Scott Joplin Opera Getting Full-Fledged Revival in St. Louis

Ragtime pioneer's Treemonisha hasn't been staged since 1975.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis starts its 25th season May 20 with a bang — a performance of ragtime great and former St. Louis resident Scott Joplin's only opera, Treemonisha. The opera hasn't been seen in the U.S. since 1975.

The production will be a full staging — which Joplin was never able to accomplish. Written in 1910, Treemonisha's score is a mixture of ragtime, minstrel show, vaudeville and grand opera. Echoes of Wagner, Verdi and Offenbach can be heard, and the staging calls for lots of dancing, and big roles for chorus, arias and ensembles.

Reviews of Treemonisha over the years have been mixed, and perhaps not surprisingly, critics have tended to single out its ragtime segments for the most praise. In 1972, critic Harold Schoenberg wrote in the New York Times that the passage called "A Real Slow Drag" was "amazing."

It was, he said, "Harmonically enchanting, full of the tensions of an entire race, rhythmically catching, it refuses to leave the mind."

The St. Louis Opera production will be conducted by Jeffrey Huard, who recently led acclaimed productions of Ragtime and Showboat on Broadway. The director is Rhoda Levine, who staged The Life and Times of Malcolm X at the New York City Opera.

Out Of The South

Born in 1868 in Texas, Joplin lived in St. Louis and other parts of Missouri from 1893–1907.

"[The production is] a celebration of St. Louis' rich musical heritage, a showcase for the artistry of young Americans and part of our mission to bring worthy American works into the mainstream repertory," said Opera Theatre of St. Louis General Director Charles MacKay.

Joplin is best known for composing the "Maple Leaf Rag" (RealAudio excerpt), which had its 100th anniversary last year.

The opera is set in rural Arkansas, where an educated black woman named Treemonisha, based on Joplin's mother, leads the townspeople out of ignorance and superstition. Joplin believed that the African-American community's problems could be solved by education.

For years Joplin pursued his dream of seeing his grand opera performed. He completed the opera's first draft in 1910 and started showing it to publishers. But even John Stark, publisher of the hugely successful "Maple Leaf Rag," thought a 230-page opera score written by a black man was way too much of a financial risk.

Failure Of Production

Joplin somehow found the money to publish Treemonisha, then tried to sell it for the grand sum of $2.50. He got no takers. He then spent the rest of his life trying to get it produced. About the furthest he got was to make a presentation for potential backers that lacked costumes, scenery or even musicians — just Joplin himself on the piano.

Legend has it that Joplin was so upset about Treemonisha's lack of success that he went mad, was institutionalized and died. However, Edward Berlin, author of King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era, says the story is apocryphal: "That's a romantic notion, and yes, he was quite upset about Treemonisha, but he actually died of syphilis. Composers don't die of opera failure," Berlin said.

Joplin died in 1917 at age 49.

Fifty-five years later, Treemonisha was performed in a full production at Morehouse College in Atlanta with the help of a Rockefeller Foundation grant. T.J. Anderson orchestrated the opera, and Katherine Dunham directed and choreographed. The production received rave reviews throughout the country.

After a follow-up performance at Wolf Trap, near Washington, D.C., a version by the Houston Grand Opera and a short run on Broadway, Treemonisha was never performed again.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis will perform Treemonisha on May 20, 24 and 26, and June 1, 3, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20 and 24. The opening-night gala will benefit the Opera's Artists-in-Training fund.

Other productions in the season include Verdi's La Traviata, Handel's Radamisto and the world premiere of Minoru Miki's The Tale of Genji.