A Guest of Honor

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

In the years between the recognition of their talents and the development of those talents, Kent has trained in exclusive master classes while still in high school, attended the University of Houston and then Wash. U. Smith, while still in his teens, toured with Houston Grand Opera's production of Porgy and Bess, going to Paris. He's sung in Germany, Italy and Spain as well. Now a seven-year veteran of OTSL, Smith has already had one role, in the children's opera Joshua's Boots, written specifically for his voice.

As Kent says, the Artist-in-Training program changed his life, but it has changed Opera Theatre as well. OTSL general director Charles MacKay describes Treemonisha as the culmination of "a wonderful journey for Opera Theatre to form a lot of new relationships and to build stronger bridges to the African-American community. It's something we've been working on for a long time."

MacKay says the program began 10 years ago with the realization that OTSL had done a good job finding young talent elsewhere and bringing it to St. Louis, "but we hadn't done as good a job of finding talent right here and developing talent here."

Scott Joplin
Archive Photos
Scott Joplin

In the first year, the St. Louis Public Schools selected Sumner and Roosevelt high schools for inclusion in the program because they already had strong choral programs. The high-school teachers, such as Thedford, chose the students who would participate. But even in those initial years, OTSL understood the importance of providing to inner-city students musicians who looked like them. "I remember going down to Roosevelt High School and watching that first session with Denyce working with Jermaine Smith," says MacKay. "Denyce worked with him and brought all sort of amazing things out of Jermaine and really launched him there."

OTSL now selects students from around the St. Louis area through an intense competitive audition process. With Monsanto as OTSL's corporate partner, the commitment is still to urban youth, with 10 of the 15 slots going to city residents. Students then are divided into three groups and attend workshops on three local campuses -- the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Webster University and Wash. U. Seventy-five students have gone through the program since 1990 (only 15 are in the program in any one year, and some of those are repeating). Monsanto has donated some $120,000 in scholarships, and in the last three years, 90 percent of the AIT students have gone on to college.

MacKay has found that the caliber of students has risen over the years, and in auditions he has "heard glorious voices." And with the development of those voices, OTSL has prospered. A production of Treemonisha or the commissioning of Joshua's Boots is possible because OTSL looked to its own community and found the native voices. OTSL knows it has the talent to explore African-American themes, such as the story of the buffalo soldiers in Joshua's Boots or life in the rural post-Civil War South in Treemonisha. It also means, with color-blind casting, the revelation of performances by African-American singers such as Pamela Dillard in La Belle Helene, and an ensemble and chorus that reflect, as art can, the best hope for the world beyond the stage.

Rhoda Levine -- who is directing Treemonisha and is known for her production of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at the New York City Opera and Under the Double Moon at OTSL, both by composer Anthony Davis -- is adamant about the need for an inclusive stage. Treemonisha has been done so rarely, she claims, "because there are no African-American people in opera companies. Until we begin to invite that community into the opera, make that available -- we're in trouble."

By 1907 Joplin had begun work on Treemonisha. The failure of A Guest of Honor he'd put far behind him. Apparently he never referred to the piece again. Treemonisha, Joplin determined, would not be another "ragtime opera," says conductor Jeffrey Huard (whose credits include such Broadway successes as Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Phantom of the Opera and the revival of Show Boat). "His admiration for classical composers is evident in his attempt at the more Victorian music and his attempt at being closer to the grand opera of the day. There are moments of orchestral serenity and beauty that make it clear that he had admired Wagner. There are even some moments where harmonically it reminds one of being close to Berlioz. It's really an opera that has some wonderful ragtime moments," explains Huard, but it features more "Victorian sensibility" than Joplin's signature syncopated rhythms. Treemonisha, says Huard, was "his attempt to be what he called 'a serious composer.'"

Joplin left St. Louis for New York City in 1907, probably because he felt he had a greater chance of success with his challenging new work in the more cosmopolitan Manhattan. He completed Treemonisha in 1911 and celebrated the publication of the score with friends. At the time, he sometimes was compared with Dvorák in the contemporary press.

Treemonisha contains autobiographical references, taking place in rural Arkansas near Joplin's boyhood home. The theme of education over ignorance is close to Joplin's own beliefs. Those mired in the belief in superstition speak in dialect; the heroine, Treemonisha, speaks with precise diction, apparently reminiscent of Joplin's own.

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