My family is from St. Louis, so a nice road trip from Chicago to St. Louis (five hours with one potty stop) was in the cards for my opera friend, Betsy, and me. Opera Theater of St. Louis is known for excellent productions, many of them commissioned premiers.
Opera by Scott Joplin, Produced by Opera Theater of St. Louis
You don’t often see Treemonisha produced because it is not that good of an opera. But historically, it has caché. Scott Joplin was born in Texas and worked and played piano across the south to Sedalia, Missouri. Seventeen years later, he arrived in St. Louis on the tails of his hit song “Maple Leaf Rag”. In 1907 he moved to New York City, seeking broader outlets for his compositions, including Treemonisha. Minor versions of the opera were produced during Joplin’s life. He died in 1917 from complications of syphilis.
Treemonisha was little known until the 1970s when Marvin Hamlish’s score for the movie The Sting brought Joplin back into the limelight. Hamlish pretty much lifted the score from Joplin’s work. As a result of the revival in ragtime music, Houston Grand Opera staged Treemonisha and took it to Broadway for eight weeks. In 1975, Joplin was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis first staged Treemonisha in 2000. They commissioned this new version, topped and tailed with two new acts created by librettist Karen Chilton and composer Danien Sneed. This prologue and epilogue anchor the opera in “Joplin-time.”
It begins with the happy marriage of Joplin to his second wife, Freddie Alexander, his muse for Treemonisha. Her death, and Joplin’s longing segue to the beginning of Treemonisha, written in her honor, and set on a plantation in Texarkana, TX. It ends with Joplin alone on the stage, dying, still longing for Freddie and the acceptance of his opera.
I didn’t love this opera nor the new acts. Treemonisha can stand on its own. But I did appreciate the Blackness (to me) of the setting and the story. Treemonisha is a charismatic young Black woman who works to bring her community out of the darkness of slavery. Her parents, childless until they found the infant under a magical tree, are a devoted couple. They performed extra work to hire a white tutor who taught Treemonisha to read and write.
Those familiar with the plays of August Wilson would know he features in all of The Decade Series the alive or dead mystical character Aunt Esther, who represents the slave life and the wisdom painfully learned by the generations. Embodied in her are traditional African beliefs. In Treemonisha, Joplin uses African traditions of the sacred tree (the tree in Treemonisha), conjurers, and the spirit world of Sankofa.
There is a wide variety of music: opera, ragtime, barbershop quarter, and lots of splendid ensemble work. But this seems to lend the opera randomness rather than cohesion. But do see Treemonisha if you are interested in the history of Black music in the United States.
For those of you with grandchildren, learn more about the sensory-friendly version of Treemonisha that will be performed on Oct. 21 at the Missouri History Museum.
Produced by Opera Theater of St. Louis, Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
Opera Theater of St. Louis hit it out of the park with their production of Cosí Fan Tutte. This is such a fun Mozart opera, full of lush arias, duets, trios, quartets, etc. The singers were more than a match for the composer’s rigorous score. Cosí Fan Tutte roughly translates to “women are like that”. But the plot reveals that both men and women are like that.
This production was set in the UK during World War II. The female leads are wealthy debutants who fall in love with capricious men. The war setting enables all sorts of tomfoolery, with the men pretending to enlist in the army and navy, the women turning their mansion into a military hospital where they volunteer. The pretend general instigates the bet that the women will fall for new loves when their men go to war (after all, “women are like that”). The military doctor stirs the plot.
The beauty of attending any performance at Opera Theater St. Louis is the Loretto-Hilton Theater. There are 763 seats, and all are 30 feet or less from the stage. The acoustics are fine, sightlines excellent, and the hospitality of the volunteers and staff flawless. The theater is on the grounds of Webster University, set amidst lovely gardens, lunch and dinner picnics are available and parking is close at hand.
I enjoyed this year’s season, so how about we meet there next year? Season tickets are now on sale for 2024. Check out Opera Theater of St. Louis.
What do you like most about opera productions? In which theater have you experienced the best of performances? Which performance was it? Would you go to an opera with a friend?