You may have heard of Scott Joplin and you may associate him with ragtime pieces such as “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag”, but did you know that he wrote two operas? One is titled “A Guest of Honor”. The other, “Treemonisha”, has been described as “charming and piquant and … deeply moving”. Although sometimes referred to as the “ragtime opera”, this is a misnomer because the rag style is used only sparingly. Instead, the score and libretto follow the European opera form with conventional arias, ensembles, and choruses.
Treemonisha is the name of the opera’s main character – a heroine who is kidnapped by a band of magicians. She eventually leads her community against the conjurers who prey on their superstition, teaching them the value of education and the liability of ignorance. It is said that the main character may have been inspired by Joplin’s second wife, Freddie Alexander, who herself was educated, well-read, and an activist for women and African-American rights.
While the story in the opera is entertaining and the music enchanting, the story behind the work and its performance is truly fascinating. It was completed in 1910. However, Joplin had to pay for a piano-vocal score to be published the following year. He sent a copy to the American Musician and Art Journal which wrote a glowing, full-page review of the work calling it, “entirely new phase of musical art and… a thoroughly American opera (style)”.
Unfortunately, the endorsement wasn’t enough. The opera was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime. Its only performance was a concert read-through in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, where Joplin played the piano. This was also paid for by Joplin.
“Treemonisha” was subsequently forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1970 and performed for an entirely new generation. Excerpts were performed in 1971 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, but it was the world premiere in 1972 that really brought this amazing work back into the spotlight. A joint production of the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, it was directed by the famous African-American dancer Katherine Dunham and conducted by Robert Shaw. It was well received by critics and audiences alike.
Since then, it has been performed by the Houston Grand Opera, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and throughout Europe including several times in Germany. The Parker Symphony Orchestra performed the Overture from “Treemonisha” on February 25, 2017.