Composer: Scott Joplin
Libretto: Scott Joplin
Description: Opera in three acts; Joplin worked on the orchestration with his friend and protege Sam Patterson. Legend has it that the orchestration was thrown out with the trash one day in the early 1920s. Unfortunately, Joplin did not annotate his piano score, so his intentions for the orchestra were not preserved. The work brought Joplin a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize, awarded in 1976.
Premiere: A single, unstaged public reading with piano was financed by Joplin in May 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, New York City. The opera was discovered in 1970, and the world premiere took place at Morehouse College in Atlanta on January 27, 1972, with an orchestration by Thomas J. Anderson. Later that year, the opera was staged at the Wolf Trap Farm Park, using an orchestration by William Bolcom (Dramatic Publishing Company, Chicago, IL). Houston Grand Opera then staged what many refer to as the first professional premiere of the opera in 1975, with an orchestration by Gunther Schuller.
Publisher: Volume two of the New York Public Library's publication The Complete Work of Scott Joplin, completed in 1982 after 10 years of research, contains the piano-vocal score of Treemonisha. The volume carries a special essay on the opera by composer/critic Carman Moore. The two-volume publication was compiled and edited by Vera Brodsky Lawrence. The work's success is due to the enthusiastic scholarship and energy of Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Thomas J. Anderson, Joshua Rifkin, William Bolcom, Robert Shaw, Gunther Schuller, and others.
Length: Two hours
Musical Forces: The Houston Grand Opera production included 12 principals, 20 dancers, and a chorus of 26. Schuller uses the forces that would have been available to Joplin: winds, reduced strings, piano, and percussion, including bongo drums.
Musical Style: Joplin didn't refer to Treemonisha as a ragtime opera. He set out to emulate the serious music he had heard at the Metropolitan Opera and by various touring European companies. He considered the work a grand opera, with an overture, instrumental prelude, solo arias, duets, ensemble pieces, and recitative. The opera also combines the forms of rag, barbershop quartet, sentimental ballad, waltz, march, and ensemble finales. Some extended harmonies are reminiscent of Wagner. Also, in one scene, the chorus parts are notated in a pitchless "graphic" notation reminiscent of avant-garde scores of the 1950s and 60s.
Synopsis: The opera is concerned with the plight of the newly-freed slaves who, because they lack education, fall easy prey to conjurers and superstition. The story takes place after the American Civil War, on a plantation in the South. Treemonisha -- found under a sacred tree as an orphan -- is a young girl who is the only educated person in her black community. She refuses to accept the superstitions of her people. Angry with her denouncements, the conjurers-men who make their living by preying on the superstitions of others-kidnap her. As they are about to thrust her into a wasp's nest, her boyfriend Remus rescues her. She then returns to her people, and they ask her to be their leader. At the end of the opera, she prepares to embark on an educational campaign. The liberation of a people through education and the concept of women's liberation are the crux of Joplin's message. Joplin focuses on the need for education to eradicate prejudice, superstition, and ignorance.
Selected Reviews: Opera Canada, Winter 1985; Opernwelt, 7-84; The New York Times, Robert Jones, 9-21-75; Time, William Bender, 9-15-75; The New York Times, Raymond Ericson, 7-2-75; The New York Times, Peter G. Davis, 6-1-75; The New York Times, Gunther Schuller, 5-18-75; The New York Times, Donal Henahan, 1-23-75; The New York Times, Walter Kerr, 1-2-75; The New York Times, Raymond Ericson, 4-9-72; The New Yorker, Winthrop Sargeant, 3-25-72; The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg, 2-13-72; The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg, 1-30-72
Selected Recordings: A recording of the Houston production was issued by Deutsche Grammophon (#2707 083) in 1976. Videotape: The Houston production was broadcast on PBS's Great Performances on February 2, 1986.
Selected Performance History: Birmingham Opera Theatre, AL, 3-96; Bromley Festival Opera, England, 8-90; In Concert, Inc. Virgin Islands), 11-88; Cincinnati May Festival, 5-88; Fayetteville State University (NC), 3-87; Teatro Ghione, Rome, 9-85; Giessen, Germany, 4-84; Brooklyn Opera Society, 7-83; Houston Grand Opera, 3-82, 5-81, 6-75 (In 1975 the original HGO production then traveled to Washington, DC's Kennedy Center, 9-75, and to the Uris Theater on Broadway, 10-75); Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, 11-78; Carnegie Hall and City of NY, 7-73; Wolf Trap Farm Park, 8-72; Atlanta Arts Center, 1-72
Original Cast: Alpha Floyd; Louise Parker; Seth McCoy; Simon Estes; others (Atlanta production, 1972); Treemonisha, Carmen Balthrop; Monisha, Betty Allen; Remus, Curtis Rayam; Ned, Willard White; Parson Alltalk, Ed Pierson; with Ben Harney, Cora Johnson, Kenneth Hicks, Dorceal Duckens, Dwight Ransom, Raymond Bazemore, and the Louis Johnson Dance Theater (Houston production, as toured in NYC).
Other Operas by the Composer: A Guest of Honor, [ca. 1903], lost