For many African Americans, the closest we get to the opera is singing off key in the shower. Sports however is another story. Especially when it comes to the Big 3: Football, basketball and baseball. In order to bridge the gap between the opera, African Americans and sports, the Detroit Tigers have partnered with the Michigan Opera Theater to bring “Take Me Out to the Opera” to the urban masses . . . and others too of course.
“Take Me Out to the Opera” will include a year-long series of community activities, including classroom activities in Detroit schools, films and programs at the Charles H. Wright Museum, and culminate with the MOT’s production of Daniel Sonenberg’s The Summer King which will premier next May. The Summer King is the story of Josh Gibson, a Negro League baseball player who played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays.
Once the MOT decided to showcase The Summer King, the idea to partner with the Detroit Tigers was a natural fit: Baseball, opera and maybe a hot dog or two. In addition, the MOT wants to diversify its audience and show that opera is for everyone, not just the Ronald Reagan “five percent.”
Who is Josh Gibson and why Josh Gibson? Why not Jackie Robinson? Well, according to Ron Teasley, former Negro Leagues baseball player with the New York Cubans and the Olean Oilers, Josh Gibson was a household name many years before Jackie Robinson. Teasley said that from the age of 12 when he would travel with other Negro League baseball players, inevitably someone would ask, “Who hit the ball the furthest in this park.”’ And the answer was always the same: Josh Gibson.
‘This is a story that I carried with me my whole life,” said Sonenberg, the composer of the opera. “I was a baseball fan and I was very into baseball history. The story of Negro League Baseball just spoke to me.” Sonenberg said Josh Gibson’s story is one of tragedy (like most operas) but also much more. “We understand the enthusiasm of baseball that made integration necessary and we love Jackie Robinson. But there would be no Jackie Robison if there was no Josh Gibson.”
Josh Gibson’s legacy is a stronghold among baseball lovers and historians, even though he never integrated the game and played in front of larger crowds. “For those of us in baseball and everybody that I talk to will say that Josh Gibson was the best,” said Rod Allen, former Major League Baseball player and analyst for the Detroit Tigers on Fox. “He died of illness but I also think that he died of a broken heart. It’s invaluable to get the recognition that he is due. “
The MOT and the Detroit Tigers both want to put more butts in seats and generate more interest in baseball and the opera, particularly among communities that are not as likely to attend a live game or the opera. The story of Josh Gibson is a way to combine those interests and it also comes to the stage at an interesting time when fewer African Americans are playing baseball, and are more enthralled with football and basketball.
“I think learning about Josh Gibson will encourage more kids to get back into baseball,” said Allen.
As baseball fans scream with excitement as their favorite players hit grand slams and run around the bases, opera fans will smile with delight at the harmonious notes and rich music. And who knows, if the MOT and the Detroit Tigers have their way, those fans might be one and the same.