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Found under a tree by an ex-slave named Monisha, Treemonisha grows into a woman who will change the course of her post Civil War community. This is Scott Joplin’s main character in his almost unknown 1911 opera, Treemonisha, the first black opera composed in North America to survive to the present day.
Treemonisha is politically visionary and musically hybrid – drawing on both European classical and black folk traditions, and dealing with issues of education and democracy. Through his main character, Joplin creates a radically feminist story: a woman who is elected as a leader by her community long before women’s suffrage found success anywhere in North America. Decades ahead of its time, it was rejected at its composition date by the establishment, and was shelved – receiving (probably) only a handful of in-progress performances in Joplin’s lifetime. Joplin poured everything he had into this opera, and its lack of success was a severe blow. He was to die penniless only a few years later, and Treemonisha was almost forgotten: the orchestral parts were thrown out (along with much of Joplin’s music). Only the piano/vocal score remained.
It is from this score that we are working. In a joint US/Canada creative collaboration, Volcano is creating a new libretto honouring the politics of Joplin’s original, and maintaining his setting (Texarkana in the late 1800s). Most of his characters remain, although a much greater emphasis is being placed on the women. Treemonisha herself is being reassigned more music, given a fuller journey, and a storyline that will resonate strongly with the politics of today. The new words will be retrofitted onto Joplin’s extraordinary music, and the whole thing will be brought to life by a new musical arrangement.
A WORD FROM LIBRETTIST LEAH-SIMONE BOWEN 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 opera set around the post civil war Reconstruction era without white voices. To be a black man writing in the early 1900's and in this genre was a completely subversive move. At a time when black people were newly freed, Joplin created a story of a community of black people that had agency. He was truly ahead of his time.
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