In 1911, composer Scott Joplin—best known as the King of Ragtime—self-published and distributed the piano-vocal score for his recently completed opera Treemonisha. Despite a full-page rave review in American Musician and Art Journal, the opera never caught much attention and save for a 1915 concert reading, with Joplin himself accompanying on piano, the opera was never produced in Joplin's lifetime.
Despite the turn-of-the-century popularity of "Maple Leaf Rag," the pioneering African-American composer died destitute in 1917 and was buried in a pauper's grave in Elmhurst, NY.
His music would lie almost dormant for the next 50 years, although praised and sporadically recorded by leading jazz artists. However, the 1970s found a resurgence of interest in the composer and his ragtime tunes. In 1971, musicologist Joshua Rifkin released Scott Joplin: Piano Rags on Nonesuch Records, with a Volume 2 published in 1974. Both albums hit the top ten on Billboard's classical charts, and the former become Nonesuch's first album to ever sell one million copies. NY Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, after hearing Rifkin's album, published an article titled "Scholars, Get Busy on Scott Joplin!" In 1973, Joplin's music was featured in the film The Sting, garnering a young Marvin Hamlisch an Oscar for his adapted score.
And Treemonisha was rediscovered.
Excerpts from the oepra were performed in 1971 at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the work was presented in whole in 1972 as a concert performance in Atlanta, Georgia by the Afro-American Music Workshop of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony under conductor Robert Shaw. It was staged and choreographed by dancer and director Katherine Dunham and was orchestrated by scholar Dr. T.J. Anderson.
The action of the opera is set in 1884 near Texarkana, Texas (Joplin's hometown) on a former slave plantation. The title character, Treemonisha, is a freedwoman who, through education, leads her community away from the influence of superstition and "conjurers."
The opera was fully produced in 1975 by Houston Grand Opera with soprano Carmen Balthrop, who had just won the top prize in the New York Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions, singing the title role. That production, orchestrated by Gunther Schuller, moved on to a Broadway production in 1976, where it played six previews and 54 performances at the Uris Theatre. Watch a clip of the Houston Grand Opera production below.
Living somewhere in its own unique musical world between a European grand opera and the sounds of Joplin's ragtime piano compositions, Treemonisha is oft considered America's first opera of its own. In 1976, almost 60 years after the composer's death, Scott Joplin was posthumously awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music.