the summer king

Sponsored by PNC • April 29, May 2, 5 & 7, 2017

The very first world premiere in Pittsburgh Opera’s distinguished 78 year history hits close to home. The Summer King tells the story of baseball legend Josh Gibson. Josh went from the sandlots of Pittsburgh’s North Side to the pinnacle of greatness in the Negro Leagues, before ultimately being enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

The opera begins with a father and son debating about great baseball players. When the father mentions Josh Gibson, the son thinks his father is living in the past. But as his father retorts, “Who’s got those numbers today?”

The Summer King follows Josh at key points in his life, including his playing days in the Negro Leagues as well as in Mexico, where he was awarded the MVP award while playing for the Veracruz Azules. The robust supporting characters include his wife Helen, who dies in childbirth, his girlfriend Grace, sung by the legendary Denyce Graves in her Pittsburgh Opera debut, and teammates such as Sam Bankhead and Cool Papa Bell.

Also featured in prominent roles are the gregarious Gus Greenlee, who owned not just the Pittsburgh Crawfords but also the legendary Crawford Grill in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and Wendell Smith, an intrepid reporter for the celebrated African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier.

Like all African Americans at the time, Josh was prohibited from playing in the Major Leagues by what was disingenuously referred to as a “gentlemen’s agreement” among the Major League clubs. Sadly, Josh died at the age of 35, felled by a stroke shortly before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

Pittsburgh Opera is proud and privileged to premiere The Summer King, Josh Gibson’s story.

Music by Daniel Sonenberg
Libretto by Daniel Sonenberg and Daniel Nester, with additional lyrics by Mark Campbell

Sam Helfrich directs; Antony Walker conducts.

Individual tickets are now on sale. You can buy single tickets now or purchase them as part of a subscription.

The Elder Barber (Norman Shankle) chides the Younger Barber (Phillip Gay) for not knowing more about Josh Gibson. Photo Credit: David Bachman Photography.

Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker) is the Summer King. Photo Credit: David Bachman Photography.

Helen Gibson (Jacqueline Echols) tells her husband Josh (Alfred Walker) that she is pregnant. Neither of them knows she will die in childbirth. Photo Credit: David Bachman Photography.

Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith (Sean Panikkar) tells how he got passed over by a white baseball scout and decided to turn his energies to writing. Photo Credit: David Bachman Photography.

Calvin (Brian Vu) and Clark Griffith (Ray Very), the owner of the Washington Senators, tell Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker) that it was in his own best interests that they not sign him to their Major League team. Photo Credit: David Bachman Photography.

Cool Papa Bell (Phillip Gay), Sam Bankhead (Kenneth Kellogg) and Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker) celebrate their pending journey to play for the Veracruz Azules in Mexico. Photo Credit: David Bachman Photography.

Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker) celebrates being named 1941 league MVP in Veracruz, Mexico, where he was named The Summer King. Photo Credit: David Bachman Photography.

Sam Bankhead (Kenneth Kellogg) mourns the death of his best friend Josh Gibson (Alfred Walker), who died at the age of 35. Photo Credit: David Bachman Photography.

Cast and Artistic Team

Special Celebrity Appearances

Related videos

Previews and Reviews

The Josh Gibson Foundation


Additional Partners

Student Matinee

Details and Resources

Benedum Center Safety & Security statement and Bag Policy