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Blog Post: January 4, 2023

A Composer’s Journey to Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha

Damien Sneed at OTSL's Treemonisha workshop — New York City, Sep. 10, 2022. © Curtis Brown

Treemonisha by Scott Joplin is a tale of a Black heroine who bucks tradition to lead her community into a new era of prosperity and empowerment. Joplin aspired to elevate Black music and share a guiding message of hope. Treemonisha follows traditional elements of opera yet embeds Black musical traditions such as spirituals and ragtime. One critic hailed it as the first purely American opera at the time of its publication in 1911. The American Musician and Art Journal wrote: 

“It has sprung from our soil practically of its own accord. Its composer has focused his mind upon a single object, and with a nature wholly in sympathy with it has hewn an entirely new form of operatic art. Its production would prove an interesting and potent achievement, and it is to be hoped that sooner or later it will be thus honored.”

Despite such a review, Joplin had to self-publish the opera after being turned down by several publishers. Joplin made three known attempts to stage Treemonisha, let alone concert stagings of certain excerpts, all to no avail. Six years after finishing Treemonisha, Joplin died without ever seeing his grand opera come to life.

Over a century later, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has the great privilege of re-imagining this American opera for our 2023 Festival Season with renowned composer Damien Sneed and librettist Karen Chilton. After Damien and Karen’s first (and highly successful) opera, The Tongue & The Lash (2021), General Director Andrew Jorgenson asked Damien which project he might wish to champion on his next return to OTSL. For Damien, this simple question was a fateful moment years in the making. 

Damien’s connection to Treemonisha starts in childhood. Jessye Norman, the late and iconic soprano of international acclaim, became a mentor early in Damien’s life and later his godmother. Jessye encouraged Damien to move freely between musical styles, much in the way of Joplin himself. Later in Damien’s career, he accompanied Jessye during her final recital, Bound for the Promised Land, and the encore piece was Treemonisha’s own finale, “A Real Slow Drag.” Jessye explained to Damien her conviction that two African-American composers had never received their rightful dues: Eubie Blake and Scott Joplin. 

As an undergraduate, Damien followed in the footsteps of Jessye Norman by attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. It was in Howard’s library that he found a recording of Houston Grand Opera’s 1976 production of Treemonisha and noticed a familiar face in the title role — that of a Howard voice teacher, Carmen Balthrop, for whom he accompanied vocal lessons! Enthralled by her performance as Treemonisha, he ran to Carmen’s classroom and breathlessly interrupted a lesson to ask her, “Is that you?” She laughed warmly and replied, “Yes, that’s me.” It was then and there Damien decided to memorize the score to Treemonisha.

Our composer’s fate with Joplin’s opera was sealed before leaving Howard University. A graduate student unknown to Damien approached him one day in the fine arts building with a brown paper bag. She said, “It’s you, it’s you. You’re the one!” and started crying. “I’ve been at Howard for 7 years. All I’ve wanted to do was put on this production. I was waiting here to give you this because you’re supposed to do this.” Confused but intrigued, Damien accepted the bag and found inside the score to Treemonisha. He never saw that student again. 

By the time Damien graduated, a seed had been planted — he would re-orchestrate Joplin’s masterpiece, for which Joplin himself had only ever written a piano score. He found the first opportunity while working with Wynton Marsalis at Jazz Lincoln Center some years later. Damien’s proposal of Treemonisha took hold and the project got as far as budgets and casting, but it fell through. 

Carmen Balthrop in the title role of “Treemonisha” — Houston Grand Opera, 1975. © George Tames/The New York Times

Five more times Damien attempted to stage Treemonisha, only to be thwarted each time. Eventually, Damien felt convinced that his dream of producing Treemonisha would never come to pass. Little did he know that fate had other plans. 

Damien was invited by the Houston Grand Opera to be an assistant conductor and composer-in-residence for their 2017 season. Tragically, Hurricane Harvey made landfall that August and ravaged the city. In the aftermath, soprano Nicole Heaston was salvaging posters from the flooded basement, and though she hadn’t yet introduced herself, she felt compelled to save some for Damien. As she handed him the last poster, she said, “There’s only one of these left, and I don’t know why, but I have to give it to you.” She unrolled it to reveal the original poster of Houston Grand Opera’s 1976 Treemonishafeaturing none other than Carmen Balthrop. For Damien, it was a clear sign to return to the opera.

OTSL's Treemonisha workshop — New York City, Sep. 10, 2022. © Curtis Brown

Like Joplin, each of Damien’s prior attempts to bring Treemonisha to life ended in disappointment. Damien understands now that the path served to connect him more deeply to the opera’s history and its creator. When Andrew Jorgensen invited Damien to name his next project, Damien seized the opportunity to reignite his journey with Treemonisha

Damien and Karen’s re-imagining of Joplin’s pioneering opera celebrates its legacy and brings back to light a forgotten figure of history — Joplin’s bride and muse, Freddie Alexander Joplin. Freddie tragically passed only two months after their wedding in 1904, but historians believe she strongly influenced Joplin’s sense of pride toward his African-American heritage. She may have been the very inspiration for our heroine Treemonisha. Damien and Karen’s new prologue and epilogue shows Joplin and Freddie together, celebrating their love. OTSL is honored to bring Treemonisha to life in a city where Joplin once lived and worked, and to offer rightful dues to his legacy.