Damien Sneed tapped musical history by adapting Scott Joplin’s work for Opera Theatre
Scott Joplin earned the nickname king of ragtime in large part from musical innovations he made while living and working in St. Louis in the early 20th century. His heavily syncopated compositions, known as rags, paved the way for much American music to come.
His work in the field of opera is lesser known. Joplin’s first opera is lost to history. He never quite finished another, “Treemonisha,” and it wasn’t fully staged during his lifetime. A 1972 production brought the opera to a wider audience, and the piece won Joplin a posthumous Pulitzer Prize a few years later.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents a world premiere adaptation of “Treemonisha” through Sunday. Composer Damien Sneed and librettist Karen Chilton crafted new opening and closing acts, adding Joplin as a character and turning “Treemonisha” into an opera-within-an-opera.
In this telling, Joplin’s Reconstruction-era story becomes not only a depiction of a prospering Black community near the border of Texas and Arkansas, but also the story of a composer triumphing artistically.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Sneed about his adaptation and Joplin’s importance as a composer.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: How did you find your way to the work of Scott Joplin?
Damien Sneed: Scott Joplin has always been one of my favorite composers. When I first started playing for the neighbors, playing at my mother's meetings with the National Association of University Women, I definitely remember playing an excerpt of “The Entertainer” on an upright piano for one of their luncheons.
I began to delve more into Joplin's works as a pianist and as a ragtime composer. And then later on when I got to college, I found out about “Treemonisha.” And I've always felt a connection to him from that day forward.
Goodwin: You’ve been on a bit of a quest to produce this opera, right? You made other attempts in the past that didn’t pan out?
Sneed: Yes. I’ve tried so many years, for so many seasons, with so many people. Once at Howard University, once in New York City and once at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice in Phoenicia, New York.
For that one, we had already had rehearsals. People were there. People drove three or four hours from New York. Some people were there internationally. And right when I struck the first chord of the overture, lightning struck the tent. This horrible torrential rainstorm started coming down, and we could not perform anything else. We all had to run for cover. So I sort of felt like maybe there's some type of curse on this opera, because Joplin never got to see it completed.
Now that I've had a chance to see our production at Opera Theatre of St. Louis a couple of times, my desire is that this will live on and that other people will be able to see it even outside of St. Louis, that it'll go beyond the borders of America and just become a part of world history because Joplin really was an amazing creative.
Goodwin: As you mention, Joplin never saw a fully staged production of “Treemonisha.” So when you show up with librettist Karen Chilton to finish it and adapt it, what does that look like? What materials were you working with?
Sneed: I just tried to go from the piano/vocal score, which is just the vocal, and the piano part, right hand and left hand. I used that and tried to listen to all of Joplin's rags, all of his music that he composed, and to try to figure out what his voice was and blend my voice with his voice.
Goodwin: Did he incorporate different styles into this?
Sneed: Oh, a lot of styles. That's why I think for some people it was difficult for them to understand his work, because the styles are changing so quickly
Goodwin: Fairly early on there’s a piece called “We're Goin' Around,” which in this production has a lot of call-and-response and a dance and seems to me like it's rooted in Black American forms of music, particularly the ring shout, or ring dance.
Sneed: Exactly. Which comes from Africa and is incorporated in gospel music as well. And so there are feels of gospel music going around.
The dance is very important. The dance had a formal cultural function, but also singing the rhythm is what helped African American people get through the work — being sharecroppers in the heat, working on the railroad, helping to build America's system of transportation and getting goods to and fro. Also, the song helped them long for the future and long for another day. A day of freedom, a day of opportunity. So that's why the music is filled with excitement.
Goodwin: There’s a note in the libretto that this story is meant to be an aspirational one — that this is a story of an African American community that is thriving, that is moving into the future. This is a depiction of Black joy.
Sneed: Yes, Black joy instead of Black trauma, which is seen often. So we wanted to present something different. And to see a woman as a leader. And Black love.