Treemonisha waited 60
years for its first professional production, by Houston Grand Opera in 1975. Apparently
it's going to have to wait another 60 years for proper recognition of its remarkable
music. And the music is the thing. Sure, the plot is simplistic, the characters
are two-dimensional... but then that's true of many an opera, yes?
The music, the music. Gunther Schuller's vivid
period orchestration (Joplin's version is lost) provides a solid foundation for a fine
group of singers and an outstanding chorus. What is alas necessarily missing from the CD
is the dancing. Rags were dance music. And what carried the HGO production from
the fine to the sublime was the dancing. A commercial video (see below) of the original
HGO production was released on Sony which caught a great deal of the celebratory energy
released by the dancers.
Scott Joplin was born into a poor family in
Texarkana, Texas, in 1868. His life is the story of amazing talent, great fortune, and
greater disappointment. Overcoming tremendous obstacles, he became one of the most famous
composers in the world, but died without ever seeing his finest work, Treemonisha,
As a child on a farm near Texarkana, he
showed musical ability by teaching himself to play and improvise on the piano. White
people in Texarkana eventually heard of this extraordinary child, and a German musician
offered to give him free piano lessons. Those few years of lessons were the only formal
education Joplin would ever have. The strong impression his teacher made on him survives
in the story of "Treemonisha," where education is presented as the key to life.
In his early teens, Joplin left home and
worked as an itinerant pianist, that being the only way a black musician could make a
living in the 19th century. His jobs were in saloons and brothels throughout Texas and
Louisiana. In 1885 he arrived in St. Louis, where, as in New Orleans, the beginnings of
what would become jazz were already developing. In the 1890s, he published his first
pieces of music, undistinguished works which gave no hint of what was to come.
The earliest form of jazz was known as
"rag." In 1897 Joplin wrote two rags. One was published immediately but did not
find an audience. The other, published in 1899, was the "Maple Leaf Rag," the
piece which made Joplin world-famous, and rich.
He married in 1900 and continued to live in
St. Louis, composing full-time. He was already thinking about a black opera, and in fact
wrote a short work called "A Guest of Honor," which has been lost. According to
his wife, he began work on "Treemonisha" at this time.
In 1905 he moved to New York City where,
now known as "the King of Ragtime," he performed widely. He finished
"Treemonisha" and began a series of futile attempts to get the opera published
and performed. Three-minute rags were one thing, but a two-hour black opera was something
entirely different, and the white music publishers refused to invest their money in
"Treemonisha." In 1911 Joplin used his own money to publish the music. Still he
could find no producer who would put the work on stage. He died in 1917.
For many years, no one knew what an
extraordinary gift Joplin had left for the world. The first performance of
"Treemonisha" was given by Houston Grand Opera in 1975, 58 years after
Joplins death. It was an immediate hit. The production moved to Broadway for two
months and afterward played to sold-out houses throughout Europe.
A Fan's Notes
Yes, the music in Treemonisha is glorious,
some deeply moving, some funny (the action stops at one point just so Joplin can give us
an all-too-brief barbershop quartet: "We Will Rest Awhile"), and some of it
More than toe-tapping. The music you're
hearing is one of the big dance numbers, "Aunt Dinah Has Blowed the Horn." The
original Houston Grand Opera production in 1975 was presented out-of-doors, at Miller
Theater in Hermann Park in Houston. Free, it ran for a week, playing to crowds of between
ten and twenty thousand. They were at those first performances your typical opera
audiences, mostly white, affluent.
But. So infectious is the music, that by
the end of the opera, when the orchestra just wouldn't stop playing "Aunt Dinah"
again and again, those white middle-class audiences wound up dancing in the aisles. In
later productions, when everything moved indoors, we were all too staid, too serious, and
there was no dancing in the aisles. But Joplin's magic works, no matter where you hear the
Gary Davis has a marvelous web site
devoted to Treemonisha, with midi's of much of the opera (and from which we
borrowed the midi you're hearing), plus the complete libretto.
Video: The TV version (ISBN: 6301606205) of the1975
Houston Grand Opera production is apparently out of print. . As mentioned above, this
video, a composite from several nights of the original outdoor performances, communicates
quite a bit of the infectious energy of the production. Especially at the end, where,
under the closing titles, you get to watch the dancers doing "Aunt Dinah" again
and again as the audience refuses to stop applauding-- and dancing in the aisles.
CD: Deutsche Grammophon 35709. 90 minutes.
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