Scott Joplin was not what anyone today would call an activist. Still, the composer made subtle political statements that reflected on the social and political milieu of his time, the late 19th and early 20th century.
Best known for his instrumental solo piano rags, of which there were more than 40, Joplin also composed two operas. The first, titled “Guest of Honor” (now lost), delved into the controversy over African-American educator Booker T. Washington’s reception by President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1901.
Joplin’s second opera, “Treemonisha,” composed 10 years later, tackled the issue that was closest to Washington’s heart: the education of former slaves and their descendants.
“Treemonisha,” which was never fully staged during Joplin’s lifetime, will be performed in New Orleans this weekend by Opera Creole, an African-American vocal ensemble specializing in the works of 19th- and 20th-century black and Creole composers.
Performances will be Friday and Saturday evenings at the Music Box Village, an outdoor performance venue on North Rampart Street in the Bywater neighborhood between Poland Avenue and the Industrial Canal levee.
The production is a collaboration of Opera Creole, Cripple Creek Theatre Company, New Orleans Airlift and the New Resonance Orchestra conducted by Francis Scully. Emily Whalen from Cripple Creek directs, and Nicole Buckels is the choreographer.
Set in three acts, there are about two dozen arias and choral numbers in the work.
The opera marks the centennial of Joplin’s death, said Givonna Joseph, Opera Creole founder and vocalist.
“We’ve done songs from this before, and that’s where the conversation began about doing this as a full production,” Joseph said. This will be the first staging of “Treemonisha” in New Orleans in more than 20 years, she said.
The fictional story follows the life of a young black woman in the post-Reconstruction South who was taught to read by a white woman and who, in turn, seeks to educate former slaves and their children in their small Arkansas village. But first she must overcome their resistance to learning as well as debunk popular superstitious beliefs.
Kenya Lawrence Jackson, a soprano who sang the title role in Opera Creole’s recent production of “La Flamenca,” sings the role of Treemonisha. Also in key roles are Ebonee Davis and Terrance Brown as her adoptive parents, Monisha and Ned.
Other cast members include Prentiss Mouton, Cameron Ware, Kayla Lewis, Vance Vaucresson, Mica Turner, Kentrell Roberts, Mark-Anthony Thomas and Dedrian Hogan. Joseph, a mezzo-soprano, sings in the onstage chorus along with Thaddeus Bailey.
According to Joseph, Joplin may have borrowed elements from American literary works that were popular at the time or among those of the previous generation, most notably Joel Chandler Harris’ “Tales of Uncle Remus” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” There is a scene in “Treemonisha” in which her captors threaten to throw her into a wasp nest, echoing the “Uncle Remus” story of Br’er Rabbit and the briar patch.
There's even a character named Remus (sung by Mouton) but, unlike the Harris creation, “This Remus was not a stereotypical character at all. He’s heroic,” Joseph said, noting that he rescues Treemonisha from her captors. “The composer may have been trying to undo the stereotype by making him a hero.”
Joplin’s music was heavily influenced by the works of German composer Richard Wagner, whose life overlapped Joplin’s early years, Joseph said. As a youth, while living in Missouri, Joplin studied classical piano under German immigrant Julius Weiss.
Commenting on her role as the title character, Jackson said, “I’m really excited about it. I think it’s going to be a beautiful production. The singers are amazing, the dancers are amazing, and the performance space is very cool. We’re all having fun with it.”
Jackson compares her role to that of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”
"She’s the one educated character in this whole show, and she is coming into her own,” Jackson said. “She doesn’t end up the way she starts off, and it’s fun to make that happen.”
An opera in three acts by Scott Joplin, staged by Opera Creole with the New Resonance Orchestra, Francis Scully conducting
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
WHERE: Music Box Village, 4557 N. Rampart St., New Orleans