The Bootleg Files: Treemonisha

BOOTLEG FILES 723: “Treemonisha” (1982 Houston Grand Opera presentation of Scott Joplin’s opera.

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


It fell through the cracks.


If you are an opera buff like me – and, yes, believe it or else, I love opera – you will be interested in knowing about a new version of Scott Joplin’s sole surviving opera “Treemonisha” is being produced by Canada’s Volcano Theatre. This presentation – which includes a new libretto and expanded musical arrangements – was scheduled to premiere next month at Stanford Live in Palo Alto, California. However, a certain virus has forced the show’s postponement. (Thank you, Wuhan.)

Until this new version of “Treemonisha” sees the light of day, the only way to truly enjoy this work is through a 1982 VHS video production of the work staged by the Houston Grand Opera. Sadly, this version is not available on DVD, leaving the opera lover to either hunt down an old VHS video or watch a bootleg upload (with Portuguese subtitles) on YouTube.

“Treemonisha” is a strange post-script to Scott Joplin’s career. The celebrated ragtime music legend harbored deep hopes of being taken seriously as an opera composer. His first effort in the genre was “A Guest of Honor,” a 1903 work about the controversial dinner between President Theodore Roosevelt and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington. That opera is considered lost – the payroll for the original touring company was stolen during a stop in Kansas City and the production’s assets were confiscated by creditors, including the score. Joplin did not have a duplicate copy and “A Guest of Honor” was never seen again.

“Treemonisha” was Joplin’s second and final attempt at creating an opera. It was never fully staged in his lifetime and remained unknown until its rediscovery in the 1970s, which included a limited run Broadway production and the posthumous awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to Joplin.

But, truth be told, “Treemonisha” is not wholly successful work. Joplin was not trained in classical music and his original libretto was nowhere as invigorating as his hybrid score. Even worse, the three-act opera starts to show significant evidence of weakness when it comes into its home stretch, with a libretto drenched in a wimpy plea for morality and forgiveness.

But despite its problems, the Houston Grand Opera version of “Treemonisha” does an amazing job of hiding the creaks and cracks in Joplin’s concept with a full-throttle entertainment that will delight the sourest of opera haters.

Set in Texas in the 1880s, “Treemonisha” is anchored in a poor rural African-American community. The sole member of this society who achieved a formal education was the 18-year-old Treemonisha (Carmen Balthrop), who passed on the gifts of reading and writing to her suitor Remus (Curtis Rayam).

Treemonisha’s intelligence and respect for the power of education puts her odds with Zodzetrick (Obba Babatunde), the leader of a con artist gang profiting off the superstitions of the uneducated black farmers by selling “bags of luck.” They see Treemonisha as a threat to their livelihood and her kidnap her for imprisonment in their swamp hideout. However, Remus comes to the rescue by dressing up in a scarecrow’s clothing and playing on their superstitions. Mistaking this faux-scarecrow for the devil, the gang flees and Remus brings Treemonisha home.

When Zodzetrick and an associate are apprehended and brought to her community, Treemonisha urges forgiveness for their crimes. While there is initial reluctance to absolve the miscreants, Treemonisha’s argument wins the day and the community vows to follow her lead of gaining power through positive living.

Joplin’s advocacy of African-American self-improvement and self-reliance via education and a tolerance against unsavory characters was a tribute to the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who was also the subject of his earlier opera “A Guest of Honor.” The white majority society is mostly absent from “Treemonisha” except for a brief reference to a white neighbor who provided the title character with her early education and a fleeting moment where Treemonisha and Remus silently discover the slave chains left behind at an abandoned plantation.

Musically, “Treemonisha” was Joplin’s last hurrah before his untimely 1917 death. The opera’s overture is a marvelous swirl of classical and ragtime traditions, and this filmed production enhances the lively music with charming modern ballet mixed with a lively cake walk-style of dancing. Mabel Robinson’s choreography is endlessly inventive, especially in the ragtime-infused Act One ring dance (“We’re Goin’ Round”) and the Act Three finale (“A Real Slow Drag”). Also worth noting is the swamp around the tricksters’ lair, which is enhanced with “Frolic of the Bears” ballet featuring dancers in animal masks while oversized butterflies are carried through the air.

Carmen Balthrop’s perfect soprano and deeply subtle acting gives extraordinary power to the character of Treemonisha. Even in the wobbly third act, when her character’s plea for clemency slides towards being treacly, she serves up poise and dignity that is simply peerless. Also deserving of praise is Delores Ivory, whose rendition of the aria “Treemonisha’s Bringing Up” (about the surprising origins of the title character) is marvelous.

The men of “Treemonisha” don’t come off as well. Curtis Rayam’s noble Remus, Obba Babatunde’s cunning Zodzetrick, S. Ray Jacobs’ psalm-citing Parson Alltalk and Dorceal Duckens’ onerous Ned are two dimensional characters in the libretto. But in their respective performances, each singer invests humanity and passion into flat characters.

If anything, “Treemonisha” has one of the best closing numbers in operatic history: the ragtime dance “A Real Slow Drag” with the cast in high-stepping finale. It may not be pure Old Europe opera, but so what? It wraps up “Treemonisha” in a distinctive and original American ribbon to be savored forever.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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