The life and times of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a figure as tragic in his own way as Rigoletto or Floria Tosca, would provide enough fodder for an engrossing opera.
But Minnesota Opera's world premiere production of The Fix is about more, much more than Jackson's banishment from baseball in the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal.
"It's not a bio-opera of Jackson," conductor Timothy Myers said. "We see everything through the lens of the scandal, delving into so much more by seeing it from everyone's perspective, through the eyes of his wife, reporters, [team owner Charles] Comiskey. It encapsulates the sport of baseball, history, classicism, the popular culture of the time and socio-economic factors."
For composer Joel Puckett, it is "this incredible American story of deception, heartbreak and disillusionment."
The Fix begins a five-performance run at the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul on March 16.
Joshua Dennis will sing the lead role as Jackson. The major players also include Kelly Markgraf(reporter Ring Lardner), Andrew Wilkowske (gambler Bill "Sleepy" Burns), Wei Wu (first baseman and lead "fixer" Chick Gandil, a St. Paul native), Dennis Petersen (sportswriter Hugh Fullerton) and Jasmine Habersham (Katie Jackson, Shoeless Joe's wife).
Commissioned as part of the opera's New Works Initiative, The Fix is a creative collaboration between Puckett and librettist Eric Simonson, who also will serve as stage director. Not only is the work a world premiere, but this also is conductor Myers' first stint with Minnesota Opera and Simonson's first time creating a libretto.
"I enjoyed writing the story and didn't have any problems in getting it on the page," Simonson said. "The challenge was getting it to where the composer can write the music. A good libretto gets out of the way, so I wrote and then kept on editing and editing."
For Myers, the combination of a new piece and debuting with this troupe has been "the best of all challenges."
"I was fortunate to come to a company that has a really developed and robust commissioning program and the means by which to produce excellent pieces," he said.
Both men said they relished the opportunity to hook up with a saga from a century ago. Myers especially loved the way Puckett incorporated popular and classical music from that era.
"Joel is a very mature composer," Myers said. "Listeners can expect to hear remnants of the popular music of the time and the operatic music of the time, but always in Joel's voice. You'll very quickly get a picture of who this composer is. It's a unique amalgamation, with a tremendous understanding of style and orchestration."
Simonson said, "The period details required a little work, but that's the stuff I enjoyed the most. And I really had fun working with the [set] designers."
Such coordination is nothing new for the veteran stage director. Among the many works he has directed for Minnesota Opera are world premieres of Silent Night, The Grapes of Wrath, Bok Choy Variations and The Shining.
He also has extensive experience helming sports-themed theater, directing Lombardi, a Broadway play about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, and bringing baseball novel "Bang the Drum Slowly" to stages in Chicago and Boston.
Sports and classical music have intersected with some frequency composers from Richard Strauss to John Williams have written themes for the Olympic Games, and figure skaters have won Olympic gold medals with Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman and Ravel's Bolero as soundtracks but sports-themed operas are rare and generally fleeting.
Perhaps that's because so few real-life athletic narratives have been as compelling and complex as the Black Sox scandal. Among the themes: exploited players vs. rich owners, illusion vs. reality and the many shades of honor (and dishonor).
Some details have been lost in the sands of time over the past century. What we know is that Jackson and seven teammates on the 1919 Chicago White Sox "the best ballclub I ever saw," in the words of manager Kid Gleason, but also the game's lowest-paid team were approached by gamblers to "throw" the World Series. They went along, to varying degrees.
Reporters and baseball pooh-bahs, including Comiskey (whose penny-pinching was a major impetus for the entire turn of events), sussed out the scandal. He and the other owners created the new position of commissioner and hired a hard-line, adamantine judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who suspended the guilty players for life.
But how guilty were they? Jackson batted .375 in the eight-game series, the highest of any player. Buck Weaver knew of the scheme but didn't participate in it. Both were banned.
"The thing is, nobody figured out exactly what happened," Simonson said. "It's so confusing who got the money, who didn't get the money, who got rich. It's very confusing. Ultimately, Joe Jackson agreed and then didn't go through with it on the field. Imagine him going on the field and wondering, 'How the hell do you hit badly?' He was ignorant, not the sharpest tool in the shed. And he lost everything."
Because of the murkiness around the case, Simonson added, "I'm telling the story in a classical or mythical way, so details don't matter as much as trying to tell the story in broad strokes that were true."
The result is that The Fix "provides a canvas for viewers to connect to various parts of the story," Myers said. "It's really affecting because it puts everything on a human level."
Like Simonson, Myers is a fan of the game, and he sees more than a little similarity between baseball and an opera production.
"[Opera] is a team sport just like baseball," Myers said. "In baseball, you're bringing together this skill set of a larger group of people who all bring something different to the table. That's exactly what opera is. From the people on and off stage, the orchestra, the creative team, innumerable people who are helping the thing run smoothly.
"I believe as performers what we do is create miracles, that moment that will never happen again. And that's exactly what happens in a baseball game."
Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased by calling 612-333-6669 or online.
Listen to 'The Fix'
Artists from the Minnesota Opera's production of The Fix visited Classical MPR's studios to discuss the opera and perform. Joshua Dennis (tenor) and Jasmine Habersham (soprano) performed a duet from Act I, Scene I and Kelly Markgraf (bass-baritone) performed an aria from Act I. Allen Perriello joined the singers on piano.
Composer Joel Puckett and librettist Eric Simonson also joined the performers in studio to discuss the creation of The Fix.
Click the player above to hear the artists' discussions and performances.