It takes talent to compose an opera. Wearing the right hat is also important.
In the autumn of 2016, faced with the prospect of writing a two-hour opera on the unlikely subject of baseball, composer Joel Puckett got on the Ebbets Field website and ordered a vintage semi-authentic 1919 Chicago White Sox ball cap — “crafted from genuine wool.” When the cap arrived at his home in Baltimore, Puckett put it on, sat down at the piano and began to improvise — singing and playing — the first scene of an opera that takes place in Greenville, S.C., at the modest home of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the most famous, gifted and perhaps saddest players in baseball history.
The result of Puckett’s efforts, encompassing more than two years of work, will be unveiled Saturday night at the Ordway Music Theater in the form of a new opera titled “The Fix.” Commissioned and produced by Minnesota Opera as part of its enterprising New Works Initiative, the opera recounts the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919, wherein Jackson and seven teammates of the Chicago White Sox were accused of conspiring with gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Charged with nine counts of conspiracy to defraud, they were acquitted in a jury trial in 1921, but newly appointed baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis barred them for life from professional baseball.
Opera focuses on Jackson
“Eight Men Out,” a book by Eliot Asinof published in 1963 and later adapted for the screen by John Sayles, tells the story. Asinof’s scholarship has been questioned, however, along with his mixing of fictional and historical characters. He keeps Jackson in the background while focusing on two pitchers, Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams. The opera moves Jackson to center stage, along with his wife, Katie, which gives the two of them the excuse to sing a lush, romantic duet in each of the work’s two acts. In the view of Eric Simonson, who wrote the opera’s libretto and is staging the work, Joe, though he was illiterate, is a character of substance whose fate rises to the level of tragedy.
“When Joe gets kicked out of baseball, he suffers a psychological death,” Simonson said recently during a lunch break at Minnesota Opera’s offices. “Baseball was the only thing he knew how to do — and do well – and it was the only thing he loved to do. He really had his soul ripped out of him.”
“Joe’s vulnerable because he doesn’t have the experience that the city guys have,” Simonson said. “He doesn’t have that layer of armor around him that can tell the difference between a shyster and an honest person. He grew up giving everybody the benefit of the doubt. We say it in the opera: He trusted people too much. It was what his wife loved about him, but also caused him a lot of suffering.”
“The Fix,” it so happens, isn’t the first opera about baseball. That honor probably goes to the American composer William Schuman, whose one-act opera “The Mighty Casey,” based on the comic poem “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer, was premiered in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1953. And just two years ago the Pittsburgh Opera gave the first performances of “The Summer King” with a score by Daniel Sonenberg that tells the story of baseball legend Josh Gibson, “the Black Babe Ruth,” as he was known, who was only the second African-American player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As far as musicals go, there have been just a few. The best known, “Damn Yankees,” racked up more than 1,000 performances on Broadway starting in 1955 and was later turned into a film. It remains popular and is frequently revived.
Without doubt, “The Fix” is the first opera to deal with the scandal of 1919 and to focus especially on Joe Jackson, whose nickname “Shoeless” derived from early in his career when, plagued during a game by tight-fighting new shoes, he took them off and ran to third base in his socks. A fan, so the story goes, hollered from the stands, “You shoeless son of a gun,” and the nickname stuck.
Often ranked with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth
Jackson, who died in 1951, continues to have the third-highest career batting average in major-league history. Many fans rank him with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth as the three best players of all time — or at least in the first half of the 20th century. And yet, because of the scandal, he was never placed in the Baseball Hall of Fame and, in Simonson’s view, probably never will be.
The three people most responsible for “The Fix” — Puckett, Simonson and the company’s creative adviser, Dale Johnson – share an enthusiasm for baseball. Puckett and Johnson grew up going to baseball games, one in Cleveland, the other in Atlanta. Simonson has written two plays about baseball: a dramatization of Mark Harris’ revered novel “Bang the Drum Slowly” and “Bronx Bombers,” a play about the New York Yankees that played on Broadway in 2014.
That very year, Johnson, who was then the company’s artistic director and spark plug for its many new works, phoned the publishing agent Bill Holab, asking if there were any composers he could recommend to write an opera. Holab suggested a client of his, Puckett, a young composer who taught at the Peabody Conservatory and whose concert works had been earning acclaim. He had been named one of NPR listeners’ favorite composers under 40 but had never written an opera. “I think he’s ready,” Holab said.
Soon thereafter, on a visit to New York City, Johnson invited Puckett for lunch, during which they threw around ideas. Johnson had been thinking in terms of genres. He had explored the horror genre with “The Shining” in 2016, and he had touched on the Great American Novel with “Grapes of Wrath” in 2007. He had been thinking about two more examples, he said: a cowboys and Indians opera and, just maybe, one about baseball.
“I love baseball,” said Puckett, who then mentioned the scandal of 1919, which Johnson knew a lot about. In Puckett’s view, the story wasn’t so much about baseball as about a privileged few — the owners and the lawyers — taking advantage of an uneducated and underprivileged group, the players — a timely topic these days. The chief conflict wasn’t about money, as this history is usually presented — $5,000 a year was hardly a starving wage in 1919.
“It was about agency,” said Puckett. “The players either signed the contract they were offered or they couldn’t play with any team. Free agency didn’t come until 1974.”
Intrigued, Johnson thought right away of Simonson to write the libretto. It was the kind of idea Eric would love, Johnson thought. Even though he had never written a libretto before, Simonson was an accomplished playwright, screenwriter and documentarian — he had won an Academy Award for his documentary on Norman Corwin. And he had directed more than a dozen productions for Minnesota Opera; best of all, he loved baseball.
Some time later, while Puckett was giving lectures at the University of Minnesota School of Music, Simonson was at Minnesota Opera directing Dominick Argento’s “The Dream of Valentino,” so Johnson arranged for the two of them to get acquainted over dinner. They established an easy rapport and within a couple of months, they signed contracts to create an opera.
Libretto gives prominence to Ring Lardner
While juggling other projects, Simonson worked on the libretto for two years. In a departure from the movie and the Asinof book, he gives prominence to Ring Lardner, known today primarily for his short stories, but who was then a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune with a special affection for the White Sox. In the opera he’s an idealist, not at all the ominous figure seen in the movie. Near the end of the first act, propelled by Puckett’s soaring lyricism, he sings a rhapsodic aria in tribute to Jackson, saying he is “what we all dream to be: perfection, a God living on earth.”
“When the trial happens, and it all comes out, Ring discovers the awful truth that the players are as human as we are,” said Simonson. “The next time we see Ring, he’s a broken man. He never went to a baseball game again. He started reporting on boxing where, he says, ‘They’re honest about being crooked.’”
Simonson handed Puckett a finished libretto in the autumn of 2016. By then it was clear that the company didn’t need to hunt for a director. They had one already: Simonson. For one thing, this eliminated the middle man. “Yeah, said Simonson, laughing, “There’s no one to blame if things go wrong. Actually, I’ve done this many times, directing my own writing.”
Momentarily laying aside his White Sox cap, Puckett finished the first draft of the score, all 10 innings, in March of last year. In style, the music could be called polyglot, a mix of languages, from period jazz to a pungent Romanticism spiked with dissonance to a spare lonely-sounding directness in the Copland manner.
Workshops lead to changes
By then Puckett and his colleagues had already put the opera on its feet, so to speak, in a series of workshops that has become standard practice by this company and most others around the country in the creation and nurturing of new works. Most of the changes made during the workshop process were small ones, Puckett said. A bigger one concerned an aria in the second act sung by Judge Landis, a hymn to baseball: “… a mirror of all that is good in this nation …”
“I was convinced that the aria was great,” Puckett said. “Then I saw it three times and realized I was wrong. I wrote four versions of it before I was satisfied.”
Johnson, too, benefited from the workshops. He had been wondering for some time, he said, how well this will work, baseball players singing opera. “And I found out it works perfectly well,” he said. “The guys in our cast, some of them are athletic and play baseball, some aren’t. So we’ve had a choreographer help them get the movement right, that special way that baseball players move.”
When the opera concludes its five-performance run here, its creators will continue with other projects. Simonson is writing a pilot for a series on the new Apple TV network, a show about basketball tentatively titled “Swagger.” Puckett’s looking forward to the premiere of his concerto for string quartet titled “Short Stories” that will be given next month in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Composing his first opera turned out to be even more work than he had imagined, Puckett said. “It’s horrible for your family, horrible for your health, but still, writing an opera is the most rewarding thing a composer can do.”
Naturally, all parties concerned hope that “The Fix” will have legs, as they say on Broadway — that it will be taken up by other companies. There remains another factor that is perhaps too dangerous to mention, too enticing, too magical.
Consider: Puckett’s longtime friend and colleague at the Peabody Conservatory is Kevin Puts, whose opera “Silent Night,” a Minnesota Opera commission, received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012. It was a first opera for Puts, as “The Fix” is for Puckett. It, too, was directed by Eric Simonson.
Is it possible that lightning could strike the same spot twice? Could Minnesota Opera hit two home runs in less than a decade?
“It’s hard to say,” said Johnson, his voice sounding tense. “It’s certainly possible. I don’t like to think about it.”