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Opera tells story of Negro Leagues baseball star Josh Gibson

Associated Press logo Associated Press 3/21/2017 By BETH J. HARPAZ, AP Travel Editor
In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, Sean Gibson, the Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, right, holds a replica Pittsburgh Crawfords jersey with Pittsburgh Opera General Director Christopher Hahn as they pose next to a poster at the Pittsburgh Opera House in Pittsburgh. Josh Gibson, Sean's great grandfather, played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh, one of them the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters. Gibson is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) © The Associated Press In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, Sean Gibson, the Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, right, holds a replica Pittsburgh Crawfords jersey with Pittsburgh Opera General Director Christopher Hahn as they pose next to a poster at the Pittsburgh Opera House in Pittsburgh. Josh Gibson, Sean's great grandfather, played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh, one of them the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters. Gibson is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

An opera about Negro Leagues baseball star Josh Gibson, whose power hitting rivaled Babe Ruth's, will have its world premiere in Pittsburgh in April.

In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, the grave stone for baseball player Josh Gibson is shown at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) © The Associated Press In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, the grave stone for baseball player Josh Gibson is shown at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

"The Summer King," presented by Pittsburgh Opera , premieres April 29. Gibson's story also figured in "Fences," the movie starring Denzel Washington that was originally a play by Pittsburgh native August Wilson.

This 1942 photo provided by the Carnegie Museum of Art shows Homestead Grays baseball catcher Josh Gibson crouched on Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Gibson is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (Charles "Teenie" Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art via AP) © The Associated Press This 1942 photo provided by the Carnegie Museum of Art shows Homestead Grays baseball catcher Josh Gibson crouched on Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Gibson is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (Charles "Teenie" Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art via AP)

Baseball and opera "don't usually inhabit the same universe," said Christopher Hahn, Pittsburgh Opera's general director. But opera is the perfect medium for telling Gibson's story because opera allows people "to sing about emotions and aspirations and fears."

In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, a poster for the upcoming opera about baseball player Josh Gibson is on the wall at the Pittsburgh Opera House in Pittsburgh. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) © The Associated Press In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, a poster for the upcoming opera about baseball player Josh Gibson is on the wall at the Pittsburgh Opera House in Pittsburgh. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Gibson was one of the first three Negro Leagues players to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which lists his career batting average as .350. He was twice named Negro National League batting champ and led the league in home runs three times. He played for two Pittsburgh teams, the Homestead Grays and the Crawfords.

FILE - This Feb. 17, 2017, file photo, shows a historical marker paying tribute to Josh Gibson in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Gibson was a power hitter and the second player from the Negro Leagues to be put in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz, File) © The Associated Press FILE - This Feb. 17, 2017, file photo, shows a historical marker paying tribute to Josh Gibson in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Gibson was a power hitter and the second player from the Negro Leagues to be put in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz, File)

Gibson died at 35, probably from a brain aneurysm, a few months before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947.

FILE - This June 29, 2006, file photo, shows a bronze statue of Pittsburgh native Josh Gibson in Legacy Square when it was unveiled at PNC Park, the home of Major League Baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh. The statue has since been removed from the park. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File) © The Associated Press FILE - This June 29, 2006, file photo, shows a bronze statue of Pittsburgh native Josh Gibson in Legacy Square when it was unveiled at PNC Park, the home of Major League Baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh. The statue has since been removed from the park. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Gibson's story is "the story that came before Jackie Robinson," says Daniel Sonenberg, composer of "The Summer King." ''Josh's career made the advent of Jackie Robinson possible. It was Josh who played at this high level that caught the attention of white owners. It was Josh who demonstrated it was competitive suicide not to integrate."

In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, a sign at Allegheny Cemetery points up the hill to the grave site for baseball player Josh Gibson in Pittsburgh. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) © The Associated Press In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, a sign at Allegheny Cemetery points up the hill to the grave site for baseball player Josh Gibson in Pittsburgh. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

But baseball's integration led to the Negro Leagues' shutdown, ending careers for dozens of black athletes who were not among the few chosen for white teams. Both "Fences" and "The Summer King" honor "a whole generation of wonderful players whose livelihoods and social structures got up-ended," Hahn said.

In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, a baseball card is stuck behind the stone marking the the grave site for baseball player Josh Gibson is shown at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) © The Associated Press In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, a baseball card is stuck behind the stone marking the the grave site for baseball player Josh Gibson is shown at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Several threads in "Fences" echo Gibson's story. Troy Maxson, the fictional character played by Washington, is a former Negro Leagues star. He tells Gibson's story, expressing bitterness that he and other ex-players ended up "without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out." Maxson's mistress — like Gibson's wife — dies in childbirth.

In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, Sean Gibson, the Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, holds a replica Pittsburgh Crawfords jersey as he poses next to a poster at the Pittsburgh Opera House in Pittsburgh for the upcoming opera about his great grandfather, baseball player Josh Gibson. Gibson played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh, one of them the Crawford's. Gibson is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters and is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 at the Pittsburgh Opera. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) © The Associated Press In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, Sean Gibson, the Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, holds a replica Pittsburgh Crawfords jersey as he poses next to a poster at the Pittsburgh Opera House in Pittsburgh for the upcoming opera about his great grandfather, baseball player Josh Gibson. Gibson played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh, one of them the Crawford's. Gibson is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters and is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017 at the Pittsburgh Opera. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Pittsburgh Opera partnered on "The Summer King" with the Josh Gibson Foundation, run by Gibson's great-grandson Sean. He says that while "Fences" brought some attention to his great-grandfather, the opera will tell a fuller story.

In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, Sean Gibson, the Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, poses next to a poster at the Pittsburgh Opera House in Pittsburgh for the upcoming opera about his great grandfather, baseball player Josh Gibson. Josh Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) © The Associated Press In this photo made on Friday, March 17, 2017, Sean Gibson, the Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, poses next to a poster at the Pittsburgh Opera House in Pittsburgh for the upcoming opera about his great grandfather, baseball player Josh Gibson. Josh Gibson, who played for two Negro League baseball teams in Pittsburgh and is considered one of the sport's greatest home run hitters, is featured in an opera about his life called "The Summer King." It has its world premiere April 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

"Most people know the story of Josh Gibson as a baseball player, a home run hitter compared to Babe Ruth with outstanding statistics, in the Hall of Fame," Sean Gibson said. "But behind the uniform was a great man who lived through tragedy outside of dealing with racism and playing baseball: His wife died giving birth to their twins."

The opera also portrays Gibson's career playing abroad in Cuba, Mexico and elsewhere. "Over there they didn't have to deal with racism," said Sean Gibson. "You're going over to Latin countries, your skin color is the same color as theirs."

Nearly all 14 principal roles in "The Summer King" are played by African-Americans, a rarity in operas ("Porgy and Bess" notwithstanding). Renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves plays Gibson's lover. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker, who plays Gibson, told the New Pittsburgh Courier that playing "someone that looks like me" is "an amazing opportunity."

A ballfield named for Gibson is located at 2217 Bedford Ave. in Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood, not far from the August Wilson House, the late playwright's childhood home. The August Wilson House hosts a block party April 29, starting at noon, just a few hours before the opera premiere, to mark Wilson's birthday.

The Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit plans to stage "The Summer King" in March 2018.

A concert performance of an earlier version of "The Summer King" was staged in 2014 in Portland, Maine, but Pittsburgh's production is the first staging of the completed opera. Sonenberg is a music professor at the University of Southern Maine.

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If You Go...

THE SUMMER KING: Performances April 29, May 2, 5 and 7, http://www.pittsburghopera.org/show/the-summer-king . Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, 237 Seventh St., Pittsburgh.

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