home run hitting catcher, Gibson was often called the Black Babe Ruth, and had a career spanning from the late 1920s until his death in 1947, only several months before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier. The opera presents Josh on his dying day, a broken and sick man, prone to hallucinations and unable to clearly distinguish the past from the present. Josh alternately beckons to an imaginary Joe DiMaggio, and interacts with characters and events of his own past as they materialize before him.

AOP Presentations of The Summer King

April 19 & 20, 2005: AOP presented a concert reading of scenes from The Summer King at The Great Room (138 South Oxford Space, Brooklyn, NY), with Music Direction by Steven Osgood.

Characters in order of vocal appearance:
Josh Gibson: Andre Solomon Glover
Sam Bankhead: Keith Miller
Trash-Talking Player: Enrique Toral
Grace: Jeniece Golbourne
Men’s Chorus: Charles Temkey, Keith Jameson

May 26, 2004: NYCOpera presents VOX 2004 & Friendsfeaturing libretto readingof The Summer King, held under the direction of Ned Canty, director of the American Opera Projects Libretto Reading series, at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Symphony Space.

March 14, 2004: The Summer King, music by Daniel Sonenberg, libretto by Daniel Nester. Opera Index, National Opera Association. Manhattan School of Music, Greenberg Hall.


Daniel Nester (librettist) is the author of God Save My Queen (Soft Skull Press 2003), a meditation on his obsession with the rock band Queen. He is the editor of the online journal Unpleasant Event Schedule, as well as a contributing editor for Painted Bride Quarterly and DUCKY. His work has appeared in Open City, Nerve, Columbia Poetry Review, LIT, Verse, Mississippi Review, Spinning Jenny, Slope, Jacket, Crazyhorse, and others. A poem of his was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa to appear in The Best American Poetry 2003.

Daniel Sonenberg (composer) has written extensively for chamber and orchestral ensembles, focusing most recently on vocal works. His music has been performed by the Da Capo Chamber Players, Friends and Enemies of New Music, the American Composers Alliance, South Oxford Six, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra and many others. He is the recipient of grants and fellowships from Meet the Composer, the MacDowell Colony, the Corporation of Yaddo and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Mr. Sonenberg studied composition under Joan Tower, Daron Hagen, and David Del Tredici. He holds a DMA from the City University of New York, and is currently Assistant Professor and Resident Composer at the University of Southern Maine.

Summary of scenes presented April 19-20, 2005

At the beginning of Act II, Josh inhabits a not-so-distant memory. He stands dejectedly alone on a baseball diamond, hitting fungos deep into the outfield. Wracked by stabbing pains in his head, he is out of shape, his career already clearly on the wane. In between belting balls, he alternately boasts of his greatness and laments the neglect he feels, before revealing, "a doctor says I'm dyin' cuz of something inside my head." [The historical Josh Gibson may have died of a brain tumor.]

Josh is then joined on the field by his long-time best friend, Sam Bankhead (bass), the obnoxious Trash-Talking Player (tenor), and other players (men's chorus). Trash-Talker razzes the out-of-shape Josh, but the effect is to rouse the slugger out of his stupor, reawakening in Josh the boisterous master of the snaps game he had been in former times. Trash-Talker takes batting practice while Josh, from his catcher's crouch, brilliantly gets inside Trash-Talker's head with insinuations about his wife. Ultimately Trash-Talker strikes out and is humiliated.

In the following section, not heard in tonight's reading, the players gather around Josh to ask him about a famous home run that he allegedly hit completely out of Yankee Stadium. Trash-Talker asks Josh, if he's that good, why he hasn't made it to the big leagues (and taken him along for the ride). Josh responds "You don't need me to get there. I'm happy where I am. I got my own league," which prompts the players into a rousing, revisionist ensemble number: "We got our own league, own diamonds, own dugouts, own jook joints, own women, What we want with the majors anyway?"

Toward the end of this number, Grace, Josh's mistress, appears on stage. Overhearing Josh and the players, she understands once and for all that her ambitions vastly outweigh those of her lover. She sees the hard partying, barnstorming, small time lifestyle of the Negro Leagues for what it is: good for some laughs, but no path to her dreams of wealth, fame and respect. In an aria, she sadly explains to Josh that she will abandon her fantasy of something bigger and return to a mundane life with her husband, who is returning from the war.

-Daniel Sonenberg




The Creators

Daniel Sonenberg, Composer

Daniel Nester, Librettist

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