"As far as we know," says Rusty Magee, the young composer of 1919: A Baseball Opera, "there has never before been an opera or a ballet or anything theatrical based on the Black Sox scandal, which seems astonishing." That affair, in which gamblers bribed members of the Chicago White Sox to throw the 1919 World Series, is a grimly beguiling episode in American lore. Now Magee and his collaborator, Rob Barron, have put this enduring tragedy to music; it had its world premiere on June 24 in New Haven, Conn., at the Summer Cabaret theater, a half block from the renowned Yale Repertory Theater. If Broadway is the big leagues, then the Yale Rep is Triple A ball and Summer Cabaret fast Double A. Its summer program this year, running from June into August, included works by Stoppard, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Pirandello and Brecht, and the baseball opera slides smoothly into this lineup of heavy hitters. Beautifully directed by Barron on a tiny stage with an imaginative set by a designer named Stephen Strawbridge, the opera moves briskly, without intermission, through one long act. There is no dancing as such, but the lively movement of the characters on stage seems almost choreographed. Magee, at a piano, functions as Narrator, a one-man Greek chorus.
There are no heroes or heroines, although Keith Grant as the pathetic Joe Jackson, a star player and primary figure in the scandal, comes closest in a poignant solo passage. On the other hand, there is a plethora of villains, or victims: the cheating ballplayers, the disillusioned owner, some unpleasant journalists, an evil gambler (played with malevolent charm by David Thornton). While it seems unlikely that such a relentless downer could work, it does. The Summer Cabaret audience repeatedly broke into applause, and at the end there was an ovation of such length that the company decided to present 1919 again later in its season. In time, Magee and Barron hope to move the opera onto a full-size stage and expand its scope. It will be worth watching for.