‘The Summer King’ debuts at Detroit Opera House
“The Summer King,” the much-anticipated opera about exclusion and racial injustice in the world of professional baseball, has its Detroit debut Saturday at the Michigan Opera Theatre.
The opera details the tragedy of Negro Leagues great Josh Gibson, widely regarded as one of the best power hitters in the 1930s and 1940s. Sometimes called the “black Babe Ruth,” Gibson was barred from playing in the segregated major leagues.
The slugger was just 35 when he died of a stroke in January, 1947 — three months before Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier forever with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“I never saw Gibson play,” said George Shirley, the first African-American to sing a leading role at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. “But I can hazard a guess that part of his dying early had to do with frustration and disappointment.”
Shirley, along with Tigers great Willie Horton and “Summer King” composer Daniel Sonenberg will discuss Gibson and the role of sports and arts in promoting integration Saturday in a pre-curtain panel moderated by Rochelle Riley, author of “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery.”
Before Saturday’s performance, MOT will also host an afternoon block party starting at 2 p.m. on its parking lot at the corner of Madison and John R. Open to all, the party will feature food and family-friendly games.
Detroit is only the second city to stage “The Summer King.” Its world premiere was April 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh, where Gibson played with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the 1930s.
The libretto was written by Sonenberg and Daniel Nester, with additional lyrics by Mark Campbell.
The Michigan Opera Theatre has used “The Summer King” as a jumping-off point for a yearlong celebration of pioneering African-American athletes and artists of all stripes who helped bury segregation.
“Take Me Out to the Opera,” as the outreach effort was called, involved film screenings, jazz evenings, a museum exhibition and a multimedia, choral work named for the famous Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too, Sing America.” The latter was performed at 12 high schools in Detroit and Hamtramck.
The opera company is also sponsoring a May 26 arts and sports Youth Clinic at Hamtramck Stadium in Veterans Memorial Park, one of the only surviving Negro Leagues ballparks.
“We’re providing workshops in baseball, soccer, cricket and dance for young people,” said Andrea Scobie, MOT manager of education and community programs. “Any budding athlete or artist can come out.”
For his part, Shirley is thrilled that a historical tale of such import has reached the operatic stage.
“This is just the sort of work we need to get the American public, white and black, into the opera house. Real life,” he added, “is full of operatic stories.”
Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit
6:30-7 p.m. Saturday: Panel discussion with Willie Horton, George Shirley, Daniel Sonenberg and Rochelle Riley
7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 16 and 19
2:30 p.m. May 20