A Guest of Honor

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

May 17, 2000 at 4:00 am
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.

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."

Kent is as broadly built as Smith is thin and compact. Kent dresses conservatively; Smith shows a bit of flash. On the day of opening introductions with the cast and crew of Treemonisha, Smith is in a shiny brown shirt, his dark pants cinched with a Western-style belt, and shiny brown cowboy boots complete the dapper outfit. Kent is in tan khakis and a dark plaid polo shirt.

Yet as different as they appear, Kent and Smith both have achieved significant success in the competitive world of opera. Kent has just received a full-ride scholarship to the prestigious music program at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He completed his undergraduate studies at Washington University this spring. At 27, two years Kent's senior, Smith holds undergraduate degrees from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and now attends the New England Conservatory in Boston.

Both attended Roosevelt High School and studied with choral instructor Dello Thedford there. Both were pushed into OTSL's Artist-in-Training program by Thedford, with great resistance. Kent says Thedford "was a huge influence. He noticed my voice early. He tried to guide me in that direction, although at first I was reluctant. After my freshman year in high school, he asked me to be in choir, and I said no. Every time I saw him, I ran from him. I was running from him constantly, because there was no way I was going to sing. No way.

"I just didn't want to be onstage. I was admittedly kind of shy. When I was a freshman, I walked in between classes really fast."

Smith was playing in Roosevelt's jazz ensemble as a percussionist and had already geared his studies toward computer science and mathematics. But one day the chorus and band were returning from performing at another school on the bus. Smith recalls: "I was making fun of opera singers. My extent of knowledge at the time was" -- and he sings in faux-operatic style -- "'I want some pizza/with mozzarella.' He (Thedford) heard me, turned around and said, 'Who was that?'" Thedford told Smith he felt the teenager had potential as an opera singer. "I thought that was so hilarious," Smith says. "My knowledge of opera was very little. As a matter of fact, I didn't think of blacks even singing opera at the time."

Smith took part in OTSL's Artist-in-Training (AIT) program in its first year, 1990. Smith remembers that when he entered the program, Thedford instructed him, "I want you to do it, and you're going to do it." Smith had his doubts and figured he'd prove his instructor wrong. Smith's first vocal coach was the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who also grew up in the inner city (Washington, D.C.) without a knowledge of opera before taking possession of roles such as Carmen and Delilah on stages around the world. Her presence made an impact on Smith the first day. "I was amazed to see this beautiful black woman singing opera," he says. "It captured my attention right away, because this was the first time I saw a black sing opera. It was so beautiful that it just made me want to sing."

Smith's newfound interest didn't receive the greatest encouragement from those closest to him. His younger brother and cousins called him "little Pavarotti" and tried to steer him to more familiar music: "Sing something like Luther Vandross," they'd say.

Smith notes that opera "is not exactly part of the community" of North St. Louis where he was raised. "It was, like, taboo." When he practiced in the house, his mother would tell him, "That's enough singing." He'd move out to the porch before she would again tell him, "OK, that's enough." Even the backyard proved too close for his mother's ears, he says, "so I'd go all the way across to the lot."

At the end of the year, however, Smith's perseverance proved worthwhile. He sang for judges in competition for a Monsanto scholarship fund. He was ill that day but performed anyway, hoping for at least an honorable mention. When his name was called for first place, he says, "My mother was crying. It was so amazing. It was such a surprise. I felt like Miss America."

Kent relates a similar experience in the AIT program. He initially didn't take the program seriously: "It was just something to do. The opera I experienced was probably in the cartoons, like Bugs Bunny. I thought of it as this stuffy art form, but I fell in love with it. I finally found something that was mine, something that I could really do."

Kent also acknowledges the importance of working with African-American artists and remembers some of the ribbing he took from his peers as well. "My name was Opera Man. I'd walk through the halls and they'd" -- he makes an operatic warble -- "'Hey, Opera Man!' I really enjoyed it, actually. That was my shtick; that was my little thing. My friends supported me in their own comical way."

He looks back on the AIT experience as a "fantastic program. It changed my life completely. I had no intention of going into singing, singing opera. It changed my life." Like Smith, Kent competed for the Monsanto award in the spring of his first year with the program. "My first year I entered, they started calling up names for third place, second place. There were two first-place awards. I was sitting there, and they were calling up all these names. They called up the second-to-the-last name, and I was thinking, 'They forgot about me. Oh my God, they forgot about me.' They called me up for the grand prize. That's when I first realized that I had some kind of talent. It was truly a total shock."

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."

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.

The plot is not exactly sophisticated, which is true of many operas. Ned and Monisha discover an infant girl under a tree and name her Treemonisha. A white woman living nearby teaches her to read, and at the age of 18 Treemonisha takes on the role of leading her community out of ignorance and toward education. This means conflict with Zodzetrick and the conjurers, who provide "goofer dust" to ward off evil like a drug. In director Levine's interpretation, Treemonisha's theme "addresses the issues that superstition -- these roads to escape who you are, goofer dust -- leads you away from who you are."

An African-American composer with aspirations toward high art did not have such sympathetic dramaturgy in America in the second decade of the 20th century. A choral presentation of the opera in Harlem in 1915 did not appropriately impress the right people. By this stage in his life, Joplin's health was rapidly declining. The late jazz pianist Eubie Blake was a young man hanging out in clubs at the time, and he remembered seeing Joplin being taunted by musicians to play: "So pitiful. He was so far gone with the dog (syphilis) and he sounded like a little child tryin' to pick out a tune."

Having spent all of his resources and his energy on getting Treemonisha produced, Joplin died in the mental ward of Manhattan State Hospital in 1917. He was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave.

True to his prediction, Joplin did not begin to be recognized as a pre-eminent American composer until a generation after his death. The 1940s swing craze led to an exploration of earlier jazz styles, ragtime among them. The first critical re-evaluation, "Scott Joplin: Overlooked Genius," appeared in a record magazine in 1944.

Not until the 1970s did the ragtime craze, and an appreciation of Joplin, reach its zenith. Musicologist Jeremy Rifkin recorded Piano Rags by Scott Joplin with Nonesuch Records, and it became a surprise hit (significantly, given Joplin's aspirations, it was placed in the "classical" category). A few years later, Gunther Schuller recorded a number of Joplin's ragtime orchestrations; Joplin again made the Top 40 lists, and the album won a Grammy for best chamber recording. It was this recording that film director George Roy Hill heard, inspiring the soundtrack to The Sting. In the summer of '74, Joplin's "The Entertainer" began ascending the charts with a bullet.

Treemonisha's premiere performance came in Atlanta in 1972, with stage direction and choreography by Katherine Dunham. In 1975, the Houston Grand Opera presented Treemonisha, with orchestral arrangements by Schuller (which Huard is using for the OTSL production). The Houston production went on to Broadway, but since that time no professional company has revived the opera.

Levine's complaints about the opera world's record on ethnic diversity notwithstanding, Treemonisha presents artistic problems as well. Although Joplin deserves accolades as a top-rank composer, he was a poor librettist, as even his strongest advocates admit. Yet there are those who are critical of the score as well, finding Joplin imitative of a tradition he had not had the opportunity to fully absorb, explore and make his own.

So when MacKay proposed to his colleagues that Treemonisha be made the centerpiece of OTSL's 25th-anniversary season, it was not an easy sell. Says Colin Graham, "There were general misgivings. First of all, it hadn't been done since Houston, and we didn't really like the Houston approach to it -- at least I didn't. It was cartoonish and overcolorful. But I think when we got to know the piece better, we learned the values of it. Once you get past the apparent naïveté of it, you're going to see the reasons for doing it. That, combined with our commitment to the young artists in the AIT program -- it just seemed a wonderful consummation of that."

Once Levine had been selected as director, her enthusiasm for the piece further assuaged those early misgivings. "It is an incredibly important piece," she affirms, "that has resonance to this day." The principal conflict is between those who emphasize education and those who would mire the community in superstitious beliefs. The heroine of the opera is an 18-year-old woman, and the place of women in community is another modern theme Levine finds in Joplin's work. "The leader is Treemonisha, who lets us know that our hope is education," says Levine. "There is no opera like that."

Costumer Paul Taswell has worked with period photographs of African-Americans in the rural South and has sought in his designs to convey what he found in those photographs: "an amazing dignity, innocence and sophistication and nobility in the people." When the cast of OTSL's Treemonisha takes the stage at the Loretto-Hilton Center, they will enter a sepia-toned world, far from cartoon. They will sit and listen to the orchestra as a projection of the composer appears behind them. "I hope it does honor to Mr. Joplin," says Levine.

Joplin dreamed of an artistic life that Jermaine Smith and Mark Kent and other people of color (though too few) are now living nearly a century later. By most accounts, Joplin was not a religious man, although the strains of gospel can be heard in Treemonisha. Smith, however, remains close to his church, singing with the congregation now that he's back home. He had not even dreamed this life he's living, yet knows he is fulfilling the dreams of others, both those close to him and those sepia-toned figures in a history still not fully known.

A deacon of Smith's church recently described to the artist his place in the world this way: "You're out there doing what we would have loved to have done and didn't get the opportunity. So we live it through you."