Mississippi Symphony resurrects Scott Joplin’s only surviving opera

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Photo by Melanie Thortis

Laurence Albert, left, and James Martin will perform together in Scott Joplin's opera "Treemonisha" at Thalia Mara Hall.

Ask for a snippet from Treemonisha and Laurence Albert booms out a bit from the chief conjurer’s bag of tricks, his bass-baritone filling the room. Definitely opera. In another moment, shoulders relax and arms take a rhythmic sway as he dips into a slow drag. Distinctly American.

“You cannot not dance when you hear that,” he says with a knowing chuckle.

Laurence Albert rehearses music from Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha.

Albert is about to sing again in Treemonisha, 45 years after he was part of the world premiere of Scott Joplin’s only surviving opera in 1972 Atlanta — a first full staging that came more than 60 years after the work’s creation.

A concert version of Treemonisha opens the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra’s flagship Bravo season Oct. 7 in Jackson. The concert tagged Voicing Joplin is the orchestra’s piece in the celebration of Mississippi’s bicentennial year — 200 years after Mississippi became a state. And 100 years after Joplin’s death.

The 11 soloists include a suite of nationally acclaimed singers — soprano Hope Briggs in the title role, lyric tenor Robert Mack, bass Kevin Maynor and mezzo-soprano Christin-Marie Hill — as well as Mississippi’s own James Martin as Parson Alltalk. Choruses from Jackson State University, Tougaloo College and Mississippi College, plus dancers from Mississippi Ballet, will join the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra for this non-staged production.

“We wanted something that was fresh,” for the orchestra and Jackson listeners, something Southern and a nod to Mississippi’s own music heritage and the African-American influence, orchestra maestro Crafton Beck says. Every music major knows about the opera Joplin wrote at the end of his life, but fewer classical music fans do. “It wasn’t forgotten, because it was in history books. But it was essentially forgotten. It was never performed.”

The opera, music and libretto by Joplin, is a fable about young African-American heroine Treemonisha who, taught to read by a white woman, aims to lead her rural community on a former plantation away from superstition and ignorance in the late 1800s.

“There’s actually a lot of symbolism in the opera,” Martin says. Treemonisha is so named because she was born under a tree. “Trees grow and bear fruit. She is one of the first strong female characters in American opera, for certain. She’s a radical in the fact that she’s an educated woman,” unafraid to stand up to the status quo and lead her people forward.

Photo by Melanie Thortis

James Martin rehearses a tune from Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha at the Mississippi Arts Center.

That’s what Joplin did with ragtime, Martin says, incorporating folk styles of the time and moving into a new form of American music that modern forms still reference. “It comes at a time when we’re moving from western European music into our own voice, which Scott Joplin is often credited for being the father of.”

Musically, “it’s like a time capsule to 1908,” Beck says, by the country’s greatest African-American composer by that point. “In 1890, at the height of his fame with all the ragtime, Scott Joplin was the most famous person in the world, because everybody was buying sheet music and playing ragtime in their houses. But 12 years later, he was poor, not well and living in New York City and determined to write, really, what was the first American opera.”

Photo by Melanie Thortis

Laurence Albert, left, and James Martin will perform together in Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha at Thalia Mara Hall.

Joplin had spent his life on the road as a piano player, itinerant musician and famed ragtime composer. “This opera does reflect all of that,” Beck says, with the early seeds of what blues and jazz would become. The opera has moments of ragtime, but more. “It’s like stepping into Americana in the teens and ’20s,” with little marches, two-steps, waltzes, street music and vaudeville.

“Scott Joplin was definitely a genius,” Albert says. “He brought music everybody knew from every two-bit tavern in St. Louis and made all forms of it important. We need to embrace it as one of the great American pieces.”

As upbeat and enchanting as Treemonisha is, its real-life back story is riddled with elements more tragic — struggle, defeat, ambition in a race against time. Joplin had moved to New York in 1907, where syphilis would claim his mind and his life within a decade.

“He just got it into his head, he was going to do something outstanding, absolutely astounding, and make a statement not for himself, but as an African American,” writing, publishing and staging this opera and spending every penny he had in the effort, Beck says. Only the piano vocal score survived.

Photo by Melanie Thortis

Laurence Albert rehearses music from Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha for an upcoming performance at Thalia Mara Hall.

Albert, assistant professor of music (voice) at Tougaloo College, was a Morehouse College freshman when he was part of the chorus in the opera’s first full staging in Atlanta. He had no idea then of the scope of what Joplin was trying to accomplish.

“That’s something I learned much later.” But he could tell it was a key production. “In 1972, for us as African Americans, to be singing with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, with (Robert) Shaw conducting — that was big stuff. For us, we knew it was important. We didn’t have any clue as to how important. At least I didn’t.”

The story of a poor community manipulated by fear, and people choosing their own leader, learning for themselves and reaching for a better life, resonates through history and current times. The opera touches him deeply, Albert says, from that heady experience in college to its inherent themes.

“We explored many things we as African Americans lived, things we wanted to change and improve upon. … And that first time onstage singing opera was just overwhelming. It’s very dear to me many years afterward to be around young people onstage having the same experience.”

Elijah Middleton, 22, a junior at Jackson State and among the youngest in this cast, grins big when he talks about Treemonisha, but “I can barely put my finger on it” to peg its appeal. There’s the dialect (“I get to talk a little more country than I already do!”), the emotion, the movement and the music. “Being that I’m so young, it gives me that old ragtime feel,” he says.

“We get a little bit of everything in this opera,” says Gavin Hughes, also a JSU student and soloist. “There is a lot of joy and hope.”

“It’s a clever and wonderful way to celebrate Mississippi’s bicentennial,” Martin adds. “It talks about and shows off, in a wonderful way, the music that’s indigenous to our culture, that brings us from jazz and blues and two-step into what is now American music.”

While Treemonisha, written as an all-black opera, is a showcase for African-American voices, the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra’s production consciously brings diversity to the stage, from the combination of choruses to the soloists onstage.

“That’s an element not necessarily of the score,” Beck says, “but it’s an element of Mississippi.” And it works for the bicentennial celebration’s “go forward together” momentum.

The music folds into that, too. “It hits home,” Albert says. “All of us love this music. And that’s what we need — something that makes us love things together.”

Photo by Melanie Thortis

From left, Laurence Albert, Gavin Hughes and James Martin share a laugh outside the Mississippi Arts Center. Albert and Martin will perform together in Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha at Thalia Mara Hall.

The Mississippi Symphony Orchestra’s concert version of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha  premieres at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7 at Thalia Mara Hall. For tickets, $25 and higher, call 601-960-1565 or visit msorchestra.com.

Also Oct. 7, the Mississippi Humanities Council presents Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, at 6 p.m. at Davis Planetarium. The talk is free and open to the public.