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Scott Joplin, Treemonisha and American Opera

Alan Westby, Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Department,
Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917)

2017 marks the hundredth anniversary of the death, at the age of 49, of Scott Joplin, one of America's first great composers, and the composer of arguably the first important American opera: Treemonisha. Rooted in African American culture, which we celebrate this month, Treemonisha pre-dated the first successful era of American-composed opera by nearly half a century. 

Operas had been composed in the United States since the mid-19th century, but American opera did not come into its own until the mid-20th century with successful works by such composers as George Gershwin, Gian Carlo Menotti, Philip Glass, and John Coolidge Adams. Decades before this post-World War II American opera boom, Scott Joplin wrote the earliest American opera that can make any claim to a place in the standard repertoire today.
Born in the area of present-day Texarkana in 1867 or 1868, Joplin first became a national figure with the publication of his "Maple Leaf Rag" for piano in 1899. With this hit composition Joplin—nicknamed the "King of Ragtime"—was given a publishing contract, rare for the time, and a national ragtime craze ensued. Joplin composed over forty piano rags, or rag-influenced pieces over the next two decades. The classically trained Joplin conceived his piano compositions not in the improvisational tradition that would lead to the development of jazz, but as reframing folk music as art music, such as Brahms had done with Hungarian Roma music in his Hungarian Dances, or Chopin with Polish music in his Mazurkas. Not satisfied with writing these popular piano pieces, Joplin aspired to write for the stage and create a distinctly American form of opera with roots in African American music. 
Piano vocal score to <em>Treemonisha</em> (1911)
Joplin's self-published piano-vocal score to Treemonisha (1911)
Treemonisha is Joplin's only surviving opera, though it was not his first work in this art form. His first stage work was a short ballet entitled Ragtime Dance written and performed in 1899, the year Maple Leaf Rag was published. Joplin's first opera, A Guest of Honor, is now lost. The subject of this opera was most likely a White House dinner hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt for civil rights leader Booker T. Washington. The 12-member Scott Joplin Ragtime Opera Company performed A Guest of Honor to favorable reviews in St. Louis in 1903. While touring with the company, Joplin was robbed, and the manuscript to his first opera was lost. 
Joplin wrote the story and libretto to Treemonisha. The main character of the opera, Treemonisha, is an 18 year old woman who has been adopted and raised by a couple on a plantation in Texarkana. Treemonisha is kidnapped by a conjurer who is fearful that the educated Treemonisha poses a threat to his influence over the community. Education triumphs over superstition once Treemonisha is rescued and returns to the community as their leader.
Joplin's inexperience as a writer and lack of practical experience in opera resulted in some dramatic weaknesses in the plot and staging of Treemonisha which have pointed out by critics since the first performances in the 1970s. Nevertheless, the story presents American themes with specifically African American concerns. The plot of the opera is quite different from many of the opera plots of the late 19th and early 20th, which typically involve love stories, often in the melodramatic and violent style associated with Italian verismo composers such as Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Puccini. Although there is a minor love interest in the story of Treemonisha, the central theme of Joplin's opera is progress and the advancement of a rural community through education. Thematically at odds with European opera, his story is in the line of thought of contemporary African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington, subject of his first opera. The character of Treemonisha, and the opera itself embody Washington's belief that progress was enabled through education. Also, by placing a female character as the leader of the community, Joplin reflects contemporary progressive thought which led to women's right to vote a decade after the composition of the opera. 
'Principal strain' to Treemonisha
'Principal strain' to Treemonisha
Stylistically, the opera combines elements of both European and American traditions. The formal structure of the opera—three acts with overture, preludes, arias, recitatives, ensembles and choruses-- belongs to 19th century European opera, while the rhythms, harmony and melodic structure reflect Joplin's work with ragtime. Although often referred to as a 'Ragtime opera', Joplin himself did not use this term to describe Treemonisha. Nevertheless, a look at the 'principal strain' shows that the opera opens with the syncopated rhythms and pentatonic-based melodic lines characteristic of Joplin's piano rags. Other techniques which root the opera in African American musical culture include folk song-influenced melodies, barbershop quartet, syncopated dance, spirituals, and gospel call-and-response singing. 
Joplin finished the composition of Treemonisha about 1907 and the publication and performance of the opera became his main musical concern, and a single-minded obsession for the rest of his life. Publishers, more interested in his profitable piano rags than an opera, rejected Treemonisha. Joplin published the piano-vocal score at his own expense in 1911. Despite Joplin's fame, and positive reviews of the score from contemporary music critics, a three-act opera was deemed too risky a venture for production by contemporary companies. Besides a small-scale production in 1913 in New Jersey, and an unsuccessful reading for potential backers in 1915, with Joplin playing the piano part, Treemonisha was never staged in his lifetime. 
Until the mid-19th century the performance of an American-composed opera was not considered either economically feasible or culturally relevant. Though throughout the 19th century the performance of European opera was increasingly popular in the United States, American operas were looked on as imitations of European models. With the premieres of Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in the mid-1930s original American voices were heard on the opera stage. Neither opera gained an immediate place in the standard repertoire, but they laid the groundwork for a first golden age in American opera beginning in the 1950s. Among the highlights of this first flowering of American-composed opera are Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul (1950), Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1955), Lukas Foss' The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1950), William Schuman's The Mighty Casey (1953), Aaron Copland's The Tender Land (1954), Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (1954), Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956), and Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (1958). The establishment of performance venues and an audience for American opera led to such internationally-successful works by later American composers as Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Akhnaten (1983), and John Adams' Nixon in China (1987). 
Scott Joplin once remarked that his music would not be fully appreciated until a half century after his death. A renewed interest in his music grew roughly contemporaneous with the growth of native-composed American opera. Sporadic interest in a revival of Joplin's music began in the 1940s and gained momentum in the late 1960s. His popularity reached the level of national phenomenon in the 1970s. In 1970 pianist Joshua Rifkin recorded a set of Joplin's rags for the classical label, Nonesuch. This disk sold over 100,000 within a year of its release, and became the label's first million-seller. When George Roy Hill's film The Sting, starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, & Robert Shaw, was released in December 1973, Scott Joplin became a household name. The Joplin piano rags used in the film inspired young musicians, to gain enough keyboard proficiency to plunk out their melodies. Over 70 years after its composition, "The Entertainer"—used as the theme for the film-- gained a place on popular music charts. 
As a result of the renewed interest in Joplin Treemonisha was given its first fully staged performance over 60 years after its composition, in a semi-professional concert production by the Atlanta Symphony in 1972. Houston Grand Opera gave the opera its professional public premiere in 1975. Joplin's piano-vocal score has been orchestrated at least three times. Following this rebirth of interest in Joplin's music, he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976. In the decades since its revival in the 1970s, Treemonisha cannot be said to have truly gained a place in the standard repertoire, but it it has been performed multiple times including stagings in Germany, Italy, France and Finland, making it the oldest American opera to be so often revived.