Think of Eric Simonson as the Bob Costas of the arts. He's well versed in many different sports. Except in Simonson's case, he puts sports in our entertainment rather than waxing wise about it on TV.
From football ("Lombardi" on Broadway) to basketball (the play "Magic/Bird" and upcoming "Swagger" series on Kevin Durant) to baseball ("Bronx Bombers"), Simonson has a knack for dramatizing athletics. His latest sports-to-art venture is Minnesota Opera's "The Fix," a world premiere about the Black Sox Scandal that erupted when Shoeless Joe Jackson and other Chicago White Sox players conspired with gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
Except Simonson's not really putting sports on the stage.
"A good sports story — in theater, opera, wherever — is usually not about the sport. It's about something else," said Simonson, who wrote the libretto and directed "The Fix." "With a sports theme, you have a reason for people to stick around to see if your protagonist wins. It's very basic: Sports bring out the best and worst in people."
Both are brought out of Shoeless Joe Jackson. The opera depicts him as great at his job — baseball — but not at life. He's the classic hero with a tragic flaw: insecurity.
Outside forces work against the baseball star. Virtually illiterate, Jackson (played here by tenor Joshua Dennis) is at the mercy of his worldly wise, better compensated teammates, who pressure the outfielder into losing.
Jackson is also exploited by wealthy Sox owner Charles Comiskey (bass Wm. Clay Thompson). "Joe couldn't read," Simonson explained. "His wife could, but Comiskey made sure to get Joe to sign his contracts when his wife wasn't around. They took advantage of his inexperience."
But, like a character in a Greek tragedy, Jackson's downfall comes from within. After agreeing to participate in his colleagues' fix, he wrestles with the shame of dishonoring the game he loves. Beginning with the fix and extending to his death, "The Fix" shows Jackson — still banned from the Baseball Hall of Fame to this day — trying to relieve his guilt.
The outfielder made himself feel better by not actively participating in the fix, Simonson noted. "He just didn't know how to play badly. He batted over .400 and didn't commit a single error in the  Series."
Embracing the aria
Although Simonson knew of the White Sox scandal for many years, he got involved in "The Fix" after composer Joel Puckett pitched the idea to Minnesota Opera in 2014. Both are lifelong baseball fans.
As Simonson was writing, he took inspiration from previous music by Puckett, a newcomer to the world of opera.
"I wanted to place individual scenes in a time and place," Puckett said. "So, for instance, I know Jelly Roll Morton was recording in Chicago in 1919. So how do I get the rhythm and energy of Jelly Roll while still filtering it through my own harmonic language?"
Opera magic, apparently.
"I had pictured a little dance from these showgirls, with a nightclub for background and then the scene taking place in front," Simonson recalled. "But at one point the scene didn't have a real nightclub feel, so I went to Joel and said, 'Can we use music to establish this raucous place that is packed at 1 in the morning?' And he came back with this wonderful Jelly Roll stuff."
In fact, Puckett said the sense of place evoked by Simonson's libretto helped him discover the sound of "The Fix." The score incorporates music from the era, including the 1918 hit "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles." It also embraces the spirit of the era's operas — which is appropriate, since if you speak opera but not baseball, the Black Sox Scandal occurred in between Giacomo Puccini's "La Rondine" (1917) and his "Turandot" (1926).
"Aria moments are some of my favorites in opera," Puckett added. "And many new operas intentionally avoid those plant-your-feet-and-sing-to-the-audience moments. But we built several in. Joe has gut-wrenching moments where he has existential crises, so we bring him right downstage, hard-light him and everything else fades into the shadows while we get to watch his inner monologue. It is a very traditional opera moment."
In addition to its hero in crisis, "The Fix" tells the love story of Jackson and his devoted wife, Katie (soprano Jasmine Habersham). Their romance provides one of Simonson's favorite musical passages.
"Despite all his talent and all his goodness, part of Shoeless Joe doesn't really watch out for himself," Simonson said. "He has this beautiful arioso that is his expression of love for his wife when he is away from her and he's forced to make a decision he'd rather not make without her."
Betting on baseball
Simonson worked on many projects while "The Fix" was coming together. He helped produce the recent Julia Roberts series "Homecoming," and wrote a TV movie for Lifetime. He collaborated with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on an upcoming musical for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre (where he's a company member). He started work with Twin Cities playwright Jeffrey Hatcher on a second play about Frank Lloyd Wright. (Their first, "Work Song," was produced by L.A. Theatre Works in 2000.) He's also preparing for a 2020 Kansas City Lyric Opera production of "The Shining," which he directed for Minnesota Opera three years ago.
Honing "The Fix" through three workshop productions helped Simonson finesse a tricky piece that takes place over a couple of decades and involves both baseball and a trial. And yet it doesn't feature much baseball — and it isn't a courtroom drama, either.
Puckett thinks Simonson nailed it.
"I was not prepared for my emotional reaction," Puckett said. "The other day, the thing that got me was we have this 11-year-old boy who comes on and says, 'Say it ain't so, Joe.' While a sportswriter is singing about Shoeless Joe Jackson being the personification of everything we think the American Dream is, the boy comes out and Joe rustles his hair. That little gesture, I was completely unprepared for it."
Simonson describes "The Fix" as an "uplifting tragedy." It sounds like an oxymoron. But if the opera pulls off that balancing act, the hope is that audiences will understand the tragedy of Shoeless Joe Jackson, who made mistakes that tarnished the game of baseball. Simonson also hopes audiences leave with renewed appreciation for the enduring beauty of America's pastime.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367