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The cover of the Treemonisha score published in 1911

Treemonisha (1911) is an opera composed by the African-American composer Scott Joplin, most famous for his ragtime piano works. Though it encompasses a wide range of musical styles other than ragtime, and Joplin did not refer to it as such,[1] it is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a "ragtime opera". The music of Treemonisha includes an overture and prelude, along with various recitatives, choruses, small ensemble pieces, a ballet, and a few arias.[2]

The opera was virtually unheard of until its first complete performance in 1972. The performance was called a "semimiracle" by music historian Gilbert Chase, who said Treemonisha "bestowed its creative vitality and moral message upon many thousands of delighted listeners and viewers" when it was recreated.[3] The musical style of the opera is the popular romantic one of the early 20th century. It has been described as "charming and piquant and ... deeply moving",[2] with elements of black folk songs and dances, including a kind of pre-blues music, spirituals, and a call-and-response style scene involving a congregation and preacher.[4]

The opera's theme is that education is the salvation of the Negro race, represented by the heroine and symbolic educator Treemonisha, who runs into trouble with a local band of magicians who kidnap her.[2]


Treemonisha was completed in 1910, and Joplin paid for a piano-vocal score to be published in 1911.[5] At the time of the publication, he sent a copy of the score to the American Musician and Art Journal. Treemonisha received a glowing, full-page review in the June issue.[6] The review called it an "entirely new phase of musical art and... a thoroughly American opera (style)",[5] which fit in well with Joplin's desire to create a distinctive form of African-American opera.[6]

Scott Joplin

Despite this endorsement, the opera was never fully staged during his lifetime. Its sole performance was a concert read-through with Joplin at the piano in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, New York, paid for by Joplin.[1] One of Joplin's friends, Sam Patterson, described this performance as "thin and unconvincing, little better than a rehearsal... its special quality (would have been) lost on the typical Harlem audience (that was) sophisticated enough to reject their folk past but not sufficiently so to relish a return to it".[7]

Aside from a concert-style performance in 1915 of the ballet from Act II, Frolic of the Bears by the Martin-Smith Music School,[8] the opera was forgotten until 1970, when the score was rediscovered. On October 22, 1971, excerpts from Treemonisha were presented in concert form at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts with musical performances by Bolcom, Rifkin and Mary Lou Williams supporting a group of singers.[9] The world premiere took place on January 27, 1972, as a joint production of the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia, using the orchestration by T. J. Anderson. The performance was directed by noted African-American dancer Katherine Dunham and conducted by Robert Shaw, one of the first major American conductors to hire both black and white singers for his chorale. The production was well received by both audiences and critics.[2]

Along with Joplin's first opera A Guest of Honor (1903), the orchestration notes for Treemonisha have been completely lost. Subsequent performances have been produced using orchestrations created by a variety of composers, including T. J. Anderson, Gunther Schuller, and most recently, Rick Benjamin. Since its premiere, Treemonisha has been performed all over the United States, at venues such as the Houston Grand Opera, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and in 1975 at the Uris Theatre on Broadway to overwhelming critical and public acclaim. Opera historian Elise Kirk noted that "the opera slumbered in oblivion for more than half a century before making a triumphant Broadway debut. It was also recorded commercially in its entirety – the earliest African American opera to achieve that distinction and the earliest to receive widespread modern recognition and performance."[10]


Joplin's intention in writing Treemonisha was to make it both a serious opera in the European tradition, and an entertaining piece of music. He drew on the ragtime idiom only in the dance episodes of the story.[3]

Historians have speculated that Joplin's second wife, Freddie Alexander, may have inspired the opera.[11] Like the title character, she was educated, well-read and known to be a proponent of women's rights and African-American culture.[12] The fact that Joplin set the work in September 1884, the month and year of Alexander's birth, contributes to that theory.

Joplin biographer Edward A. Berlin has said that Treemonisha may have mirrored details from Joplin's own life, writing that the opera was "a tribute to the woman he loved, a woman other biographers never even mentioned." In the opera, the title character receives her education in a white woman's home. Berlin speculates about parallels between the plot and Joplin's own life. Specifically, Joplin taught himself music fundamentals on a piano in the white home where his mother worked.[13] He notes that Lottie Joplin (the composer's third wife) saw a connection between the character Treemonisha's wish to lead her people out of ignorance, and a similar desire in the composer. Lottie Joplin also describes Treemonisha as a spirit that would speak to him while Scott Joplin played the piano and she would shape the composition. "She'd tell him secrets. She'd tell him the past and the future," said Lottie Joplin. Treemonisha was an entity present while the piece was being created and part of the process. In addition, it has been speculated that Treemonisha represents Freddie, Joplin's second wife, because the date of the opera's setting was likely to have been the month of her birth.[14]

At the time of the opera's publication in 1911, the American Musician and Art Journal praised it as "an entirely new form of operatic art".[15] Later critics have also praised the opera as occupying a special place in American history, with its heroine "a startlingly early voice for modern civil rights causes, notably the importance of education and knowledge to African American advancement."[16] Curtis's conclusion is similar: "In the end, Treemonisha offered a celebration of literacy, learning, hard work, and community solidarity as the best formula for advancing the race."[17] Berlin describes it as a "fine opera, certainly more interesting than most operas then being written in the United States", but then states that Joplin's own libretto showed the composer "was not a competent dramatist" and that the libretto was not of the same quality as the music.[18]

Plot synopsis[edit]

Treemonisha takes place in a former slave plantation in an isolated forest between Joplin's childhood town Texarkana and the Red River in Arkansas in September 1884. The plot centers on an 18-year-old woman Treemonisha who is taught to read by a white woman, and then leads her community against the influence of conjurers who prey on ignorance and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps' nest when her friend Remus rescues her. The community realizes the value of education and the liability of their ignorance before choosing her as their teacher and leader.[17][19][20]


  • Andy, friend of Treemonisha – tenor
  • Cephus, a conjurer – tenor
  • Lucy, friend of Treemonisha – mezzo-soprano
  • Luddud, a conjurer – baritone
  • Monisha, Treemonisha's supposed mother – contralto
  • Ned, Treemonisha's father – bass
  • Parson Alltalk, a preacher – baritone
  • Remus, friend of Treemonisha – tenor
  • Simon, a conjurer – bass
  • Treemonisha, a young, educated freed slave – soprano
  • Zodzetrick, a conjurer – baritone

Original cast[edit]

1972 Atlanta World Premiere[1]

Musical numbers[edit]

Act 1

  • Overture
  • The Bag of Luck – Zodzetrick, Monisha, Ned, Treemonisha, Remus
  • The Corn Huskers – Chorus, Treemonisha, Remus
  • We're Goin' Around (A Ring Play) – Andy, Chorus
  • The Wreath – Treemonisha, Lucy, Monisha, Chorus
  • The Sacred Tree – Monisha
  • Surprised – Treemonisha, Chorus
  • Treemonisha's Bringing Up – Monisha, Treemonisha, Chorus
  • Good Advice – Parson Alltalk, Chorus
  • Confusion – Monisha, Chorus, Lucy, Ned, Remus

Act 2

  • Superstition – Simon, Chorus
  • Treemonisha in Peril – Simon, Chorus, Zodzetrick, Luddud, Cephus
  • Frolic of the Bears
  • The Wasp Nest – Simon, Chorus, Cephus
  • The Rescue – Treemonisha, Remus
  • We Will Rest Awhile / Song of the Cotton Pickers – Chorus
  • Going Home – Treemonisha, Remus, Chorus
  • Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn – Chorus

Act 3

  • Prelude to Act 3
  • I Want To See My Child – Monisha, Ned
  • Treemonisha's Return – Monisha, Ned, Remus, Treemonisha, Chorus, Andy, Zodzetrick, Luddud
  • Wrong is Never Right (A Lecture) – Remus, Chorus
  • Abuse – Andy, Chorus, Treemonisha
  • When Villains Ramble Far and Near (A Lecture) – Ned
  • Conjurors Forgiven – Treemonisha, Andy, Chorus
  • We Will Trust You As Our Leader – Treemonisha, Chorus
  • A Real Slow Drag – Treemonisha, Lucy, Chorus

Critical appraisal[edit]

Joplin wrote both the score and the libretto for the opera, which largely follows the form of European opera with many conventional arias, ensembles and choruses. In addition the themes of superstition and mysticism which are evident in Treemonisha are common in the operatic tradition, and certain aspects of the plot echo devices in the work of the German composer Richard Wagner (of which Joplin was aware); a sacred tree under which Treemonisha is found recalls the tree from which Siegmund takes his enchanted sword in Die Walküre, and the retelling of the heroine's origins echos aspects of the opera Siegfried. In addition, African-American folk tales also influence the story, with the wasp nest incident being similar to the story of Br'er Rabbit and the briar patch.[21]

Treemonisha is not a ragtime opera because Joplin employed the styles of ragtime and other black music sparingly, using them to convey "racial character", and to celebrate the music of his childhood at the end of the 19th Century. The opera has been seen as a valuable record of rural black music from the 1870s–1890s re-created by a "skilled and sensitive participant".[22]

Joplins was also awarded posthumously the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1976 for Treemonisha.

Staged versions[edit]

North America[edit]

Atlanta Symphony and Morehouse Glee Club[edit]

The world premiere of Treemonisha was presented in 1972 by the Atlanta Symphony,[23] under Robert Shaw, and the Morehouse Glee Club, under Wendell Whalum, the production's musical director.[24] Katherine Dunham was stage director.[25]

Houston Grand Opera[edit]

In 1976 the Houston Grand Opera first staged Treemonisha under music director Chris Nance and stage director Frank Corsaro. In 1982 the company revived that staging and produced a video of the production for television by Sidney Smith. This used the Schuller orchestration and starred Carmen Balthrop as Treemonisha, Delores Ivory as Monisha, and Obba Babatundé as Zodzetrick. Deutsche Grammophon had previously released the audio version of this production on LPs in 1976.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign[edit]

A fully orchestrated and costumed production of Treemonisha was staged in February 1991 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.[26]

The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra[edit]

Rick Benjamin, conductor of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, spent five years orchestrating the opera score for Treemonisha for a 12-piece theater pit orchestra of the kind Joplin and his peers wrote for and performed with.

In June 2003 Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra premiered their version of Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha at the Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco. An extensively annotated 204-page book and two-CD recording of Benjamin's orchestration was released in 2011.[27][28]


Europe saw staged versions in Venice (Italy), Helsinki (Finland) and Gießen (Germany). After the German premiere at the Stadttheater Gießen in 1984,[29] Germany saw another stage version at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden in April 2015.[30]


In 1997, Aaron Robinson conducted Treemonisha: The Concert Version at the Rockport Opera House in Rockport, Maine, with a new libretto by Judith Kurtz Bogdanove.[31]

A performance of three songs from Treemonisha (Nos. 4, 27, and 18) took place at the Berlin University of the Arts on June 17, 2009. A new arrangement for singers and brass band (4 trumpets, 4 trombones, French horn, tuba) had been commissioned from German composer Stefan Beyer.[32] In April 2010, a production was mounted in Paris, France, at the Théâtre du Châtelet.[33]

In June 2008 Sue Keller produced and arranged an abridged orchestral-choral rendition of Treemonisha. The production was commissioned by the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation,[34] which hosts the week-long ragtime piano extravaganza held annually in Sedalia, Missouri. The original piano-vocal music book published by Scott Joplin in 1911 was used as a starting point for orchestration. The Scott Joplin publication is available from The Library of Congress.[35]

A suite from Treemonisha arranged by Gunther Schuller was performed as part of The Rest Is Noise season at London's South Bank in 2013.[36]



  1. ^ a b c "Treemonisha". Archived from the original on February 18, 2005. Retrieved September 13, 2005.
  2. ^ a b c d Southern (1997), p. 537
  3. ^ a b Chase, p. 545
  4. ^ Southern (1997), pp. 537–540
  5. ^ a b Chase, p. 546
  6. ^ a b "Scott Joplin". Vance's Fantastic Classic Black Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 13, 2005.
  7. ^ Southern (1997), p. 324; Southern cites Rudi Blesh, "Scott Joplin: Black-American Classicist", The Collected Works of Scott Joplin (New York, 1971), p. xxxix
  8. ^ Center for Black Music Research Digest
  9. ^ Nancy R. Ping-Robbins, Scott Joplin: a guide to research (New York: Garland, 1998), p. 289. ISBN 0-8240-8399-7.
  10. ^ Kirk (2001), p. 189
  11. ^ Berlin (1996) pp. 207–8.
  12. ^ Scott Joplin by Kenny Blacklock, The Unconservatory. Accessed 11 September 2017.
  13. ^ The Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation
  14. ^ Berlin (1996) pp. 207–8.
  15. ^ Berlin (1996) p. 202.
  16. ^ Kirk (2001) p. 194.
  17. ^ a b Christensen (1999) p. 444.
  18. ^ Berlin (1996) pp. 202–3.
  19. ^ Berlin (1996) p. 203.
  20. ^ Crawford (2001) p. 545.
  21. ^ Berlin (1996) pp. 203–4.
  22. ^ Berlin (1996) pp. 202 & 204.
  23. ^ Jones, Nick (1999). "The Legacy of Robert Shaw, Music Director (1967–1988)". Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Retrieved February 22, 2016.
  24. ^ "Wendell Whalum, a choral music legend". African-American Registry. 2013. Retrieved February 22, 2016.
  25. ^ "Katherine Dunham biography (1909–2006)". The Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts & Humanities. 2011. Retrieved February 22, 2016.
  26. ^ "A Musical Miracle. Joplin's Little-known Treemonisha Is A One-of-a-kind Opera.", Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1991]
  27. ^ "How Joplin heard America singing" by Jesse Hamlin, San Francisco Chronicle, June 21, 2003
  28. ^ Stern Grove Festival Web Site
  29. ^ Nancy R. Ping Robbins, Guy Marco: Scott Joplin: A Guide to Research. Routledge, 2014, p. 299
  30. ^ "Treemonisha Oper mit getanzten Szenen". Staatsschauspiel Dresden. Retrieved 26 April 2015.
  31. ^ Martin, Lucy (November 8, 1997). "Making a Joyful Noise with Joplin (Entertainment section)". Lincoln County News. Damariscotta, Maine.
  32. ^ "Brass meets Musical" – Treemonisha (Arr. Stefan Beyer) in Berlin June 2009
  33. ^ "Treemonisha in Paris – Scott Joplin's rarely performed opera gets a rousing ovation in the City of Lights" Archived 2010-04-10 at the Wayback Machine.
  34. ^ Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation
  35. ^ Library of Congress scan of the entire 246-page Treemonisha piano/vocal sheet music book as published by Scott Joplin (1911)
  36. ^ "The Rest is Noise: American mavericks". Time Out.


External links[edit]