In 1911 Joplin published the opera Treemonisha. The work was said to contain some of his best music. One theater agreed to produce it, but later reneged. Treemonisha was first staged in a concert performance in Atlanta, Georgia by the Afro-American Music Workshop of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw, conductor.
The choreographer and stage director was the famed African American dancer Katherine Dunham. Uzee Brown, Jr. made his operatic debut in the role of Parson Alltalk. On January 30, 1972 The New York Times published a review by Harold C. Schonberg:In writing “Treemonisha” – the libretto was his own – Joplin clearly intended to author a social as well as musical document. He set up the forces of ignorance and superstition against liberalism and education represented by a young lady named Treemonisha.” “Morehouse College, aided by a Rockefeller grant, gave “Treemonisha” an ambitious performance. Thomas J. Anderson, a visiting professor at the college, orchestrated the opera in a style that follows the one example of Joplin’s orchestration that has come down to us.The opera concludes with “A Real Slow Drag.” Schonberg writes:This slow drag is amazing. Harmonically enchanting, full of the tensions of an entire race, rhythmically catching, it refuses to leave the mind. Talk about soul music!The opera’s professional premiere is generally considered to have been the 1975 production of the Houston Grand Opera, for which Gunther Schuller produced the orchestration. The music can be heard on an original cast recording, Polygram 435709 (1992).
The Treemonisha Overture (9:37) has been recorded by the Italian pianist Marco Fumo on Dynamic CDS 351 (2000). The CD includes works for piano by four other composers, including Duke Ellington, James Price Johnson and William Grant Still. The author of the liner notes is Marcello Piras, a Black Music specialist:
The first piece is the Overture from the opera Treemonisha, which Scott Joplin completed in 1911. The composers’s orchestration has been lost: the one used nowadays was written with fond commitment by Gunther Schuller. Joplin published the score for piano and voice at his own expense, where the Overture and the Prelude to Act III appear as perfectly idiomatic piano pieces. Following the traditional rules of operatic writing, in the Overture Joplin patches together the main themes of Treemonisha; each of them has a symbolic meaning and/or is associated with a character, an environment or an episode. Those who ignore the opera libretto can therefore miss out on the hidden meaning of the Overture: it foreshadows the fight between good and evil, between the light of reason and the darkness of superstition, which is at the core of the opera. It was a question that obsessed Joplin in the last years of his life.