Joplin’s Is Staged by the Houston Opera

Scott Joplin’s long-neglected opera Treemonisha received its first professional full-scale staging sixty-four years after its publication. The Houston Opera’s production came to be regarded as the definitive version of the work.

Summary of Event

Scott Joplin had earned a reputation as a legendary performer and composer of ragtime piano music, yet he had ambitions toward enlarging and expanding the form. In 1897, he enrolled at the George R. Smith College for Negroes in Sedalia, Missouri, to study advanced composition. His “Ragtime Dance” of 1902 included words and dance steps and was virtually a ragtime ballet. Ragtime music
Music;ragtime In the fall of 1903, he made his first venture into opera with the “ragtime opera” titled A Guest of Honor, which he took on an unsuccessful tour in Missouri and Iowa; the score and parts of this work have been lost. Joplin made ventures into composition more serious than ragtime with his concert waltz “Bethena” (1905) and “Solace, Mexican Serenade” (1909), which featured a habanera rhythm. Theater;opera
African Americans;opera
African Americans;opera
Joplin, Scott
Joplin, Lottie
Freeman, Harry Lawrence
Lawrence, Vera Brodsky
Rifkin, Joshua
Schuller, Gunther

All of these works laid the groundwork for Treemonisha, which Joplin began in 1908, after his move to New York, and completed in 1910. His attempts to find a publisher having been unsuccessful, he had the piano-vocal score of the opera published at his own expense in 1911.

On the strength of a glowing review of the opera in the American Musician and Art Journal, Joplin tried to get his work performed. He consulted with Harry Lawrence Freeman, the first African American composer to write an opera (The Martyr, first performed in Denver in 1893), and made some revisions in the piano-vocal score.

An attempt to have Treemonisha performed at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem in 1913 proved unsuccessful. A run-through for prospective backers of the production, done without costumes, scenery, or orchestra, was given possibly as early as 1911 or as late as 1915. Joplin, whose pianistic skills had sharply declined, played the orchestral part on the piano.

The performance was a disaster. The audience may have been expecting a musical comedy on the order of those written by Will Marion Cook, Cook, Will Marion a professionally trained musician who had studied at Oberlin College and in Europe and who had sometimes collaborated with the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Joplin had been isolated in New York from the black bourgeois musical establishment that Cook represented, perhaps because ragtime was regarded as a “low-class” music with associations of the saloon and the bordello.

Others may have been repelled by the plot of the opera, which is set in post-Reconstruction rural Arkansas. In the first act, conjurers try to sell magic potions to Ned and Monisha, but are driven away by the couple’s daughter, Treemonisha. Monisha describes how she was found and educated, and a parson preaches a sermon punctuated with choral responses. The conjurers return and kidnap Treemonisha. Remus dresses in a scarecrow suit and goes off with the field hands to rescue her.

In the second act, the conjurers sing of their superstitions. Treemonisha is brought in and is accused of trying to cut off the conjurers’ source of income; the conjurers threaten to punish her by pushing her into a wasp’s nest. Eight bears then enter and engage in a musical frolic. Remus, dressed in the scarecrow’s suit, then frightens the conjurers, who think he is the devil. The scene changes to a cotton plantation; the plantation workers direct Remus and Treemonisha home and engage in a dance.

Treemonisha and Remus return to general rejoicing. The leaders of the conjurers are brought in and threatened with a beating, but Treemonisha asks that they be forgiven. After musical lectures by Remus and Ned, the conjurers are pardoned, the field hands ask Treemonisha to be their leader, and the opera ends with singing and dancing by Treemonisha and the assembled company. To many in the audience, the plot must have reminded them of the days of their grandparents, a period that the black bourgeoisie were doing their best to forget.

Joplin had been obsessed with Treemonisha since its completion, and he had neglected composition of piano rags and teaching in order to get the work performed. The message of his opera was that education would be the salvation of his race (there may also have been elements of the plot that had personal autobiographical significance for him). Joplin believed that the work would prove him a composer of substance and establish him as an artist. The work’s failure sent him into a profound depression and probably triggered the dementia for which he was institutionalized in 1916; he died the following year.

Treemonisha and Joplin were forgotten after his death except among a few connoisseurs of ragtime music. In 1968, Joshua Rifkin recorded several of Joplin’s piano rags (the “Maple Leaf Rag,” his first successful work, had remained in the repertoire, albeit in jazz versions). Subsequently, Vera Brodsky Lawrence edited a two-volume collection of Joplin’s music, including the piano-vocal score of Treemonisha; twenty-four publishers rejected her proposal until the New York Public Library, with support from various foundations, published the set in 1971.

The first full-scale performance of Treemonisha was given at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1972. Katherine Dunham Dunham, Katherine did the choreography, and the African American composer T. J. Anderson Anderson, T. J. orchestrated the work. A more professional performance took place later that year near Washington, D.C., with a new orchestration by William Bolcom Bolcom, William that one reviewer compared to the work of Hector Berlioz. Reviewers praised the work but found the productions uneven, with fine solo and choral singing and dancing but poor stage work that made the opera resemble a minstrel show.

The Houston Opera production of 1975 has since proven to be the definitive version of Treemonisha. Gunther Schuller, a jazz scholar as well as composer who had previously reconstructed contemporaneous orchestrations of Joplin’s ragtime pieces, scored the opera in keeping with the pit orchestras of the early years of the century, avoiding such incongruities as jazz-era saxophones and echoes of the sophisticated scoring of Richard Strauss or Giacomo Puccini. The production, which attracted audiences of up to twenty-five thousand, was later taken to the Uris Theater on New York’s Broadway, in keeping with its character as a vintage musical rather than as a grand opera, and was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. Subsequently, a filmed performance from that production was released on videocassette.


The Houston Opera’s production of Treemonisha came to be regarded as the definitive version, for staging, costumes, and sets (the painter Romare Bearden was a consultant) as well as for the music. Those concerned about the opera’s representation of African American stereotypes were silenced by Carmen Balthrop, Balthrop, Carmen the singer who performed the role of Treemonisha: “Mammy talk? Pickaninny costumes? It doesn’t embarrass me at all. That’s the way it was.”

Comparisons were made with other musical dramatic works of the time. It is highly doubtful that Joplin knew of the work of his contemporary Henry F. Gilbert, Gilbert, Henry F. a white composer who used African-inspired melodies in his compositions. In 1906, Gilbert began an opera inspired by Joel Chandler Harris’s “Uncle Remus” tales; Chandler’s estate, however, refused to release the copyright, and the opera was abandoned. Gilbert was able to salvage the overture as the Comedy Overture on Negro Themes (1912) and as various set-numbers for his Negro Dances for piano.

Joplin was also in all likelihood not aware of the opera Koanga
Koanga (Delius) (1897), by Frederick Delius, which was set in eighteenth century Florida and which featured miscegenation and a slave revolt; Koanga is remarkable for its mixture of characters, sympathetic blacks and villainous whites. Delius, an expatriate Englishman living in France, had spent two years of his young adulthood in the American South and had absorbed the African American idiom. The text of Koanga is highly stilted (neither the librettist who worked with Delius’s scenario nor Delius’s German wife, who finished and translated the libretto for the German production, had any conception of American life), and the musical idiom is replete with the lush post-Romantic harmony that was later to become a staple of the film scores of Technicolor musicals. The opera was performed, in German, in Elbersfeld, Germany, in 1903 but was not produced again until after the composer’s death; however, a wedding dance from Koanga became well known as an orchestral piece, “La Calinda.”

It would be unreasonable to compare Joplin’s opera with such contemporary European works of the second decade of the century as Giacomo Puccini’s Fanciulla (1910), Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Igor Stravinsky’s The Nightingale (1914), or Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1918). These are works in completely different musical idioms and for entirely different theaters. More apt comparisons can be made with the musicals of the time, especially Victor Herbert’s Sweethearts (1913) and the productions of Will Marion Cook.

George Gershwin’s Gershwin, George
Porgy and Bess
Porgy and Bess (Gershwin) (1935) is the work most often compared with Treemonisha. The similarities of the two works include an all-black cast, a southern setting, and a structure of individual set-numbers linked by spoken dialogue (the dialogue of Treemonisha, however, is lost). The setting of Porgy and Bess, however, is different, as is the musical idiom, which incorporates the influence of jazz and the revolution in the musical theater around 1920. Moreover, some writers have complained that neither the book nor the score of Porgy and Bess fully reflects the African American experience. The most important similarity between the two works is that each features an all-black cast; the works can thus effectively be done in alternation by black theater companies.

Treemonisha is not without its weaknesses. The characters are one-dimensional, and some of the smaller parts drift in and out of the action. Joplin’s poetry (he wrote the scenario, the words to be sung, the stage directions, and even the choreography) reflects his haphazard formal education, and harmonic clichés are used to intensify the moments of dramatic tension. The weakest set-numbers are those seeking to impart a high tone to the opera, such as the chorus “We Want You for Our Leader,” which is written in the style of a church anthem, and the lectures performed in drawing-room ballad style by Remus and Ned. More successful are the numbers in a popular idiom, such as the square dance in act 1 and a barbershop quartet performance by cotton pickers in act 2. The most effective numbers, such as the sermon with choral response in act 1, the finales of the second and third acts, and the “Frolic of the Bears” in act 2, a ragtime scherzo, reflect the African American musical experience and Joplin’s ragtime background. Although Treemonisha is an uneven work, its best numbers merit the opera’s retention as a repertory item.

Foreign productions of Treemonisha soon followed. The first, given in Italy in a mainland suburb of Venice, was performed with two pianos, was sung in heavily accented English, and was given by performers without the faintest understanding of the ragtime idiom. A critic remarked that the show was like an animated production of “Little Black Sambo.” Subsequent productions with orchestra were given in Turin in 1980 (in Italian), Helsinki in 1981 (in Finnish), and Giessen, West Germany, in 1984 (in English). The critics were for the most part unaware of the cultural background of Treemonisha; many praised its sincerity and the liveliness of the productions, but most found the work akin to operetta and thought the text naïve.

Treemonisha is an important document in the history of American music. It represents the idealization of the African American experience during a difficult period (the post-Reconstruction South) by someone who was closer to it than any of his musical colleagues. This idealization is largely achieved through the opera’s music, which is successful in direct proportion to its reflection of its African American roots, and through the message of education triumphing over ignorance. Joplin’s misfortune lay in his being ahead of his time, before it became possible for an African American to be accepted as a composer of art music and before the Harlem where Joplin lived had become a center of black culture. Justifiably, he received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;music in 1976 for Treemonisha, sixty years after his mental illness caused by the work’s failure had compelled him to be institutionalized. Theater;opera
African Americans;opera

Further Reading

  • Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Offers a good analysis of Joplin’s compositions and his contributions to ragtime. Includes photos.
  • _______. “Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha Years.” American Music 9 (Fall, 1991): 260-276. By far the best study of Joplin’s life during his years in New York. Updates all previous biographies.
  • Blesh, Rudi, and Harriet Janis. They All Played Ragtime. 4th ed. New York: Oak, 1971. A pioneering study of ragtime music. Its laudatory and detailed description of Treemonisha undoubtedly sparked interest in reviving Joplin’s opera.
  • Curtis, Susan. Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004. Academic and sociological biography portrays Joplin as a man who emerged in a biracial society where he was praised for his musical talents but denied rights as a black man. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Gammond, Peter. Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975. A curious British book; its biographical information is mostly obsolete, but it contains some interesting social background and perspectives.
  • Haskins, James, with Kathleen Benson. Scott Joplin. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Biography includes facsimiles of a census and other documents. Provides one of the best pictures available of Joplin’s early years and his stays in Sedalia and St. Louis.
  • Jones, Robert. “Treemonisha.” Opera News 40 (September, 1975): 12-15. An extensive account of the Houston Opera production of Joplin’s operatic masterpiece.
  • Joplin, Scott. The Collected Works of Scott Joplin. Edited by Vera B. Lawrence. 2 vols. New York: New York Public Library, 1971. Volume 2 contains the piano-vocal score of Treemonisha, with an introduction by Rudi Blesh and a preface by the singer Carman Moore.
  • Zimmermann, Christoph. “Giessen.” Opera 35 (August, 1984): 906-907. An excellent illustration of European critics’ bewilderment about and misunderstanding of Treemonisha.

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