By Daniel Nass, Special to the Sybaritic Singer
Spring is on the way, and piles upon piles of snow are beginning to melt all across the Twin Cities. Finally. And that means a new season of Major League Baseball is just around the corner. Perfect timing then, for Minnesota Opera to stage a baseball-themed production. On Saturday, March 16th–12 days before opening day of the 2019 baseball season–The Fix had its world premiere at the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul.
The show is the result of a collaborative partnership between composer Joel Puckett and librettist Eric Simonson. It was produced as part of Minnesota Opera’s renowned New Works Initiative, which has supported recent commissions and premieres including Paul Moravec’s The Shining and Kevin Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night.
This production marks a number of firsts for the creative team. Conductor Timothy Myers makes his Minnesota Opera debut leading the orchestra. Simonson–who also serves as stage director for the show–had not written a libretto before this one. And while the acclaimed Puckett is known as one of the country’s most performed composers, this is his first foray into the genre of opera.
The Fix tells the story of one of the sporting world’s most notorious tales of corruption–the so-called “Black Sox” scandal. Nearly 100 years ago, eight members of the Chicago White Sox were charged with intentionally throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, in exchange for a large gambling payout.
“Shoeless Joe” Jackson, Chicago’s star outfielder at the time, was the most recognizable figure of the eight players charged. And a fan favorite. However, he led the team with a .375 batting average in the 1919 Series, suggesting he may not have played an active role in the conspiracy. Regardless, he and the seven other “Black Sox” players were eventually slapped with a lifetime ban by Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, in 1921.
Puckett and Simonson focus their story-telling on Jackson, with tenor Joshua Dennis shining in the lead role of the conflicted, yet sympathetic slugger. A particularly poignant moment occurs when after Shoeless Joe confesses in sworn grand jury testimony (though he later recanted this confession), a heartbroken young boy approaches Jackson outside a courtroom and shouts “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” – a partially embellished legend that inspired a famous Chicago Daily News headline at the time.
While the opera does concentrate on Jackson’s tragic-figure story, the ensemble cast delivers a number of standout performances–most notably bass Wei Wu (first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil), bass-baritone Kelly Markgraf (reporter Ring Lardner), and soprano Jasmine Habersham (Shoeless Joe’s wife, Katie).
There were certain points in the show when it felt like the energy of the opera became a bit stagnant, particularly in regard to some of the extended recitative sections. I felt that some of those areas could be tightened up, and I wanted the singers to have more of a chance to shine, more melodic material to chew on and hook into. However, one of Puckett’s true gifts is creating an appropriate atmosphere in the show. He was able to weave in idiomatic jazz styles of the time into the score, but still make it sound fresh with unique and colorful orchestration. When the White Sox prepare for game one of the Series in Act I, Puckett takes fragments of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and intertwines them with dark, complex harmonies.
This was a visually stunning show, right from the very opening of the opera. I heard audible gasps from audience members as the opening curtains were drawn back to reveal a mammoth grandstand filling the set, complete with mannequin ‘spectators’ seated, watching a game. The words “WHITE SOX” were spelled out in giant letters at the top of the grandstand, emblazoned in neon, and there were large early 1900’s painted advertisements for products like Hershey’s Syrup and Coca-Cola. Scenes took place behind the bleachers, with set pieces moving seamlessly between baseball locker room, Chicago bar, and courtroom.
The gorgeous set was matched by the work of costume designer Trevor Bowen, particularly with his era-authentic baseball uniforms.
As a passionate baseball fan, my main question coming to the show was, “how will they (if at all) handle actual baseball gameplay on a theatre stage?” This was beautifully addressed by choreographer Heidi Spesard-Noble, who created slow motion, dance-like movements to mimic pitching, hitting, and fielding.
The Fix closes its five-performance run at the Ordway on March 24th.
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