The 2023 season at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has opened in triumph with Treemonisha. The production is the world premiere of a new performing version of Scott Joplin’s opera.
A piano-vocal score of Treemonisha was published in 1911, but it was never staged during Joplin’s lifetime. The opera had to wait until 1975 for its premiere, which took place at the Houston Grand Opera. A burst of popularity followed, but the opera did not win a place in the active repertory.
Securing that place is a longtime aspiration of composer Damien Sneed. In a program note, he tells of the encouragement he received from his late mentor, Jessye Norman: “Damien, you must champion the work of Scott Joplin. He was never given the honor he was due. Please promise me you’ll finish and complete Treemonisha as you’ve started out to do.”
Sneed and librettist Karen Chilton have added a prologue and epilogue that place the opera in the context of Joplin’s life. The new prologue begins with Joplin’s marriage to his beloved muse, Freddie. His belief that she will inspire him to write an opera is reflected in the inspirational aria written for Freddie by Sneed and Chilton. Brandie Inez Sutton is brilliant in this aria and in all her work as both Freddie and Treemonisha.
A few months later, Freddie succumbs to a fatal illness just as Joplin is completing Treemonisha. In his grief, Joplin imagines that he and Freddie are together again as the leading characters in his opera.
As Joplin’s overture to Treemonisha begins, Freddie becomes Treemonisha, Joplin becomes her friend, Remus, and the scene shifts to the rural community where they live. The magic of this transformation is captured by director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and choreographer Maleek Washington. Their work is masterly throughout.
In Joplin’s first act, Treemonisha learns how her parents discovered her under a sacred tree when she was a baby. Maharaj and Washington shrewdly differentiate the sacred tree from the ordinary world by making it a group of dancers rather than a prop.
Treemonisha is the only person in the neighborhood with an education, and she has shared it by teaching Remus how to read and write. She stands up against the conjurors who are exploiting the community by selling bags of luck. The conjurors strike back by kidnapping Treemonisha while the town is distracted by a sermonizing parson.
Remus rescues Treemonisha just as the conjurors are about to push her into a wasp’s nest. After returning to the village, Treemonisha intervenes as the townspeople are about to punish the conjurors, who have been caught. She urges the community not to do “evil for evil” but to teach the captives to lead better lives. The conjurers are forgiven after they receive lectures from Remus and Ned, Treemonisha’s father. Their arias have great power and beauty in the performances by Justin Austin as Remus and Norman Garrett as Ned. Austin plays Joplin as well as Remus and is brilliant in both roles.
By acclamation, the town chooses Treemonisha as its leader, with the men pledging not to oppose her. Joplin’s ending is celebratory dance, a real slow drag. Washington’s choreography and the ensemble’s execution are delightful.
In the epilogue, Joplin is living in a squalid room with a washbasin and a piano he can barely play. He is physically ill and heartsick that his music has not received the recognition it deserved. He is approached by a spirit who may be Freddie, Treemonisha, or both. She assures him that in due season, everyone will hear and love his “wondrous creation.” They walk off together as the applause in the theater bears out the spirit’s prediction.
OTSL has assembled an excellent cast for this production. Several have already been mentioned. Phillip Bullock as the conjurer Zodzetrick and Markel Reed as Parson Alltalk bring the requisite flair to their characters. KS. Tichina Vaughn fully embodies Monisha’s love for her daughter, Treemonisha. In the prologue, Amani Cole-Felder evinces Lovie’s deep concern for her ailing sister, Freddie. Cole-Felder doubles as Lucy, a member of Treemonisha’s community. Also impressive in named roles are Jeremiah Tyson as Andy, Shavon Lloyd as the conjurer Simon, Yazid Gray as the conjurer Luddud, Namarea Randolph-Yosea as Cephus, and Camron Gray as a foreman.
The Saint Louis Symphony plays beguilingly throughout under conductor George Manahan. Marsha Ginsburg’s attractive, flexible scenic design features trees that can be lowered when needed and quickly raised when the scene changes. Pleasing and appropriate looks for all the characters are furnished by Dede Ayite’s costumes and Kristal Balleza and Will Vicari’s wigs and makeup. Marcus Doshi’s lighting produces many lovely effects, including the elegant shadows of dancers projected on a scrim during the overture.
Chilton’s libretto omits indications of dialect in the original. Joplin used speech patterns to differentiate the educated characters, Treemonisha and Remus, from the others, but losing this distinction is a small price to pay for not having to hear dialogue that would fall harshly on contemporary ears. Under English diction specialist Erie Mills, the cast brings gratifying clarity to the text.
The synergy of the new edition is remarkable. The prologue and epilogue are beautiful, compelling works with a style of their own that is entirely compatible with Joplin’s. In the setting of these additions, the jewel at their center shines with its full brightness.
The remaining performances of Treemonisha are at 7:30 p.m. on May 26, and June 6, 8, 11, 21, and 24, and at 12:30 p.m. on June 2. For more information and tickets, go to https://opera-stl.org/.
Photo © Eric Woolsey
Brandie Inez Sutton as Treemonisha and Justin Austin as Remus in Treemonisha by Scott Joplin, reimagined by composer Damien Sneed and librettist Karen Chilton.