For someone like myself – whose knowledge of baseball doesn’t extend much beyond Snoopy cartoons and hearing a reference to ‘Joe DiMaggio’ in a Simon and Garfunkel song – to be going along to an opera with a libretto based on the subject was a bit daunting.
But I needn’t have worried, as the whole point of this new opera – Shadowball – is to educate us Brits, from children to grown ups, not just about the game, but also about a vital point in the American games’s history. Shadowball focuses on the era of American segregation and the black baseball leagues that existed, prior to Jackie Robinson, the first black player who broke through to the white-only major leagues in 1947. It also highlights the close and little-known connection between the heyday of jazz and the game: many of the legendary bandleaders such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong had their own baseball teams, who toured with their bands across the US.
So what has all this got to do with Britain? The idea for Shadowball comes from Adam Eisenberg, the director of the RPS award-winning Hackney Music Development Trust, who is originally from New York. Taking the countdown to the 2012 Olympics as a prompt, he searched for a project to engage children in Hackney about sport and music, and with the help of Radio 3 presenter Julian Joseph (who provides a stunning jazz score) and librettist Mike Philips (the historian, and brother of journalist Trevor) they came up with a jazz opera about the black baseball league teams and their famous jazz star owners. And the baseball education doesn’t stop on the stage. Right across the Borough, schools are taking up the sport as a game to play.
Jazz singer Cleveland Watkiss is the only adult in the cast – playing Satchel Paige, the star of the black leagues – but everyone else is played by Hackney’s talented youth, drawn from Jubilee Primary School and Kingsmead Community School, who started working alongside their musical mentors last November.
As we take our seats in London’s Thameside Mermaid Theatre, the stage set is laid out around a baseball pitch, with its crowd of youngster spectators, in 1940s’s garb, shouting from stands at the back. A bit like a Greek chorus they comment on the action of the game, with various characters coming forward to perform. We follow the career of Charlie, played by Jordan Lema, who keeps escaping from his brilliantly disapproving mum’s (Abigail Graham) cleaning duties to see baseball matches, before becoming a star himself. We learn about tricks of pitching and discover that the name ‘Shadowball’ comes from the pre-game warm-up, where players prepared with an imaginery ball. The songs chart the highs of the sport ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame’, to the breakdown of segregation ‘A Change Is In The Air’.
The youngsters also play the celebrity jazz owners, who on arrival have their themes subtly picked out by Joseph’s rousing jazz quintet. And attired in top and tails, the all-singing-dancing Cab Calloway (Samson Adeola) almost has enough dance moves to steal the show!
You can’t go anywhere in London, within view of BT Tower, without seeing the giant countdown reminder of the number of days left until the 2012 Olympics – and this opera certainly captures this mood of anticipation. (We won’t enquire too closely if baseball is considered an Olympic sport.) And it’s not the first time there’s been an interest in baseball on these shores. Apparently, hints Eisenberg, baseball may have been played in England before it was taken up in the US, with even our esteemed social commentator Jane Austen referring to ‘baseball’ in the pages of her novel Northanger Abbey.
Neil McKim is Production Editor at BBC Music Magazine