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June 10, 2019

It was the first all-African American opera. And now, Treemonisha is getting new life

Scott Joplin's groundbreaking 1911 opera is finally getting the reinvention it deserves

By: Lise Hosein 

In 1911, ragtime composer Scott Joplin wrote the opera Treemonisha. It was one of two operas he wrote during his lifetime, and it was important in a way that, over 100 years later, we still recognize — as the National Arts Centre puts it, "Treemonisha is one of the few surviving live performance pieces about the immediate post-slavery era written by a Black person who actually lived through it."

But Joplin did not have the opportunity to see Treemonisha staged during his lifetime. Librettist Leah Simone Bowen points out, "It is really the first all-African American opera. It's the first of its kind and it essentially was lost. He died penniless. He never saw it come to fruition, and so it kind of languished for years and years."

Despite not being staged while Joplin was still alive, Treemonisha has had a lasting legacy. It was first performed in its entirety in the 1970s, and in 1977 Joplin posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for music. It's been staged again since then, but now, it's being rewritten and expanded with an entirely new team at the helm. Volcano and librettist Bowen, along with collaborators Montgomery and Norpoth, director Mengesha and a multitude of performers, are reviving the opera for its premiere in 2020. The entire creative team — and the orchestra, once the opera goes public — is composed of Black women.

In this video, correspondent April Aliermo takes you inside one of the many rehearsals it takes to put this production together. You'll see some of what the team is doing to bring Treemonisha to life. It includes rewriting the libretto with a new prominent role for the titular character.

Bowen notes, "In the original, Treemonisha doesn't really have a lot to sing. They're all sung by men and they're all sung to her or about her. So that's when I really wanted it to be more Treemonisha, more women and making women the central focus." You'll also meet Neema Bickersteth, who's playing Treemonisha, as well as co-arrangers Montgomery and Norpoth, director Mengesha and castmate Sate (among others). It's not a small task, but this team is entirely up to the challenge.

Find out more about Treemonisha here. It's co-produced by Volcano and Moveable Beast and will premiere with Stanford Live, Palo Alto, California from April 23-26, 2020, followed by shows with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley May 2 and 3. Keep an eye out for the announcement of Toronto shows coming up in 2020. Scott Joplin's Treemonisha is co-commissioned by National Arts Centre/Centre national des Arts through the National Creation Fund; Stanford Live with the Hewlett Foundation; Washington Performing Arts; Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity; and Southbank Centre London UK.

Source: CBC Arts

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