Treemonisha, completed in 1910, was first fully performed on 28 January 1972 in the Atlanta Symphony Hall, USA. It is set on and near a remote Arkansas plantation in September 1884.

Treemonisha is the foundling daughter of Ned (bass) and Monisha (mezzo-soprano).  She is so named, as she was found under a tree on a remote Arkansas plantation that had been abandoned to its former slaves following the civil war. Ned and Monisha have been working hard to give Treemonisha a proper education, but now – as an adult – she had come into conflict with the local conjur-men, when they try to sell her mother a “bag of luck”. To retaliate, they kidnap Treemonisha and plan to throw her in a wasp nest.

Lake Jackson Plantation 1907
Abandoned Lake Jackson Plantation, Texas in 1907 (after civil war)

At the last minute, with the help of her friend Remus (tenor), Treemonisha is rescued and brought home. At her insistence, the kidnappers receive but a severe chiding, and the locals proclaim Treemonisha as their leader. At the end, Treemonisha joins the people in a large celebratory dance – the famous Real Slow Drag.

Distribution of African-Americans in Texas / Arkansas
Distribution of African-Amerikans in Texas and Arkansas at the turn of the 19th century

Treemonisha was published in 1911, but – despite favourable reviews by the American Musician and the Art Journal, it was only performed at an unstaged public reading in 1915 in Joplin’s lifetime, where it did not manage to kindle the enthusiasm of the audience.

Renewed interest in ragtime in the 1970s led to it being staged in 1972; it won the Pulitzer prize in 1974 and has since become a repertoire piece of many American Opera Houses.

The original orchestration is lost, and various new versions exist today.

Find a more information about Treemonisha, including a detailed synopsis here (external site)