Selby and Richard McRae Foundation VOICING JOPLIN

7:30 PM, Saturday, October 07, 2017
Thalia Mara Hall


Joplin’s uplifting opera featuring full orchestra on stage, a star-studded cast of national/local singers, and the choirs of Jackson State University, Mississippi College and Tougaloo College.

In African American composer Scott Joplin’s opera, Treemonisha, the libretto (written by Joplin), portrays a young woman on a former slave plantation who, educated during her youth, rallies her community against superstition and ignorance.  Although she faces hostility for it, she is successful in helping them understand that education is the key to success and they ultimately choose her to lead them on this path. 

In celebration of the Mississippi Bicentennial, the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra will presents this concert performance of Treemonisha as an offering that looks forward through the lens of our shared history.

The Mississippi Humanities Council’s Cora Norman Lecture Series presents author Ibram X. Kendi
Free and open to the public
Saturday October 7, 6:00pm
Russell C. Davis Planetarium, downtown Jackson
For information on Mr. Kendi, click here

Park once and attend both events!


This evening's concert is generously sponsored by:



Additional sponsorship for artist interface by:
The Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation

and by the

Greater Jackson Arts Council


Education components connected with the performance of the Joplin opera are free and open to the public and are an official bicentennial project made possible by a grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council, through support from the Mississippi Development Authority.  The events included school visit and master classes by guest artists Hope Briggs, Christin-Marie Hill and Robert Mack.

Hope Briggs' appearance is sponsored, in part, by Tom and Connie Kossen


Symphony Lovers Parking provided by:

Parkway Properties, Inc.

Notes by Ebony Lumumba and Lyn Raley


Joplin: “Treemonisha”

Born in 1867 (or 1868—we are not sure), Scott Joplin, “The King of Ragtime,” lived only into his mid-fifties. His last seventeen years, which he lived in New York City, were consumed by his efforts to see a production of Treemonisha, his third work for the stage. The first, Ragtime Dance, was only performed once during his lifetime (informally, at a club in 1899). His second, A Guest of Honor, was the story of Booker T. Washington’s dinner at the White House with Teddy Roosevelt. It was successful enough to go on tour for a short while. Unfortunately, it has been completely lost.  Treemonisha was never performed publicly during Joplin’s lifetime, although there was a rough read-through/rehearsal in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem. Joplin published the piano/vocal score at his own expense. He died in 1917. It was not until 1971 that the opera was introduced to the public, in an unstaged reading at the New York Public Library. The event was organized by William Bolcom (the composer), Mary Lou Williams (the legendary jazz pianist), and Joshua Rifkin (the musicologist/pianist), all of whom took turns accompanying talented young New York singers. But that was hardly a true premiere. In 1972 the Atlanta Symphony, under conductor Robert Shaw, gave a staged concert performance at Morehouse College. The great Katherine Dunham directed and choreographed the staging. The “premiere” was a resounding success, nearly fifty-five years after Joplin’s passing. And finally, in 1975, the Houston Grand Opera mounted a full-scale operatic production, with Carmen Balthrop and Kathleen Battle alternating in the lead role of Treemonisha, and Gunther Schuller conducting. The Houston production even went to the Uris Theater on Broadway for several weeks. Even given this long delay, Treemonisha is the first African-American opera to achieve international recognition, and the first to be commercially recorded. In 1976, Scott Joplin was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Treemonisha and for his “contributions to American music.”

Although Joplin composed Treemonisha at the height of his ragtime fame, this is not a “ragtime” opera, but one that freely mixes American popular styles, African-American dance numbers, and blues-tinged melodies, aided by Joplin’s gift for catchy melody. Joplin intended it as a serious American grand opera, complete with overture, instrumental interludes between acts, and vocal recitatives, arias, and ensemble numbers. Melvin Drimmer points out that Joplin’s unique use of the chorus “adds a new dimension to black theatre. Under Katherine Dunham’s imaginative choreography, the chorus creates a Midwestern hoe-down, a West Indian style dance, and ragtime strut. And the two songs which stop the show, ‘Aunt Dinah Done Blowed the Horn,’ and ‘A Real Slow Drag’ represent black musical expression through and through and make no concession to European operatic forms.”  The opera closes with the emotional “We Will Trust You to Be Our Leader” followed by the stirring closing, “A Real Slow Drag.” Written as an authentic rag, it is both wistful and deeply affirming.

Dr. Lyn Raley
Professor of Music
Millsaps College


Placing Treemonisha in Context

Scott Joplin’s 1911 opera was born into conflict.  This work, focused on an enslaved community’s agency against the evils which kept it bound, came to be in a time marked by race riots and legislated violence against America’s African American populous.  Joplin joined the growing number of African American artists of the early 20th century who took to their pens, instruments, and intellects to protest racial injustice in a period when jobs were declining and lynchings were climbing for black people in America. 

Treemonisha’s heroine defies the odds by mentally freeing her community through education while Joplin’s work breaks similar barriers existing as an opera laced with the dialect of the enslaved and bold compositions.  The lack of support and acclaim associated with Treemonisha in the time when it was written points meaningfully to its protest identity.  Joplin endeavored to produce an American opera unmarked by his ragtime fame or the racial identity of the composer and the subjects of the plot.  Yet, society prevented the exposure and success of this work and scoffed at his artistic ambition during his lifetime.  When Treemonisha was finally performed in its entirety in 1972, it was done in a city historically marked by the severe social and racial unrest again plaguing the entire country—Atlanta, Georgia.  In this moment during the late 20th century when the African American creative community was again producing art to protest the lives denied them by the status quo, Treemonisha experienced a rebirth. 

In the wake of the Charlottesville protests and the necessity to remind the world that black lives matter, Treemonisha’s themes and embodiment of resistance remains relevant.  We have again found ourselves in need of rescue from conjurers who attempt to distract us from progress and deny our freedoms with the lure of superstition.  The hope is that there is a bit of Joplin and Treemonisha in us all—a spirit and resolve that catapults us past fear of failure into liberation from everything that seeks to limit us.

Ebony Lumumba
Assistant Professor | Chair
Department of English & Modern Languages
Tougaloo College


A Note on the Use of Dialect

One of the most remarkable aspects of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha is the language.  Critics across decades have consistently identified the dueling dialects within the opera as either the most telling traits of its beauty or the impetus for its failure during the composer’s life.  Within this work, set in rural Arkansas during the 1880s, there are characters who engage in dialogue in standard English and others who speak in a markedly non-standard dialect of the same language.  This variance identifies each character’s role in the action as well as their level of formal education.  We are able to ascertain the degree of enlightenment each character has reached based upon whether or not they speak standard English or the rural dialect assigned to the formerly-enslaved population.

The dialect of the formerly-enslaved is positioned as a residual carry-over from enslavement and likened to the nefarious superstitions of the opera’s conjurer villains.  Those who speak it are marked as not only uneducated, but also incapable of moving beyond their figurative chains.

The speakers of standard English represent those who have awakened from the oppressive slumber of superstition.  Treemonisha does not use the non-standard speech; neither does Remus.  This indicates their status from the start of the action as those who are no longer bound by slavery and its remnants.  Treemonisha’s parents and other members of her community, however, begin the action speaking the dialect of the formerly-enslaved and are, by the end of the opera, transformed to members of the educated population with the evidence of their use of standard English.

Thus, language in Treemonisha serves distinct purposes in the opera’s composition.  The simplest is the authenticity it is meant to provide to the work in terms of its setting.  The second and more complicated is the commentary on and demonstration of varying degrees of progress within one community. 

Ebony Lumumba
Assistant Professor | Chair
Department of English & Modern Languages
Tougaloo College

Concert Calendar

March 2018
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Upcoming Performances

Selby and Richard McRae Foundation: EPIC ELEGANCE

Sat, Mar 24, 2018, 7:30 PM me from the earth…..

Thu, Apr 05, 2018, 7:00 PM me from the earth…

Sun, Apr 08, 2018, 4:00 PM


Sat, Apr 21, 2018, 7:30 PM

PEPSI POPS: Picnic in the Park

Fri, May 11, 2018, 7:30 PM