Stage Door Review 2023


Monday, June 12, 2023


by Scott Joplin, directed by Weyni Mengesha

Volcano with the Canadian Opera Company, Soulpepper & Moveable Beast, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto

June 10-17, 2023

Treemonisha: “Was I born to do this?”

2023 has been a great year for Ontarians to get to know Black opera. February saw the first performance of an opera by a Black composer, La Flambeau, in the province. March saw the first performance of the opera L’Amant anonyme (1780) by Black composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. And March also saw the premiere of Of the Sea featuring the largest all-Black cast in a Canadian opera. Now Luminato and TO Live are presenting the Canadian premiere of Scott Joplin’s 1911 opera Treemonisha with an all-Black orchestra led by Kalena Bovell, the first Black woman to conduct an opera in Canada. Like L’Amant anonyme, Treemonisha is one of those operas I have read about but despaired of ever seeing. After enjoying Volcano’s wonderful production, I can aver that Treemonisha is a must-see for anyone interested in Scott Joplin or the history of opera in North America.

Treemonisha is produced by Volcano with the Canadian Opera Company, Soulpepper and Moveable Beast and is a coproduction with ten other companies in Canada, the US and the UK. This is a new production of Joplin’s opera and, as the producers note, a re-imagining of it.

Scott Joplin (c.1868-1917), as most people know, is famous as the “King of Ragtime”. Few people know that he also wrote classical music. Joplin’s first opera was A Guest of Honor (1901), now lost, which went on tour through the US. Treemonisha (pronounced tree-mo-NISH-a) was his second. Joplin paid for the piano-vocal score to be published and that is now all that remains. Though the score received a rave review at the time, neither this nor a concert read-through in 1915 led to the work being taken up by an opera house. The opera was never staged during Joplin’s lifetime and his orchestrations have been completely lost.

Treemonisha had to wait until 1972 for its world premiere with orchestrations by Black composer T.J. Anderson. The opera achieved wider fame when it was presented at the Houston Grand Opera in 1975 with orchestrations by White composer Gunther Schuller and travelled to Washington, DC, and Broadway. The opera has since been performed in Italy, Finland, Germany and France with its most recent performance in London, England, in 2019.

Critiques of the opera have always praised Joplin’s music and his goal of creating a separate form of African-American opera but have found the libretto Joplin wrote wanting. This has spurred the “re-imagination” of Treemonisha both in libretto and orchestration by Volcano. Leah-Simone Bowen has written a revised story and she and Cheryl L. Davis have written a new libretto. Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth have newly orchestrated the score for an ensemble of ten, including African instruments such as the marimba, bala, djembe and kora.

The new version follows the general outline of the Joplin’s original plot. Set in Joplin’s hometown of Texarkana, Texas, in 1884, it traces the growth of the 19-year-old Treemonisha from educated young woman to leader of her community. The conflict in the original is between Christian Freedmen, formerly enslaved people who have taken over abandoned plantation land, and people whom Joplin calls “conjurors” who still adhere to traditional African beliefs.

In the original, Joplin portrays the Freedmen as good and the conjurors as evil. The enlightened Treemonisha preaches against the ignorance of the conjurors led by Zodzetrick and in revenge they kidnap her and plan to cast her onto a giant wasps’ nest. Luckily, she is rescued from that fate by her friend Remus. At the end Zodzetrick and his companion Luddud are captured and the Freedmen want to kill them. Treemonisha intervenes and calls for forgiveness and peace.

The new version replaces the conjurors with Maroons. Maroons are descendants of Africans in the Americas who escaped from slavery and formed their own settlements. As they note in the programme the co-librettists particularly have in mind the Maroons of Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, who lived there between about 1700 and the 1860s where they generally avoided discovery and capture.

Changing the conjurors to Maroons shifts the conflict from one between good and evil to one between new ideas and ancestral ones with no negative judgement placed on either. In the original Treemonisha and Remus are just friends. In the new version they are engaged and about to be married, even though Treemonisha admits to her sister Lucy that she doesn’t love Remus. As in the original Treemonisha discovers that Monisha and Ned are not her parents.

In the new version Treemonisha vows to find out who her mother was. Rather than being kidnapped, this Treemonisha intentionally goes to the Maroons land believing that her mother was likely one of them. Zodzerick (as he is now called), far from trying to harm Treemonisha, offers to be her guide and the two fall in love. Without giving too much away, Remus goes to find his fiancée and he rather than Zodzerick becomes the villain.

In the original the moral authority of the Freedmen is embodied in Pastor Alltalk while the conjurors have no central authority. For the new version the librettists have invented the character of Nana to stand as the embodiment of the Maroons’ beliefs to balance Pastor Alltalk’s Christianity. In the end Treemonisha, thus creates peace not merely between the Freedmen and the Maroons but between Christianity and ancestral religion.

The revisions to the libretto make Treemonisha a much more complex character. They also make for more varied action, which, strangely enough, is more melodramatic than in the original. Not all the revisions are helpful. In the piano-vocal score Pastor Alltalk says nothing we would find objectionable to his congregation. Yet, the librettists have decided to replace his encouragement of good will with misogynist remarks about women’s requirement to obey their husbands and generally to stay quiet. The problem here is that audiences might assume the Pastor’s statements were written by Joplin, not by 21st-century revisionists. This misogyny, seemingly accepted by the congregation, also makes the opera’s ending, where all choose a woman to lead the, less believable.

While Joplin may be famous for his piano rags, in his opera he uses ragtime for only two big dance numbers – “We’re Goin’ Around” and “A Real Slow Drag”. Otherwise, the music sounds mostly like the parlour songs one might have heard in the 1910s, especially since the librettists have followed Joplin’s lead in writing the lyrics in rhyming couples or ABAB-rhymed quatrains. There are, however, many other styles from full operatic arias to folk songs, blues, spirituals, and gospel.

The greatest liberty the librettists and the orchestrators have taken is in Act 2 set in the Maroons’ settlement. The invented character Nana is cast not as an opera singer as the others but as a blue or jazz singer. Her head voice and vocal style completely distinguish her from all the other performers. This section is also where the orchestrators make use of the instruments of African origin, the stringed kore being the most unfamiliar. These instruments used in the sequences of African dance and especially in the “hoodoo” scenes where Nana conjures up ancestors are marvellous in their rhythm and harmonies. Even though I loved these sections, I did wonder if the use of instruments that Joplin did not use took us out of Joplin’s own soundworld. Joplin would know equivalents to drums like the bala or djembe. The closest equivalent to the kore he would know would be the banjo. That is an instrument invented by people of African descent in the Americas and would perhaps be more suitable for the African-American opera Joplin was trying to create.

The opera has a strong cast. Neema Bickersteth has a warn, steady, high-lying soprano and has no trouble with some of the very high notes Joplin (or the orchestrators) throw her way. Bickersteth has always been a fine actor and is expert in conveying more than one emotion at once such as Treemonisha’s combination of relief and outrage to learn the truth about her birth mother and the progress of her love conquering her mistrust of Zodzerick.

Cedric Berry has an impressively rich, multihued baritone as Zodzerick. We feel we are on his side when we first meet him, contrary to the original libretto, and are happy that he should turn out to be Treemonisha’s love interest.

Ashley Faatoalia boasts a full Italianate tenor as Remus. It’s rather too bad his character should be changed from that of a hero in the original to that of a fool and worse in the new version, but Faatoalia is expert at playing comedy and does win our sympathy by the end.

The singer SATE makes Nana every bit as mysterious as the librettists want her to be. SATE has a presence and a voice that commands the stage and is ideal for representing a woman with supernatural powers.

In other roles, Andrea Baker as Monisha, Treemonisha’s foster mother, gives a moving account of her aria “The Sacred Tree” explaining the deep meaning of a certain tree both for her and for Treemonisha, who is named after it. Kristin Renee Young as Lucy has a high soprano that makes her various duets with Bickersteth a delight. Nicholas Davis has a sturdy baritone eminently suitable for Monisha’s husband Ned. And Marvin Lowe sports an especially resonant bass-baritone as Pastor Alltalk, with a depth of tone that contrasts with his satirical character name.

Set designer Camellia Koo has designed a simple but beautiful set in earthen colours flecked with brighter notes. Ropes hanging all along the back wall can be gathered together to form trees for the forest near which the Freedmen live or let loose to create the long vines that hangs over the swamp land where the Maroons live. Treemonisha’s sacred tree, created from these same ropes but flown in and out, is a gorgeous object on its own.

Nadine Grant has designed a host of handsome costumes – some reflecting the general high style of the 1910s for the Freedmen, some the lived-in clothing of the Maroons and some the Quaker-like habits of the travellers Treemonisha and Lucy meet on their journey.

Esie Mensah’s choreography has an equally wide range. She creates lovely patterns for the ring dance “We’re Goin’ Around” and gradually scales up the involvement of the whole company in the opera’s finale “A Real Slow Drag”. In contrast to these stately dances of the Freedmen, she choreographs African-inspired dances of an acrobatic nature for the Maroons, excitingly performed by Jaz ‘Fairy J’ Simone, Khay and Pulga Muchochoma.

The ten-member ensemble was placed on the stage on stage right. The band, which sounded much thinner and drier that it should have, really needed an acoustic shell behind it to reflect the sound into the audience. Kalena Bovell conducts the score with verve and precision.

There’s no doubt that Treemonisha is the music theatre event of the year. It’s an opera and a production I would gladly see again soon. Toronto had to wait 112 years to see it this time. Let’s hope the wait is not so long next time.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Ashley Faatoalia as Remus holding hands centre with Neema Bickersteth as Treemonisha (in grey gown) with ensemble, © 2023 Dahlia Katz; piano-vocal score of Treemonisha in the U.S. Library of Congress, © 1911; Marvin Lowe as Pastor Alltalk with ensemble; Neema Bickersteth as Treemonisha; Neema Bickersteth as Treemonisha (centre) with SATE as Nana (above) and the ensemble. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit