How much do you know about “No man’s Land?” Or what Bohemians are? Or what a “demi-mondaine” is?
Crucial to the story-lines of Silent Night, La Boheme, and La Traviata, ignorance of these concepts will not spoil your enjoyment of these opera icons. In fact, learning about these terms during a performance or afterwards may increase your appreciation. The same can be said for Joel Puckett (music) and Eric Simonson’s (libretto) The Fix which receives its world-wide premiere by the Minnesota Opera company at the Ordway Theater on Saturday, March 16th (also March 19, 21, 23-24).
Unlike the latter two fictional works above, the crux of The Fix involves an actual historical event, the 1919 Black Sox scandal in American professional baseball. Most particularly, the story centers upon star player (Shoeless) Joe Jackson’s participation with seven other Chicago White Sox players to manipulate or “fix” the outcome of that year’s World Series.
Though faithful to the characters and events that led to the scandal and its aftermath, the opera’s depiction is not strictly historical, Joe’s alleged appearance at the meeting where the players hatched their plot being one example. Instead, Joe’s banishment from the game he loves and the one thing he knows how to do provides the basis for examining the role of heroes in American society and the price they play when the public’s idealization of them is shattered.
For sports writer Ring Lardner, one boy’s (apocryphal) reaction to Joe’s involvement in the gambling scheme, “Say it aint so, Joe,” speaks for him and all other lovers of America’s national pastime. Skinflint baseball owners such as the White Sox’s Charles Comiskey, his lawyer Alfred Austrian, and their vengeful avatar, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, aim to keep that animosity focused exclusively on Joe and the other participants through a life-time ban from the sport.
With all the scheming, accusation, betrayal and disillusionment onstage, the love scenes between Joe and his wife Katie provide the story’s emotional and ethical counterweight. Joshua Dennis (Joe) and Jasmine Habersham (Katie) do fine jobs in providing the opera’s musical and moral center amidst the the social, legal, and moral condemnation swirling around them. Equally good are Wei Wu (Chick Gandil), Sidney Outlaw (Lefty Wiliams), Christian Thurston (Buck Weaver), and David Walton (Happy Felsch) as primary conspirators in the fix. Kelly Markgraf (Ring Lardner), Benjamin Sieverding (Alfred Austrian, Comiskey’s lawyer), and Christian Zaremba (Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis) also merit praise for their earnest portrayals of moral outrage or outright duplicity in the piece.
Less obtrusive but equally important to the work’s effectiveness are contributions from the orchestra and scenic design. Conductor Timothy Myers gives full, emotional expression to Puckett’s moody, ironic score while Walt Spangler’s scenic design, particularly the jungle-gym grandstand arching over the shadowy activity underneath, contributes to the production’s fatalistic tone.
The opera’s premiere on the eve of the new baseball season and centennial anniversary of the Black Sox scandal is no accident. It doesn’t take a sociologist to recognize the play’s relevance in light of recent sports and academic cheating scandals. The Fix holds an engrossing, 2lst-century sonic mirror to a society questioning its identity and core values through the condemnation of a social innocent who disappoints his fans who worship what he represents to them. Decide for yourself whether Joe and his cohort’s punishments are deserved when a performance of The Fix comes to an opera house near you.
— William Fietzer