Nearly 100 years after it was composed, nearly 45 years after its first full-scale performance in America, Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha has arrived in France. Beneath the glittering chandelier and the towering proscenium arch of the Théâtre du Châtelet, one of Paris' finest concert halls, Treemonisha, the first opera ever composed by an American, is being presented in a half-dozen performances this month.
In France, just like in America, Scott Joplin (circa 1867-1917) is renowned as the ''King of Ragtime.'' Everybody knows and loves ''The Entertainer,'' adapted by Marvin Hamlisch for the 1973 film The Sting. Despite the fact that the score of his ''Maple Leaf Rag'' sold a million copies in 1899, Scott Joplin could not find financial backers to stage his opera, Treemonisha. He published the score, out of his own pocket, in 1911. A famous songwriter in his turn-of-the-century prime, Joplin was broke and forgotten by the time syphilis-induced dementia took his life in 1917. Treemonisha was never performed in the composer's lifetime, but a fully orchestrated presentation at the Houston Grand Opera in 1975 earned Joplin a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. The opera's arrival in Paris has been, to say the least, a long time coming.
I attended the second performance in the run at the Théâtre du Châtelet last Friday night. Adding to the sense of anticipation in the theater was the casting of Grace Bumbry, an international icon, in the role of Monisha, the childless ex-slave who finds a 2-day-old baby under a tree and raises her as her own daughter. For anyone in the soldout, 2,500-seat theater who wondered if a 73-year-old diva could handle the part, all doubt was blasted away the moment Bumbry opened her mouth to sing. The crystalline power of her voice sent a collective shiver through the audience.
Magnificent as Bumbry is, hers is not a dominating diva role. Treemonisha is an ensemble piece. The role of Monisha's husband, Ned, is sung by another of the world's greatest living opera stars, Sir Willard White, who originated the part in the Houston production. Bumbry, born in St. Louis, Missouri, and Sir Willard, born in Jamaica, are surrounded by a Diaspora of outstanding operatic talent with the Florida-born Adina Aaron in the title role and black singers from Queenstown, South Africa; Stockholm, Sweden; Martinique; Cameroon and Connecticut taking on the other main parts. The orchestra is directed with brio by the dynamic and startlingly youthful African-American conductor, Kazem Abdullah.
To categorize Treemonisha as a ''ragtime opera,'' as it is often called, is too narrow a definition. In addition to ragtime, the musical references in the score encompass Viennese waltzes, Negro spirituals and Belcanto arias. There are thematic echoes ranging from Mozart to Wagner.
But those who would attack Treemonisha for presenting ''negative stereotypes'' need to remember that, at a time when blackface minstrel shows were all the rage, Joplin depicted African-American characters that wrestle with the meaning of their lives and consider intelligence and compassion, family and community, the highest of values. In its celebration of education, equality between the races and sexes, and enlightened leadership for a black populace just a few decades removed from slavery, Treemonisha's libretto is every bit as progressive as the philosophy of Scott Joplin's contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois.
The ovation at the end of last Friday night's performance was seismic. After the curtain had dropped and the lights had come up and the elated audience began to exit the theater, I could still hear the cast, stomping in celebration.
Jake Lamar is a writer living in Paris.