Treemonisha: Opera in Three Acts, words and music by Scott Joplin (New York: Scott Joplin, c1911). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.
Scott Joplin composed three works for the stage. The first, The Ragtime Dance, depicted a typical African-American dance gathering; it was performed in 1899 at the Black 400 Club in Sedalia, Missouri. The second work, A Guest of Honor, about Booker T. Washington's dinner with Teddy Roosevelt at the White House, premiered in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1903. Joplin took the production on tour. A series of financial mishaps, however, ended the performances. The score is now thought to be lost.
Joplin's third stage work was the opera Treemonisha. The libretto, also written by the composer, tells the tale of the adopted daughter of former slaves Ned and Monisha. Because the baby was found under a tree, she is named Treemonisha.
Treemonisha deals with the conflicts in African-American culture at the end of the 19th century--the desire to move into mainstream American society countered by the strange pull of the old African ways and superstitions. Treemonisha is kidnapped by the so-called "conjure men," but is rescued and returned home, where she becomes a leader among her community. The theme of the work--the importance of an education for both men and women--is powerfully set against music that borrows all of the elements of European opera and merges them with the unique rhythms of ragtime. Indeed, one of the opera's main ensembles, "A Real Slow Drag," is a true apotheosis of the Joplin style.
Joplin was never able to raise the funds to produce Treemonisha, a factor that contributed to ill health at the end of his life. It was not staged until 1972, when it was presented under the auspices of Morehouse College in Atlanta, directed by Katherine Dunham and conducted by Robert Shaw. Although the work was produced shortly thereafter at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, its true premiere for the opera-going public was at the Houston Grand Opera in 1975, when Carmen Balthrop sang the lead role. Despite Joplin's disappointment over Treemonisha, today it is fast becoming a popular work in the American opera repertory.