You’re probably familiar with Scott Joplin’s ragtime music, like The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag, but did you know he also wrote an opera?
As a kid, I was obsessed with Scott Joplin’s music. I played the piano and I had a book of his complete works, which I constantly practiced. I also discovered that we share a birthday, although his was 100 years before mine.
Joplin wrote Treemonisha in 1910 and published it in 1911, but unfortunately it was never staged during his lifetime, although he had a piano & vocal concert performance in 1915. Its apparent failure haunted him for the rest of his life.
The plot revolves around a young African American woman named Treemonisha who is adopted by a couple from a former plantation. After being taught to read by a white woman, she leads her community against the influence of conjurers, who are shown as preying on ignorance and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps’ nest when her friend Remus rescues her.
Ultimately, Treemonisha leads her community toward education, enlightenment, and freedom from superstition, symbolizing the empowerment and progress of African Americans during the Reconstruction era in the United States.
Treemonisha was mostly forgotten until the renewed interest in Joplin’s music in the 1970s. It finally had a world premier in 1972 by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with a fully staged production by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976. I was lucky enough to see that production when it opened in New York.