TO Live and Luminato Festival Toronto present:

A Volcano production in association with The Canadian Opera Company, Soulpepper and Moveable Beast.

Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (A Musical Reimagining)

Composed by Scott Joplin

Book and libretto Adapted by Leah-Simone Bowen / Co-Librettist Cheryl L. Davis /Arranged and Orchestrated by Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set design by Camellia Coo and Rachel Forbes

Costume design by Nadine Grant

Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell

Wig design by Alicia Faith Burton

Choreographed by Esie Mensah

Principal Cast: Neema Bickersteth, Andrea Baker, Kristin Renee Young, SATE, Cedrick Berry, Ashley Faatoalia, Nicholas Davis, Marvin Lowe, Charlotte Siegel, Inez Mugisha, Queen Hezumuryango, Tafari Anthony, Robert Ball, Jim Williams, Khay, Pulga Muchochoma, Jaz ‘Fairy J’ Simone, Karen Wiegold.

Additional Gospel Chorus: Michelle Adams, Grace Gayle, Martin Gomes, Reverne Hazelwood, Kathleen Simpson

Orchestra: Kalena Bovell (conductor), Tanya Charles Iveniuk (concert master), Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison, Valéie Despax, Imani Duhe, Lena Fankauser, Tunde Jegede, Brandyn Lewis, Yohali Montero, Peter Perez, Zuri Wells

Welcome to the Scott Joplin renaissance! According to the program notes for the TO Live/ Luminato Festival presentation, Treemonisha, Scott Joplin’s classical Black opera, is seeing reimagined versions of the opera being presented right now in venues on two continents. In addition to Toronto, there are productions running at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in Missouri (with orchestrations and music by Damien Sneed, and new libretto by Karen Chilton) and the Isango Ensemble of Capetown, South Africa. 

The first fully revived, complete staging of the opera is credited to Dr. T. J. Anderson. It premiered in 1972 in Atlanta, Georgia, with orchestrations provided by Anderson working with a biracial creative team. Anderson was a graduate of Pennsylvania State University where he received a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s degree in music education. He earned a PhD in composition from University of Iowa in 1958.

Add to this later stagings by the Houston Grand Opera (1976), partly instigated by Joplin scholar, Vera Brodsky Lawrence, and the performance rights for amateur leasing with orchestrations by Gunther Schuller still currently held by Dramatists Play Service, and you have an interesting mix of styles and approaches to the work that will have musicologists buzzing for years. Scott Joplin would be quite touched by all of the attention I am sure.

With the publication of the hugely popular, Maple Leaf Rag (1899), Joplin’s signature ragtime composition, the young composer was dubbed, “King of Ragtime.” The tune’s popularity both by way of sheet music sales and increased performances for Joplin playing its highly syncopated and off the beat arrangement for piano in concert, gave the musician some economic security for the first time in his life. But most of all, it gave him confidence. 

Over the next decade, he would raise his sights substantially as a composer and begin to explore a form of grand opera that could encompass an African American sensibility while gesturing to European classical styles such as Wagner, Dvořák and others. His first opera, A Guest of Honor (1903) has been lost entirely but Treemonisha (1911), the story of a foundling who was taught by her adoptive family that Black communities can thrive only through education and understanding, has survived and continues to be the subject of study, recitals, debates, and much reimagining as evidenced by opera companies internationally that still revisit the work.

The all woman creative team assembled in Toronto to produce this opera is absolutely first rate and the talent on stage that delivers the material with such richness of expression and nuanced emotion was a thrilling experience to witness. There are no longueurs in this two and a half hour performance in which time passes very quickly indeed. 

Perhaps the most compelling argument for this particular production, above other past re-conceived versions of the opera, is the centrality of women’s voices with agency and free will that moves the plot line forward throughout. And although much credit must be paid to the new arrangements and orchestrations by Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth, which are superb (and so ably performed under the baton of Kalena Bovell with a nine piece orchestra that combines traditional and West African instrumentation), the contribution of the libretto writers, Leah-Simone Bowen and Cheryl L. Davis cannot be overlooked.

Treemonisha has morphed smoothly from a story once told by men to one now told by women. One telling example of this occurs when Treemonisha (sung by Neema Bickersteth with a passionate resonance that holds the audience in the palm of her hand throughout the performance)  leaves her formerly enslaved community who are now “freedmen” – also leaving behind her betrothed Remus (the accomplished tenor, Ashley Faatoalia) – to join Zodzerick, one of the Maroons she had met earlier in town who was selling trinkets said to bring good luck. Zodzerick guides her into the woods to meet with the rural, Maroons, who live communally and follow a set of spiritual practices known as Hoodoo, that was created by enslaved Africans in the Southern United States and is a blend of traditional African spiritualities, that incorporates elements of Christianity, Islam and indigenous botanical knowledge. They are led by Nana Buluku (sung by the wonderful SATE) a kind of Granny Nanny figure who led the Jamaican Maroons in an anti-colonial struggle against the British in the 18th century.

In the original story, Scott Joplin had Treemonisha being kidnapped, bound and gagged and taken into the woods by force to join a group the townspeople referred to as “conjurors.” In this reimagined version, Treemonisha goes along freely and joins the Maroons, falling in love with Zodzerick. And why wouldn’t she after listening to the charmingly amiable golden-honey-toned baritone voice of Cedric Berry as Zodzerick, who earlier had sung to her about a metaphorical “Bag of Luck” and alternative lifestyle that awaits her in the forest that had everyone in the audience nodding and clapping, “yes, good choice Treemonisha!”

Although the love story between Treemonisha and Zodzerick ends tragically, the play ends with both communities reuniting and getting on with the business of unity and reconciliation, while asking Treemonisha to take on a leadership role. The opera was set  in 1884 Texas which seems not all that different from Texas in 2023.

The case for Black composers working in musical theatre and opera is made in compelling fashion by this production. The Treemonisha program notes tell us that “it wasn’t until 2021 that the Met finally staged its first opera composed by a Black person – Terrence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” But this is just the way it has been. A white composer – say a John Adams, for instance – will have numerous kicks at the can and receive all kinds of commissions and financial support for projects from opera companies in the US. and abroad. Equally talented, award winning Black and IPOC composers are like the denizens of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca; they wait…and wait…and wait…and wait.

Scott Joplin never lived to see his opera performed on the stage. He died tragically in 1917 at the age of 48. Over a century later we are fortunate to be able to enjoy his work once again. But let us try to do better for those composers who are still waiting.

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