Scott Joplin: Treemonisha (1911/1972)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

Treemonisha is a unique work. Although written in 1911 and set in 1884, it received its first performance only in 1972, and in 1976 it won a Pulitzer Prize. Sometimes called the “ragtime opera”, it is actually incorporates a variety of musical styles, many of which are far closer to grand opera than typically African-American music including a full-scale overture, preludes, choruses, recitatives, ensembles, a ballet, and multiple arias. It does, however, include musical influences from southern Black-American music written in the 1870s and 1880s. The libretto, which was composed by Joplin himself, stresses the theme of education as the salvation of African Americans, a theme which sadly remains out of grasp for many in that community. The reason for the exact dating of the story is probably because it was the exact month and year of the birth of the composer’s second wife, Freddie Alexander, who had died in 1904. This results in the opera also having feminist themes, which become more apparent towards the end of the opera. Influences on Joplin in writing the scenario appear to include Wagner’s Siegfried (hero’s journey) and Die Walkure (a VERY sacred tree from which the titular heroine gets her name), more on this later). Generally speaking, the music is considered far superior to the storyline, which, although it contains certain strong themes and story elements, is somewhat weak dramatically, some of the character motivations are blurry, and even preachy, and certain episodes run too long or make little sense, including a ballet of frolicking bears!

The opera consists of 27 musical numbers, in 90 minutes. However, many of these are actually just recitative sections which happened to be assigned a number by Joplin, and often times last only a few seconds. Three or four last up to seven or eight minutes, including the overture.

SETTING: Between Texarkana, Texas (which was Joplin’s birthplace) and the Red River in Arkansas, September 1884. The title character, the 18-year-old Treemonisha (soprano) is the only educated black woman for miles around (having been taught to read and write by a white woman), and the adopted daughter of Monisha (soprano) and Ned (bass). The African-American community in Texarkana is under the influence and abuse of four local conjurers: Zodzetrick (baritone), Simon (bass), Cephus (tenor), and Ludded (baritone), who kidnap Treemonisha and attempt to throw her into a giant wasp nest because she is ruining their financial prospects by enlightening the population to their scams, specifically “bags of luck” (code for drugs). Setting out to rescue her is her friend Remus (tenor) who isn’t exactly a love interest because the opera doesn’t actually have a romantic sub-plot at all, although it tends to be implied into performances.


ACT 1: A former plantation between Texarkana and the Red River. (38 minutes)

0: The overture ** takes on multiple themes from later in the opera.

7: The Bag of Luck The opening number * is not nearly as interesting musically unfortunately until the arrival of Remus, who puts some oomph into the proceedings musically, although Treemonisha herself gets a properly operatic entrance when she confronts Zodzetrick, who has just failed a sale to Monisha which was foiled by Ned. However, this section sets up the one continuous plot point in the opera: the conflict between the conjurers and Treemonisha, who is foiling their business (con-game as it is) prospects. It requires good acting performances by the singers to pull it off effectively, not just singing.

14: We’re going around One of the better choral numbers **,

18: The SACRED Tree Monisha tells us about how Treemonisha arrived via the stork and a VERY SACRED TREE (she repeats this MULTIPLE TIMES to get her point across). This is prefaced by Treemonisha almost plucking leaves from the SACRED tree after being told to make a wreath for her head to wear by her friend Lucy. Monisha almost has an aneurysm over this, prompting one of the longest sections of exposition in all opera ** (some seven minutes): It appears that Treemonisha arrived one night and was found by Monisha under the tree (when Ned refused to go out and collect the crying infant himself even though Monisha could hear the cries over the snoring Ned). Musically, it is actually rather brilliant, with some high ornamental work for the seconda (up to a high A-flat), but the over emphasis on how SACRED that tree is can wear out its welcome fast. Anyway, everyone is now shocked that Treemonisha is not the biological daughter of Monisha and Ned.

26: We brought you up The second half of Treemonisha: The Prequel is made interesting by its usage of very attractive orchestral ornaments ** (the backstory and the vocals are not as interesting). In any case, Treemonisha was educated by a white lady, and the name is because Monisha+Tree=Treemonisha. Got to love that tree!

30: Listen Friends Parson Alltalk (yes, that is his name) gives his holy spiel with the chorus before Treemonisha gets kidnapped. Holy vibes *.

35: Look, Lucy! Lucy reveals that Treemonisha has been kidnapped (although it takes a lot of encouragement from the chorus and Monisha). The act ends, fittingly, with confusion ** as Ned vows to slaughter the conjurers like pigs and Remus vows to save Treemonisha.

ACT 2: A location in the woods near the Red River. (16 minutes)

1: If along the road Simon gives his conjurer best in this rather attractive bass aria con coro ** with a very mid-19th century sound world. Treemonisha is brought in by the three other conjurers, no one recognizes her, and Cephus (tenor that he is, doesn’t want to “punish her”).

6: The Frolic of the Bears **, a ballet that must be seen to be believed. This must be some sort of inside joke on the part of Joplin. Musically, it works well as a choral-ballet sequence, although the tone is very serious, which I suppose makes sense since they are prepping Treemonisha for the wasp nest .

11: Remus you have saved me Remus saves Treemonisha by running head long into the conjurers dressed as a scarecrow. The following rescue scene is very mild *, but pleasant. This is followed by a four-part male barbershop quartet for some cotton pickers, who give Remus directions to get home (apparently they are about 3 miles away from the plantation. The act ends with a jumpy rendition from the chorus of “Diana, Blow Your Horn”.

ACT 3: Same as Act 1. (36 minutes)

0: The act starts with a three-minute prelude **.

3: I must see her again A rightfully worried Monisha and Ned wait for Treemonisha in a cantabile **. Remus returns with Treemonisha (yes, this is only two-thirds of the way through the opera, and the primary conflict is over). However, Andy (a tenor friend of Treemonisha) brings in the four conjurers and is told to “punish them”. But Treemonisha, to the astonishment and horror of all, demands that Andy let them go free after a long lecturing.

9: Never treat your neighbors wrong Remus gives a lecture to the conjurers in the form of a six-minute long mid-19th-century tenor aria in waltz time ***.

16: When villains ramble far and near Ned gives another lecture ** with a slightly more religious tone.

22: We ought to have a leader Treemonisha suggests having a community leader, without actually volunteering anyone in particular, in her one aria in the piece **. The people acclaim her as their leader, after all, she is far better educated than the rest of them, even if she is only eighteen.

31: Marching Onward The opera ends with a dance-duet number for Treemonisha, Lucy, and the chorus **.


Treemonisha was part of an African American cultural renaissance which could have helped to improve racial integration in the United States. The problem was that it was never given the opportunity to do so. The economic factors involved here are obvious.

There are no white characters that appear in the story, the villains are rehabilitated, although no racially sensitive apology is made for what they are actually doing (drug pushing), and the musical forms themselves are a rather brilliant combination of Afro-American and European Romantic forms, although Joplin emphasizes the latter, which would obviously make the work more readily accessible to a wider audience. In many ways, Joplin seems to be trying to incorporate as many theatrical elements as possible into a relatively short work.

The work does have its flaws. Rarely does the music rise above the very good level (although it remains rather consistently at that level) and the dramatic pacing of the work can make it appear stilted on stage. By act three, most of the plot has already occurred, with the climax of the work occurring in the brief middle act. All that is left are for the kidnappers to be punished and lectured (which can come off as padding) and sent on their way to a dance number. This can start to border into oratorio.

Ultimately, the plot and theatrical pacing would be a beta, but the music could bring it up to alpha level. Probably more so than most other operas, this requires singers who can also act (and probably also dance) very effectively, otherwise a performance will easily bog down into melodramatics. If not, it could come off as downright laughable as some of the dialogue has double meanings for modern audiences or can sound unintentionally silly. However, given the right conditions, and a strong dance troop, this can be a great theatrical experience. Alpha minus.

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