Getting an education shouldn't be a liability. But in Scott Joplin's opera, Treemonisha, a young woman who confronts conjurers who sell "bags of luck" to superstitious people finds herself under suspicion. One of the conjurers proposes a solution to his followers.
"We'll throw her in the wasps' nest!" sings Simon (Kentrell Roberts) in a deep bass voice.
Treemonisha is set on a former plantation in Texarkana in the early 1880s. Treemonisha (Kenya Jackson), who was born after the Civil war, has been educated and that sometimes puts her in conflict with some of the freed slaves who hold onto superstitious beliefs.
Treemonisha's parents Ned (Terrance Brown) and Monesha (Ebonee Davis) try to protect her, but it's revealed that she's adopted. That doesn't help with the mob clutching their bags of luck, closing in to throw her in the wasps' nest.
OperaCreole, led by Givonna Joseph and filled with many former Xavier University students, has performed songs from Treemonisha such as "A Real Slow Drag" since 2012. The group typically closes its annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival performances with works from the show. In conjunction with Cripple Creek Theatre Company and the New Resonance Orchestra, OperaCreole is staging a full production at the Music Box Village Oct. 21-22. (VIP tickets include a short lecture on Joplin at 6:30 p.m.)
"When I saw the houses at the Music Box, they seemed like the houses in Treemonisha," Joseph says. The opera company decided to do the production outrdoors to make use of the setting.
Treemonisha features a 13-piece orchestra, five dancers and 13 singers, many of them veterans of OperaCreole performances. Cameron-Mitchell Ware starred as a pianist based on Scott Joplin, the composer considered the father of ragtime, in Cripple Creek's production of the musical Ragtime in August 2016. Nicole Buckels, who also worked on Ragtime, is choreographing the dancers.
The Ragtime production helped initiate a conversation between Cripple Creek and OperaCreole, says Cripple Creek artistic director Emilie Whelan, who is stage directing Treemonisha. The company reached out to OperaCreole because of its expertise on Joplin's work. The two groups initially talked about doing a Treemonisha production in time for the New Orleans Ragtime Festival, but decided on the full production this fall at the Music Box.
Joplin finished Treemonisha in 1910, but it was not fully staged before his death in 1917. The opera was lost and rediscovered in the early 1970s. It has had several full productions, but never before in New Orleans.
In the opera, the music follows historical change, Whelan says, incorporating black musical traditions from spiritual singing up through the beginning of ragtime, pointing to the future — jazz.
"It's operatic," says Joseph. "But it has a ragtime feeling about it with lots of music and dance."