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Treemonisha (1910/1972) is an opera composed by the famed African-American ragtime composer Scott Joplin. Though it encompasses a wide range of musical styles other than ragtime, and Joplin did not refer to it as such, it is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a "ragtime opera". The music of Treemonisha includes an overture and prelude, along with various recitatives, choruses, small ensemble pieces, a ballet, and a few arias.
The opera was not performed in its entirety until 1972, after the discovery of the piano score. This discovery was called a "semimiracle" by music historian Gilbert Chase, who said Treemonisha "bestowed its creative vitality and moral message upon many thousands of delighted listeners and viewers" when it was recreated. The musical style of the opera is the popular romantic one of the early 20th century. It has been described as "charming and piquant and ... deeply moving", with elements of black folk songs and dances, including a kind of pre-blues music, spirituals, and a call-and-response style scene involving a congregation and preacher.
The opera's theme is that education is the salvation of the Negro race, represented by the heroine and symbolic educator Treemonisha, who runs into trouble with a local band of magicians who kidnap her.
Treemonisha was completed in 1910, and Joplin paid for a piano-vocal score to be published in 1911. At the time of the publication, he sent a copy of the score to the American Musician and Art Journal. Treemonisha received a glowing, full-page review in the June issue. The review called it an "entirely new phase of musical art and... a thoroughly American opera (style)", which fit in well with Joplin's desire to create a distinctive form of African-American opera.
Despite this endorsement, the opera was never fully staged during his lifetime. Its sole performance was a concert read-through with Joplin at the piano in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, New York, paid for by Joplin. One of Joplin's friends, Sam Patterson, described this performance as "thin and unconvincing, little better than a rehearsal... its special quality (would have been) lost on the typical Harlem audience (that was) sophisticated enough to reject their folk past but not sufficiently so to relish a return to it".
Aside from a concert-style performance in 1915 of the ballet from Act II, Frolic of the Bears by the Martin-Smith Music School, the opera was forgotten until 1970, when the score was rediscovered. The world premiere took place on January 27, 1972, as a joint production of the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia, using the orchestration by T.J. Anderson. The performance was directed by noted African-American dancer Katherine Dunham and conducted by Robert Shaw, one of the first major American conductors to hire both black and white singers for his chorale. The production was well received by both audiences and critics.
Along with Joplin's first opera A Guest of Honor (1903), the orchestration notes for Treemonisha have been completely lost. Subsequent performances have been produced using orchestrations created by a variety of composers, including Thomas J. Anderson, Gunther Schuller, and most recently, Rick Benjamin. Since its premiere, Treemonisha has been performed all over the United States, at venues such as the Houston Grand Opera, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and on Broadway to overwhelming critical and public acclaim. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "contributions to American music". Opera historian Elise Kirk noted that "the opera slumbered in oblivion for more than half a century before making a triumphant Broadway debut. It was also recorded commercially in its entirety -- the earliest African American opera to achieve that distinction and the earliest to receive widespread modern recognition and performance.":189
Historians have speculated that Joplin's second wife, Freddie Alexander, may have inspired the opera. Like the title character, she was educated, well-read and known to be a proponent of women's rights and African-American culture. The fact that Joplin set the work in September 1884, the month and year of Alexander's birth, contributes to that theory.
Joplin biographer Edward A. Berlin has said that Treemonisha may have mirrored details from Joplin's own life, writing that the opera was "a tribute to the woman he loved, a woman other biographers never even mentioned." In the opera, the title character receives her education in a white woman's home. Berlin speculates about parallels between the plot and Joplin's own life. Specifically, Joplin taught himself music fundamentals on a piano in the white home where his mother worked. He notes that Lottie Joplin (the composer's third wife) saw a connection between the character Treemonisha's wish to lead her people out of ignorance, and a similar desire in the composer. In addition, it has been speculated that Treemonisha represents Freddie, Joplin's second wife, because the date of the opera's setting was likely to have been the month of her birth.
At the time of the opera's publication in 1911, the American Musician and Art Journal praised it as "an entirely new form of operatic art". Later critics have also praised the opera as occupying a special place in American history, with its heroine "a startlingly early voice for modern civil rights causes, notably the importance of education and knowledge to African American advancement." Curtis's conclusion is similar: "In the end, Treemonisha offered a celebration of literacy, learning, hard work, and community solidarity as the best formula for advancing the race.". Berlin describes it as a "fine opera, certainly more interesting than most operas then being written in the United States", but then states that Joplin's own libretto showed the composer "was not a competent dramatist" with the book not up to the same quality as the music.
Treemonisha takes place in a former slave plantation in an isolated forest between Joplin's childhood town Texarkana and the Red River in Arkansas in September 1884. The plot centers on an 18-year-old woman Treemonisha who is taught to read by a white woman, and then leads her community against the influence of conjurers who prey on ignorance and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps' nest when her friend Remus rescues her. The community realizes the value of education and the liability of their ignorance before choosing her as their teacher and leader.
1972 Atlanta World Premiere 
Joplin wrote both the score and the libretto for the opera, which largely follows the form of European opera with many conventional arias, ensembles and choruses. In addition the themes of superstition and mysticism which are evident in Treemonisha are common in the operatic tradition, and certain aspects of the plot echo devices in the work of the German composer Richard Wagner (of which Joplin was aware); a sacred tree under which Treemonisha is found recalls the tree from which Siegmund takes his enchanted sword in Die Walküre, and the retelling of the heroine's origins echos aspects of the opera Siegfried. In addition, African-American folk tales also influence the story, with the wasp nest incident being similar to the story of Br'er Rabbit and the briar patch.
Treemonisha is not a ragtime opera because Joplin employed the styles of ragtime and other black music sparingly, using them to convey "racial character", and to celebrate the music of his childhood at the end of the 19th Century. The opera has been seen as a valuable record of rural black music from the 1870s-1890s re-created by a "skilled and sensitive participant".
In 1982, the Houston Grand Opera produced a video of the production by Frank Corsaro, directed for television by Sidney Smith. This used the Schuller orchestration and starred Carmen Balthrop as Treemonisha, Delores Ivory as Monisha, and Obba Babatundé as Zodzetrick. Deutsche Grammophon had previously released the audio version of this production on LP's back in 1976.
A fully orchestrated and costumed production of Treemonisha was staged in February 1991 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In June 2003 Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra premiered their version of Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha at the Stern Grove Festival, an outdoor amphitheater located at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard in San Francisco, and the oldest festival of its kind in the United States. An extensively annotated 204-page book and two-CD recording of Benjamin's orchestration was released in 2011.
A performance of three songs from Treemonisha (No. 4, 27, and 18) took place at the Berlin University of the Arts on 17 June 2009. A new arrangement for singers and brass band (4 trumpets, 4 trombones, French horn, tuba) had been commissioned from German composer Stefan Beyer. The performance was led by Konradin Groth, Principal Trumpet at the Berlin Philharmonic from 1974 till 1998, and Michael Dixon, who previously had worked as the conductor of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats in Hamburg, Amsterdam and Paris from 1986 to 1989. In April 2010, a production was mounted in Paris, France, at the Théâtre du Châtelet.
In June 2008 Sue Keller produced and arranged an abridged orchestral-choral rendition of Treemonisha. The production was commissioned by the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation, which hosts the week-long ragtime piano extravaganza held annually in Sedalia, Missouri. The original piano-vocal music book published by Scott Joplin in 1911 was used as a starting point for orchestration. The Scott Joplin publication is available from The Library of Congress.