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PREVIEW | Luminato Festival Toronto & TO Live Present The World Premiere Of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha Reimagined

By Anya Wassenberg on May 9, 2023

Scott Joplin's Treemonisha: Reimagined (Image courtesy of Luminato)
Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha: Reimagined (Image courtesy of Luminato)

Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha was never performed during his lifetime. For Luminato Toronto, Volcano has reimagined Treemonisha in a production that will receive its world premiere from June 6 to 17, 2023.

The Volcano production was created in association with the Canadian Opera Company, Soulpepper and Moveable Beast. Joplin’s opera tells a remarkable story, one that has seldom been heard — that of a Black person who actually lived through the post-slavery era in the United States.

Scott Joplin’s Post-Reconstruction Opera

Joplin is best known today for his ragtime songs and marches, which are nowadays considered classics of the genre. He was one of the earliest figures in a musical movement that would incorporate jazz, RnB, and the classic American songbook.

He wrote one other operas titled A Guest of Honor in 1903, the manuscript for which has been lost. While he specified that A Guest of Honor was a “ragtime opera”, Treemonisha incorporates various genres of music in style in the early 20th century. The score includes several movements, including a ballet and arias, with elements of Black folk songs, and a call-and-response style that is rooted in the proto-blues of the time, along with Western classical music.

L-R: Scott Joplin; Treemonisha score (Public domain images)
L-R: Scott Joplin; Treemonisha score (Public domain images)

The story is set in the 1880s, after the Civil War, and also after the U.S. government had abandoned its reconstruction initiatives. It was both feminist and progressive beyond his time for Joplin to make a woman the key figure. That, the political themes, and an all-Black cast account for why he couldn’t find backers in the New York opera world of the time.

Treemonisha received positive reviews when it was published in 1911. Joplin himself played the piano at a concert read-through at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem in 1915 which he financed himself. It didn’t go over so well with the audience, though, and that was the last time it would be heard in public for decades.

When he died in poverty in 1917, the orchestral parts were trashed. Joplin himself had printed and registered the piano and vocal score at the Library of Congress, which is the only reason any of the work survived.

That piano/vocal score was rediscovered in 1970, and subsequently performed in concert form, and finally as a world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia in 1972. A variety of composers have contributed their own orchestrations over the years, and it has been performed on Broadway and at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C.

Joplin was posthumously awarded the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Treemonisha.

Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha: A Musical Reimagining

In Joplin’s original story, Treemonisha is a freedwoman who was taught to read by a white woman (education is an ongoing theme of the work). She leads her community in a battle of wills against the crank leaders who deal in superstition and ignorance.

In the revamped story, a young Black woman’s story of personal loss and rediscovering her roots takes place against the backdrop of revolution. She finds a way to bring her community together, and a way forward into the future.

The opera has been reimagined by Volcano, with support from co-commissioning partners from across North America and the UK, including (in alphabetical order): the Apollo Theater, New York; BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music); Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity; Luminato Festival Toronto; Minnesota Opera; National Arts Centre of Canada; Southbank Centre UK; Stanford Live, TO Live, and Washington Performing Arts.

It’s a project that has been in gestation at Volcano for about seven years, led by a Black female creative team drawn from across the continent. A new story and libretto were crafted by playwright and broadcaster Leah-Simone Bowen (The Secret Life of Canada), working with Emmy-nominated co-librettist Cheryl L. Davis.

  • The musical arrangements have been expanded;
  • Orchestration by award-winning composer Jessie Montgomery and 2-time Grammy-nominated violinist/composer Jannina Norpoth;
  • Acclaimed Canadian soprano Neema Bickersteth leads an all-Black cast as Treemonisha;
  • An all-Black majority-female, nine-piece chamber orchestra performing on Western and African instruments.

Award-winning Canadian stage director Weyni Mengesha, and acclaimed Panamanian American conductor Kalena Bovell lead the production. Esie Mensah is the choreographer. The production will see the first Black woman conductor, and first all-Black orchestra, in Canadian opera history.

American and African identities are reflected in Joplin’s music, as well as in the addition orchestration. It reflects the themes of ancient traditions brought to a new land. The women characters, and Treemonisha in particular, are given more music in the Volcano version, some of it drawn from the original opera’s arias for male singers, inspired by Joplin’s other musical works.

The Production

The cast also includes, among others, Andrea Baker in the role of Monisha, Cedric Berry as Zodzerick, and Nicholas Davis as Ned. The full cast and creative team can be viewed here.

The 9-piece orchestra is led by first violinist Tanya Charles Iveniuk, with Tunde Jegede playing the kora, a West African bridge harp.

The performances take place at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, The Bluma Appel Theatre.

  • June 6 to 8: Previews
  • June 10: Black carpet opening
  • June 11 & 17: The performances will be ASL interpreted by a team of Deaf and ASL-English interpreters (see below)
  • June 14 to 16: Regular performances

Note: For ASL interpreted performances, please contact Nathan Sartore, Programming Coordinator, by email at nathan.sartore@tolive.com to reserve your audio description device.

Tickets are on sale now [HERE].


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