A Guest of Honor

Scott Joplin receives a celebratory homecoming with Opera Theatre of St. Louis' revival of Treemonisha

Choreographer Dianne McIntyre, thin and strong as an egret, is emphasizing the beat to a Scott Joplin rag: "Wa-da-shoop-da-da. We have to see the beat in the arms. We should hear the music in the body," she cajoles her dancers. "Use the arm to lift you up in the air; then the same energy that takes you into the air brings you down. Make it land."

Early in rehearsals for Treemonisha, it's not quite landing yet. McIntyre emphasizes the need for an accent to complete each gesture but can't quite find the words until someone says, "Give me somethin'," and McIntyre and the ensemble laugh at what is clearly an oft-used phrase.

McIntyre and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis have enlisted a troupe with an array of body types for the "dancey" Treemonisha (which is how OTSL's artistic director, Colin Graham, refers to the piece, adding that one of the reasons Rhoda Levine was brought in to direct was her own choreographic background). A couple of the women are dance-thin -- with the startling musculature that separates them from the waif-model look -- but the other women are much sturdier, even round of build, and some of the men look as if they could fill in at running back for the Rams. Dancers are always a mystery to watch: How do their bodies communicate an encyclopedia of human emotion when, in most people's lives, the body does little more than look for a place to rest? And to see bodies resembling Everyman rather than Adonis making form fly, shaking the air with exuberance -- that's another type of mystery.

The singers are called in. They enter humming scales. Opera singers have a remarkable carriage. Regular folks look to be losing the battle with gravity -- shoulders sloped, head down, paunch extended -- but opera singers look as though they are ready at any moment to launch into some stentorian oratory, to make pronouncements before the Roman Senate, to make the air a steeple through which their voices ring. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has said there is nothing larger than life, but opera presents life as large, and as grand, as it can be.

For director Levine, who is as compact of stature as her company is abundant, there's little time to marvel. She needs to figure out a way to get these 30 bodies to exit the small Loretto-Hilton Mainstage space -- and the children who will be part of the company aren't even here yet. The ensemble of dancers and singers is a very young, very chatty group, and they are constantly being shushed by the stage manager as Levine tries to give directions on how to "schlepp" a stage-prop bag of cotton: "Schlepp," she explains, "an old Siamese word."

Soon, small groups are moving downstage, upstage, crossing and countercrossing, doing bits of stage business along the way -- none of it timed to the music as yet. Levine whispers to conductor Jeffrey Huard, "Don't be too distraught if it's not timed out." Then, remarkably, that mesh of bodies moves semifluidly across the stage and off. "Every time she says it's not going to work," someone at the production table says, "it does."

Levine isn't ecstatic over the accomplishment, though. She's been watching the singers and dancers, for whom acting is a secondary art, perform clichés of tiredness: arms raised to sweat-beaded brows, hands set on aching backs. Levine offers a brief, quiet lecture on how "acting is not demonstration."

A few minutes later, after another run-through, the new question posed to Levine is: "Am I acting too much?"

Rehearsal is what such questions are made for, and through such questions, false steps and mannered gestures -- and a considerable amount of talent making those steps right, keeping the gestures true -- Scott Joplin's Treemonisha, which opens OTSL's 25th-anniversary season Saturday, May 20, is coming to life.

Jan Hamilton Douglas, the official cultural preservationist at the Scott Joplin House and a passionate advocate of preserving the memory of Joplin and of ragtime in St. Louis, puts the issue starkly: "Most people weren't prepared to believe that niggers knew what an opera was. Joplin clearly was thinking bigger than the cultural opportunities he was offered."

By the time Joplin arrived in St. Louis with his first wife, Belle, around the turn of the century, living in the upper story of the home that is now a state monument on Delmar Boulevard, he had already gained a considerable reputation in Sedalia, Mo., which in those days was not only known as the "Queen City of the Prairies" but was also the stopping place for a number of itinerant African-American musicians developing the popular musical form, and cultural phenomenon, of ragtime.

Sedalia was the home of the Maple Leaf Bar, a rough saloon known for frequent brawls and prostitution, and though its notoriety caused it to remain open for only a few years, it is remembered for being (perhaps) the inspiration for Joplin's composition "The Maple Leaf Rag," the music industry's first million-seller. In the age before recordings, sheet music was the mass-market product of popular culture. A white man, music publisher John Stark, recognized the moneymaking potential of "colored music" -- as the predominantly white music industry would throughout the last century -- but he recognized the artistry of ragtime composition as well, especially that of Joplin.

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