SCOTT JOPLIN’S Treemonisha
Book & Libretto Adapted by Leah-Simone Bowen
Co-librettist - Cheryl L. Davis
Orchestrated and Arranged by Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth
A Volcano production in association with Moveable Beast
May 2 - 3, 2020
First Chance to See It - Stanford Live
Palo Alto, California
April 23 - 26, 2020
reimagining a masterpiece
Often called the first all-African American opera, Treemonisha was a ground-breaking work about the evolution of a young Black woman into a remarkable leader.
Joplin’s visionary work on Treemonisha in the early 1900s has served as inspiration for a group of artists assembled from across North America by the internationally-acclaimed Canadian company Volcano. This new version – Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha – is a 21st century take on Joplin’s musical masterpiece.
Treemonisha is one of the few surviving live performance pieces about the immediate post-slavery era written by a Black person who actually lived through it.
Joplin himself called it a “grand opera", but he was actually creating a new form. It was unbelievably progressive for its time, both musically and politically: Joplin’s young female protagonist, Treemonisha, is elected by her 1880’s community as their leader – long before women could vote; and Joplin’s astonishing music fuses classical and folk sounds with Gospel, with the Black precursor to the barbershop sound, and with ragtime’s own signature syncopations. The fusion sound that Joplin was inventing for his opera was clearly the work of a genius.
This was a new kind of opera.
Joplin’s Treemonisha – deeply feminist, politically progressive, and musically adventurous – was never fully staged in his lifetime. No backer would touch it. The New York opera establishment of 1911 was not ready to embrace a Black composer.
Desperate to preserve what he had written, Joplin self-financed the staggering expense of commissioning the nearly 300 printing plates for Treemonisha’s piano/vocal score – a cost equivalent to 4 years’ wages.
Scott Joplin died penniless in 1917. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in New York. His hand-written orchestrations for Treemonisha were lost, along with all of his other classical work (including a piano concerto and a symphony). At a time when America was thirsting for the first great American Opera, Joplin and Treemonisha were overlooked.
By self-publishing his melodies at great personal cost, Joplin was sending Treemonisha forward to the future in the hopes that someone there might see its value. With this project, and inspired by his genius, we are giving it a voice in- and for- our own time.
“With this adaptation, we pay tribute to Joplin’s musical inventiveness by looking at ways to integrate multiple styles from the African diaspora and European classical traditions into our arrangements… From our vantage point as 21st Century creators, we have the benefit of drawing from music that spurred from Joplin's invention: Dixieland, all forms of contemporary jazz, R&B, Motown, and popular songs. We are treating his music as the center point wherefrom the pendulum will swing. Joplin 360°.”
– Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth: orchestration and musical adaptation
“When I found out that Scott Joplin had written an opera with a Black woman as the lead character, I was intrigued. When I found out that he had written the libretto for an all Black cast and that the central conversation in the piece took place within the Black community, I was blown away.
Joplin wrote this piece with a conversation that was only happening in his community. I aim to preserve that discussion while allowing this new Treemonisha the space to grow, being mindful that history always holds a mirror up to the future.
This work is about the things we were told separated us and how we internalized this separation. It is about the remnants of memory and trauma, love and joy, but most of all it is about Black women and their extraordinary ability to survive. It is a love letter to all of the people who came before and to Joplin himself.”
– Leah-Simone Bowen: adapted story and co-librettist
Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha features 14 singers - ranging from operatic to soul - and an all-Black, majority women chamber orchestra of 9 players on both Western and African instruments, led by internationally acclaimed Philadelphia-based conductor, Jeri Lynne Johnson. Our directors are award-winning Canadians Weyni Mengesha (stage director) and Reza Jacobs (Music Director). The choreographer is Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women in New York.
WE ARE IN-PROGRESS!
Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha has been under construction collaboratively since 2016 – with artists from Canada, the USA, England and West Africa. It will be unveiled first at Stanford Live in California on April 24, 2020, and will move onto Cal Performances at UC Berkeley immediately after that. It will continue to be honed ahead of its next stops.
As we move forward with this significant reimagining of an early 20th century masterpiece, we need the resources to help support these remarkable artists and their vision. This is no small task.
Please consider donating here:
Born in either 1867 or 1868 in Texarkana, along the border between Texas and Arkansas, Scott Joplin was to become a revolutionizing force in American music. He was the second of six children born to Florence Givens, a freeborn woman from Kentucky, and Giles Joplin, an emancipated slave from North Carolina. His mother supported her son’s early musical education after his father left the family. A German Jewish immigrant pianist – Julius Weiss – recognized Joplin’s talent, and tutored him for free (himself no stranger to racial discrimination). Years later, Joplin helped support Weiss until his old teacher’s death.
Joplin immersed himself in music. He sang, learned mandolin, guitar, cornet and, of course, mastered the piano. He became a touring musician, arranger, and a popular composer in the emerging form of ragtime. He was to become the genre’s foremost composer with tunes like “The Entertainer,” “Solace” and “The Maple Leaf Rag,” (the biggest-selling ragtime song in history). His compositions are now regarded as far ahead of their time – exhibiting tremendous emotional complexity.
Joplin was married three times: the first ending in divorce after the early death of his only child (who lived only a few months); the second ended in the tragic death of his wife only 10 weeks after marriage; and his third lasted until his own premature death.
Joplin’s ambition was to become a classical composer, but he found almost no support in this pursuit within his own lifetime. His classical music output – including a piano concerto, a symphony and an earlier opera (The Guest of Honor) are all lost. His piano-vocal score for Treemonisha, the opera he was working on at the end of his life and never saw performed, only survives as a self-published piano/vocal score. Joplin died penniless in New York City where he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave on April 1, 1917. He was 48.
The New York Times finally published an obituary for Scott Joplin in February, 2019.
Canada's National Arts Centre through the National Creation Fund;
Stanford Live, Palo Alto, California, with the support of the Hewlett Foundation;
Washington Performing Arts, DC;
Southbank Centre, London UK; and
The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Alberta.
Our thanks to the following organizations who have generously donated their spaces to various stages of the project:
Canadian Opera Company
Soulpepper Theatre Company
Our thanks also to the many singers and instrumentalists in New York and Toronto that have helped our Treemonisha reboot through its ongoing workshop process.
Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, Score Workshop, 2019.
Photography by John Lauener