Opera Review: ‘The Summer King’ highlights racial inequality in baseball at the Detroit Opera House

"The Summer King" photo by David Bachman Photography

DETROIT — The Summer King. It’s the last opera of the season at the Michigan Opera Theatre held inside the Detroit Opera House. Now is the perfect time for it since the Detroit Tigers are playing ball right across the street at Comerica Park.

The opera tells the story of Negro Leagues baseball legend Josh Gibson (played by Lester Lynch), considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. It’s a story of talent, heartbreak and one man’s journey to overcome prejudice and discrimination. You’ll have to purchase a ticket to find out what happens in the end.

Josh Gibson was an American Negro league baseball catcher. He played for the Homestead Grays from 1930 to 1931, moved to the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1932 to 1936, and returned to the Grays from 1937 to 1939 and 1942 to 1946. In 1937, he played for Ciudad Trujillo in Trujillo’s Dominican League and from 1940 to 1941, he played in the Mexican League for Rojos del Águila de Veracruz. Gibson never played in the major leagues because of an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” that prevented non-white players from participating.

Did you know? Detroit once had two baseball teams. The Tigers have called the Motor City their home since 1901. However, the Detroit Stars were a member of the Negro Leagues from 1919-31. They originally played at Mack Park and then relocated to Hamtramck’s Roesink Stadium. Each year, the Detroit Tigers wear Stars throwback uniforms on Negro League Day.

The Brooklyn, now Los Angeles Dodgers, were the first team to break the color barrier. Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League baseball on April 15, 1947. The Dodgers went on to win six pennants in those 10 years with the help of Robinson. The opening scene of the opera highlights Robinson and then Josh Gibson is introduced.

My favorite scene was right after the intermission when Josh Gibson was awarded the MVP award by Señor Alcalde. Shortly after, a mariachi band performed during the celebration. The setting was Escambron Stadium in Vera Cruz, Mexico in October 1941.

Several members of the Gibson family were in attendance at the Detroit premiere. They stood up and were recognized with lots of applause.

The opera lasts approximately two hours, 12 minutes, with one intermission. Daniel Sonenberg wrote the the music and libretto with help from Daniel Nester and Mark Campbell. Steven Mercurio did an amazing job conducting the orchestra. The music flowed perfectly with the live action on the stage. Also a thumbs up to repetiteur Jean Schneider. Bravo!

The Summer King made its world premiere on April 29, 2017 at the Pittsburgh Opera. Now, it’s playing at the Detroit Opera House from May 12 – 20, 2018.


Pictured from left to right are Rochelle Riley, George Shirley, Daniel Sonenberg and Willie Horton (Jason Rzucidlo/AmericaJR)


Pre-Opera Talk with Tigers legend Willie Horton, tenor George Shirley and composer Daniel Sonenberg

A special question-and-answer session preceded Saturday evening’s Detroit premiere of The Summer King. It featured Willie Horton from the 1968 World Series-winning Detroit Tigers team, George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, and The Summer King composer Daniel Sonenberg. The pre-opera talk was moderated by Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press.

Willie Horton was a left fielder for the Detroit Tigers from 1963-77. He had a career-high 36 HRs in 1968, a pitcher’s year in which Detroit won the World Series; he finished second in the AL to Frank Howard in homers, slugging and total bases.

Willie Horton

“I think baseball brings people together,” Horton said. “Baseball helped me in my life and my wife and children. It helped me have a backbone. All I want to do is play baseball. What we need is a world prayer. That’s all we need. Jazz was part of the game. They set the tone of how to dress in baseball. It’s a sad story if you look back. I couldn’t eat with the white players. Ernie Harrell introduced me to Bob Hope. I still work on military bases.”

George Shirley is an American operatic tenor, and was the first African-American tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He currently serves as the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Professor of Music at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

George Shirley

“I am blessed and grateful that I was chosen to do it,” Shirley told the crowd. “The door always has to be open from the inside. Opening the door so I could step through it. If you have it in you to deal with opposition and grow through the struggle…that’s what Willie Horton did. In 1959, things were beginning to change. I had a great music education in Detroit. When I was at the MOT Opera, there was five singers from Detroit. Over the last 20 years, the arts has been taken away from youngsters. It’s about growing the brain. People in charge don’t understand. I still play softball in Ann Arbor. I’m the oldest guy at 84 on the team. Guess what, I got a single! I love sports. Sports is performance. It’s about cooperating together. This opera is absolutely perfect.”

Daniel Sonenberg is a composer, performer and educator living in Portland, Maine. He is best known as the composer of The Summer King. He is Professor of Music at the University of Southern Maine, where he has taught since 2004.

“It’s clearly a baseball opera,” Sonenberg explained. “This was a piece about American history and a hero. Yes I’m a lifeline baseball fan. In a way baseball works pretty well in an opera. It’s about waiting and those moments of tension. It was Josh that somehow spoke to me.”

For tickets and more information, visit http://www.michiganopera.org/opera/the-summer-king/ or call  (313) 237-SING [7464]







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