Saturday, March 09, 2019

Scott Joplin, Treemonisha (1911)


I wanted to see this in February, for black history month, but somehow, that got by me. I know there ARE other operas by black composers, but this was the only one I could find. And only barely: a production was released on an old, long-out-of-print VHS tape way back in 1991, but, you know, old, long-out-of-print. Fortunately, some good samaritan uploaded the whole thing to youtube! With burnt-in Portuguese subtitles. Well, the lord giveth, the lord taketh away. It's not that big a deal, but it really would be nice to have English subs: even if you know the language, operatic singing is not always easy to understand, and there are some parts of this that were simply indecipherable to me.

So there's a community of former slaves in a late-nineteenth-century town in Texas. One of them is Treemonisha (so-named because she was found under a tree as a foundling, a detail that has absolutely no bearing on the larger plot), who teaches the other townspeople to read and whatnot. She gets on the wrong side of the local "conjurers" by advising people not to buy their little charms, so they kidnap her (there's probably something interesting in here about the conflict between Christianity and an older paganism, but the theme is never developed). She's rescued, taken back home, the conjurers are captured but she counsels mercy, and she becomes the leader of the town. Big dance number. The end.

This is Scott Joplin, you might ask, so is the opera a ragtime thing? Not really. There are recognizable elements thereof in some parts, along with various other forms of music (including a barbershop quartet bit), but basically, it's classical music. It's very interesting, although, I thought, only intermittently compelling in itself. I feel that it's difficult to judge the singing, exactly. The cast is fine, I was never overwhelmed, but it's possible that the material just didn't provide the opportunity to overwhelm.

And on that note, I hate to say it, but I can't help feeling that a lot of Jopin's lyrics are, as a Brit might say, a bit naff. Possibly he should've gotten someone else to write the libretto. Of course, I haven't heard many operas in English; maybe this is just a common feature of hearing one in a language you know. But some of his themes seem a bit questionable. We can acknowledge that it would probably have seemed pretty revolutionary for the woman to end up in charge, but the whole thing often comes across as simplistically didactic. When a character spits out dopeass rhymes like "Wrong is never right, that is very true/Wrong is never right and wrong you should not do," you have to wonder who this is for. Obviously Joplin was very concerned with helping his fellow African Americans, but I can't help feeling that his attitudes towards them may have been a bit paternalistic. Yes, I know, I'm some dopey white guy, I can fuck right off, that's fair, but, well--I had the impression that I had. There is nothing more I can say.

The interesting thing is that this is actually Joplin's second opera. The first, Guest of Honor, is currently...lost, if you can believe it. No one seems to even be sure what it was about. Unbelievable. I may not have loved Treemonisha, but I can still mourn this kind of loss of art.

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