Joel Puckett was in the stands at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on July 4, 1985, for the famous rain-delayed 19-inning game that ended with the New York Mets beating the Braves at 3:53 a.m. followed by postgame fireworks.
“I had a long history of pulling for terrible teams,” he said.
Puckett’s contribution to baseball won’t stretch for nearly as long. He composed “The Fix” to mark the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Black Sox agreeing to throw the 1919 World Series, a work that premieres Saturday at the Minnesota Opera in St. Paul. The two acts run 2 hours, 15 minutes, including an intermission.
With a libretto by Eric Simonson, the opera has a cast that includes tenor Joshua Dennis as Shoeless Joe Jackson, the famous Chicago outfielder, and baritone Kelly Markgraf as Ring Lardner, the renowned writer.
“He’s just he’s just a wholly different character than I’ve ever done,” Dennis said. “Especially as an opera singer who sings a lot of very proper languages, diving into his linguistics and that kind of — I don’t want to say backwards — but that kind of uneducated Appalachian linguistics, it’s been a really interesting study for me.”
The Minnesota Opera has been a leading force for new music, presenting premieres that include “The Grapes of Wrath” (2007) by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie; “Silent Night” (2011) and “The Manchurian Candidate” (2015) by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell; “Doubt” (2013) by Douglas J. Cuomo and John Patrick Shanley; “The Shining” (2016) by Paul Moravec and Campbell (2016); and “Dinner at Eight” by William Bolcom and Campbell (2017).
Dale Johnson, the Minnesota Opera’s artistic director, decided Puckett would pair well with Simonson, who grew up a Milwaukee Brewers fan. They even share the same birthday, June 27, when Puckett turns 42 and Simsonson 59.
Simonson wrote “Lombardi,” which had an eight-month Broadway run in 2010-11, and also “Magic/Bird” in 2012 and “Bronx Bombers” in 2014, which both lasted less than two months.
He was familiar with “Eight Men Out,” both Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book and John Sayles’ 1988 film. Jackson and the other seven White Sox players who accepted money from gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series against Cincinnati were acquitted at a criminal trial in August 1921 but were banned from the sport for life the following day by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first baseball commissioner.
Even though Jackson accepted a $5,000 bribe, he hit .375 in the Series with six RBIs in six games. Jackson had a $6,000 salary from White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, a pay structure that prompts teammate and fellow conspirator Chick Gandil to sing: “Here’s your headline: ‘Skinflint Comiskey gets pennant at rock bottom prices.’”
“I felt like he made a mistake that he regretted,” Simonson said. “And once he made that mistake there was no one there who was going to forgive him or let him correct his mistake, and that’s heartbreaking.”
Operas about sports are rare but not unprecedented. Daniel Sonenberg’s “The Summer King” about Negro Leagues star Josh Gibson, premiered at the Pittsburgh Opera in April 2017 after more than a decade of development.
Puckett spent three years working on his first opera, and he has a distinctly American sound with echoes of Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. He enjoyed composing “sort of nefarious, dark” music for the gambler characters Arnold Rothstein, Bill “Sleepy” Burns and Abe Attell.
“That kind of New York 1920,” he said.
Simonson views this as a great tragedy and wants the audience to come away with the same feeling they might when leaving Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” ”King Lear” or “Macbeth.”
“Our heroes are celebrities that come from anywhere,” he said. “They’re not kings. They might be somebody like Shoeless Joe Jackson. And what I want them to feel is that we’re susceptible to the same human frailties that Joe Jackson is. It’s in a sense a cautionary tale: make the right decision. If somebody comes up to you and wants to ask you to conspire against the public to lose the World Series, don’t do it.”