By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
Stark and Joplin moved from Sedalia to St. Louis for the same reason. St. Louis, with the Turpin brothers and their Rosebud Saloon on Market Street west of Union Station, was, as Douglas calls it, "the Vatican and Wailing Wall of ragtime." Tom and Charles Turpin were two of the most prominent African-Americans in St. Louis, shrewd entrepreneurs who managed to build two vaudeville houses near the Rosebud within two years of each other. Tom was the first elected African-American St. Louis official in the late 1890s.
Joplin's first St. Louis home was modest -- the state monument re-creation conveys an affluence Joplin was not enjoying at the time -- and situated in one of the most densely populated districts of the city among the urban poor of the time, Irish and African-Americans. But by 1903, Joplin was the "King of Ragtime" and living in a 13-room home on Lucas Avenue filled with young African-American musicians studying with the master. In 1901, Alfred Ernst, director of the St. Louis Choral Symphony Society (predecessor to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra), told the Post-Dispatch of "Scott Joplin of Sedalia, a negro, an extraordinary genius as a composer of ragtime music." Although ragtime was a musical form associated with the "baser" (meaning African-American) orders of society, Joplin was receiving commissions from white organizations in St. Louis. Joplin was one black man who commanded respect.
He was also, as Douglas observes, one who wanted to explore musical styles not open to his race. Ernst had played selections from Richard Wagner's Tannhauser for Joplin, and Wagner served as the operatic ideal for Joplin throughout his career. Raised in the rural South, hitting the road in his teens and performing in joints throughout the Midwest -- including, probably, spending time in Chicago during the 1893 World's Fair, evidently a rollicking meeting place for African-American musicians, the first generation born after slavery -- Joplin's musical knowledge came through experience, as well as some brief academic instruction at Sedalia's George R. Smith College, now long-defunct.
Finding the roots of Joplin's influences, and his genius, inevitably moves to conjecture. Joplin is an enigmatic historical figure, one for whom large pieces of his life are unknown or the stuff of apocrypha. Did he really, as the story goes, pick out a recognizable tune on the piano when he was still in knee pants? Did he travel to Europe? Was he really in Chicago during the World's Fair? Had he passed through Sedalia and St. Louis before taking up residence in those cities? What was the early life he lived, moving from town to town by train when times were good, on foot when they weren't, that led to compositions that later would be compared to Mozart minuets, Chopin mazurkas and Brahms waltzes?
One of the greatest missing pieces in the puzzle of Joplin's life is his first opera, a true "ragtime opera," A Guest of Honor, completed in St. Louis in 1903. Joplin attempted to tour the Midwest with a company of 30 singers and musicians but met with economic disaster -- one backer took off with receipts somewhere on the road. No copies of the score, nor any accounting of what the piece was about, have been found, although Joplin biographer Edward A. Berlin surmises that the title of the opera refers to Booker T. Washington, who had recently dined at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt. The dinner was a major news event in a nation where bigotry was the order of the day. "A guest of honor" is how Washington was referred to in the contemporary African-American press. Given the themes of black pride and progress-through-education found in Treemonisha, and their parallels to Washington's advocacy for the race, Berlin's theory is not far-fetched.
The premise that Joplin would have written an opera on a current event also fits with the composer's modernity. With A Guest of Honor, Joplin was a pioneer in the movement to dissolve the distinctions between "lowbrow" and "highbrow" entertainment, a generation before George Gershwin would perform Rhapsody in Blue at Carnegie Hall, two generations before Benny Goodman would ring that bastion of upper-crust culture with jazz. Joplin would have been the first "crossover" artist of the 20th century. He was more than of his time -- he was far ahead of it. "When I'm dead 25 years," he would tell his peers, "people are going to begin to recognize me."
The reason that recognition came past due tells another story of 20th-century America, where white musicians (Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Goodman, Elvis Presley) were privileged to be the change makers, following the lead of blacks.
Mark Kent and Jermaine Smith provide a study in contrasts. Kent is shy, uncomfortable talking about himself and his accomplishments. Smith is gregarious, a storyteller. In describing his role in Treemonisha, the seductive conjurer Zodzetrick, Smith assumes the character: "When I target somebody" -- he holds his arms as if lining up a rube nearby -- "I target them," and he holds the imagined victim with his eyes.
Kent, who plays Zodzetrick's compatriot Luddud, admits that acting was his weakest skill before he improved and made it into the OTSL ensemble this year. He also recalls his early stage fright in his first recital as a teenager: "The first time I sang in front of people, my legs were shaking so bad. It was really horrifying." He surely would have quit, he says, had not "my teacher kept pushing me out there."