Black Women's Leadership in the Opera: A Century in the Making
Reimagining Scott Joplin’s 1911 opera Treemonisha is a massive undertaking. The brilliant “King of Ragtime” composer spent his entire life savings publishing his groundbreaking masterpiece and never lived to see it reach the stage. This April, audiences will witness a rendering of Treemonisha—perhaps the only surviving opera written about life postslavery by a black person who lived it—like no other.
As playwright and librettist Leah- Simone Bowen explains, “This man wrote an opera with a central female figure. What’s that about? That’s so innovative right there. It was the women in his life that really shaped him.”
And indeed, it’s Black women who continue to shape his work over a century later—the majority of the creative team is made up of Black women artists. This international team, commissioned by critically acclaimed Canadian theater company Volcano, gathers artists from across North America to pay homage to Joplin.
The titular character and protagonist Treemonisha is a leader in her community. As per the original rendition—Joplin’s cast was all African American—the present-day production mirrors that same vision.
“It made sense to look for people who were Treemonisha in their own world,” says Neema Bickersteth, lead soprano and creative producer. “Through [Treemonisha’s] curiosity and her openness…I feel a similarity in myself to be curious about projects that I am in and all the projects that [have] led me to Treemonisha.”
Scott Joplin, known for his ragtime compositions, never saw his opera fully staged. Photo courtesy of Volcano Productions
For Bowen, collaboration was critical to the reworking of the piece. “I worked very closely with Deanna Downes…an amazing academic and dramaturge. She knows a lot about Reconstruction in African American history. She was really my everything.”
Through extensive research, revisioning, and returning to Joplin’s repertoire, Bowen began the journey to build a narrative to modernize the original. She methodically centers Treemonisha in character and in voice, whereas Joplin’s version presented male voices singing about her.
“There has been pushback from people. ‘Why would you dare touch Joplin?’ But the interesting thing is that artists like Shakespeare…live on because [they have been] adapted and remixed and rewritten,” Bowen says. “Why doesn’t Joplin deserve that kind of reverence?”
Director Weyni Mengesha and talented co-arrangers Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth seized the opportunity to remount Treemonisha. They were eager to recover this near-lost piece of music from the Black cannon.
Stanford Live is presenting the world premiere of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha from April 23–26. Photo courtesy of Volcano Productions
“As I began working on the story, I leaned on Weyni, and…one thing that doesn’t get talked a lot about is the trauma that everyone [experienced],” Bowen says. “We talk a lot about intergenerational trauma now, but [for] the people in the piece, slavery had just been abolished for twenty years.”
As a means of exploring the myriad ways that African Americans coped during Reconstruction, the musical team experimented with both European classical sounds and African musicality and rhythms. The two communities within the opera—the farming community and the maroon society of fugitive slaves—come together and so do their musical expressions.
“There is something really special about…envisioning how someone like Joplin worked in this active fusion,” says Montgomery. “I think that for a Black opera, it is really important and special to celebrate all of the different traditions that have come out of Black theater and Black music.”
The entire creative team gained a deeper understanding of Joplin, particularly his personal life, through the making of Treemonisha. “He had a very difficult life,” Montgomery reveals, “but his music is energy. It was designed to bring joy.”
Creative team Jessie Montgomery, Weyni Mengesha, and Ross Manson take a look at the original printed score for Treemonisha, hand delivered to the Library of Congress by Scott Joplin in 1911. Photo Courtesy of Volcano Productions
The irony of ragtime and the realities of Joplin’s hardship aren’t lost on the arranger. Dualities—ones that do not center on whiteness—are a constant theme throughout Treemonisha.
“I am a classical singer trained in a classical condition,” Bickersteth adds, “and I am a Black person. I often think about the conversation between these sides of myself. I feel that Joplin was having this conversation with himself [also].”
For Bowen, it is the specific details of Joplin’s life that inform her process. “I have a very intimate relationship with a dead man,” she laughs. “He’s just so fascinating to me. Yes, it’s an adapted work that we’ve tried to modernize for a new audience, but Joplin is the backbone of the piece.”
Presented by Stanford Live, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha makes its world premiere April 23–26, 2020, at the Palo Alto High School Performing Arts Center. Produced by Volcano theater with Moveable Beast collective and co-commissioned by Stanford Live, Treemonisha promises to be the first of its kind, one that opens a door to a continued tradition of great Black opera.
Many on the creative team are hoping for a resurgence of and newfound reverence for Joplin’s work.
“So many people don’t even know that Treemonisha exists as an opera,” Montgomery states. “[My hope is] that they would be inspired by Treemonisha. This idea of self-realization, self-actualization, and courage keeps us inspired and lifted. I feel passionately that this story can capture those common human aspirations.”
Whitney French is a storyteller and a multidisciplinary artist. She is the editor of Black Writers Matter (2019), a critically acclaimed anthology published by the University of Regina Press. Currently she lives in Toronto, Canada, where she works as an acquisitions editor for Dundurn Press.