This work is fascinating from a historical perspective, but there’s a reason it is usually revived only on those grounds. It was written by the great American composer Scott Joplin, most known today for his famous ragtime compositions for piano like “The Entertainer” and “The Maple Leaf Rag”. It was his attempt to prove his credibility as a composer by writing an American opera, and is notable as the first opera in history to focus exclusively on Black characters (yes, even before Porgy and Bess), even if it wasn’t actually produced on stage until the Seventies.
The opera uses the old-fashioned Number Opera format, with individual set pieces connected by recitative, which even at the time was a rather outdated practice in the genre. Interestingly, only a few individual ‘numbers’ make use of the traditional Black musical idioms Joplin is usually associated with…a few Ragtime dances for the ensemble, the gospel-ish call-and-response number “Good Advice”, or the proto-bluesy harmonies on the finale, “A Real Slow Drag”, for example. The majority of the score simply sounds like an Italian opera, and a rather accomplished one, too.
So why don’t we see this piece get revived more often? Simple—the libretto is terrible. Some might try to argue it’s merely dated, but I’ve actually read the librettos of other operas from this period, and the excuse doesn’t hold up. There are some who claim that Porgy and Bess is ‘racially insensitive’, and insinuate that this perceived flaw might stem from it having been written entirely by whites, but this opera, written entirely by a single pivotal figure in Black music history, comes across as far more condescending to its characters than Porgy ever has.
Actually, the story itself is sound, a fairly progressive (and surprisingly non-sexist for an opera) story about education overcoming superstition, and would be fine with better execution. The problem is the wording. Every single character speaks entirely in simple-minded cliches, there is an abundance of groan-inducing lines, and many of Joplin’s rhymes are painful even by the standards of modern pop music (‘right’ with ‘advice’, for example, or ‘grateful’ with ‘thankful’). A modern audience that didn’t know about Joplin’s role in writing this would probably take these idiotic lyrics for minstrel-show stereotyping, which means that the show can only be feasibly marketed to people who come in already knowing its historical significance. Also, the centerpiece aria, “The Sacred Tree”, as lovely as it is, is unbearably tedious in performance because it stretches about a minute and a half’s worth of narrative into eight minutes of slow, static story ballad.
Scott Joplin was a great composer, of that there is no doubt, but he clearly didn’t have the slightest idea how to write an opera libretto, or even to pen credible lyrics, and he really should have found a collaborator for this effort. This show may be historically important and musically interesting, but it is simply not good theater, and for that reason will probably never be anything more than the historical curiosity it is today.
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