Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha” – World premiere in Toronto in June  

Scott Joplin Treemonisha

In 1911, legendary ragtime composer Scott Joplin created an opera unlike anything that had come before. Treemonisha is one of the few live performance pieces about the immediate post-slavery era written by a Black person who lived through it.

Joplin was never to see Treemonisha receive a full production in his lifetime, and it survives to the present day only in an incomplete form. Volcano has been working on this new version since 2016.

Led by a Black, female creative team from across North America, Joplin’s visionary tale of community and female leadership, has been reimagined with a new story and libretto by playwright and broadcaster Leah-Simone Bowen (The Secret Life of Canada), working with Emmy-nominated co-librettist Cheryl L. Davis.

The show also incorporates expanded musical arrangements and new orchestrations by composers Jessie Montgomery, and Jannina Norpoth. In the title role, Canadian soprano Neema Bickersteth heads an all-Black cast, with an all-Black majority-female, nine-piece chamber orchestra performing on Western and African instruments.

Award- winning Canadian stage director Weyni Mengesha, and internationally acclaimed Panamanian American conductor Kalena Bovell helm this ground-breaking version of Joplin’s opera. This marks the first all-Black orchestra and the first Black woman conductor in Canadian opera history.


This reimagined version tells a revolutionary story of a young Black woman who, in discovering the truth of her past and overcoming enormous personal loss, discovers her power to unify a divided people and lead her community towards a new future.

A major goal of this reimagining is to extend Joplin’s ground-breaking creation of a female leader in an American opera by providing even more music for the women characters to sing – especially the title character, Treemonisha.

Joplin was posthumously awarded the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Treemonisha.

Set in the 1880s, shortly after reconstruction efforts were abandoned by the U.S. government, it is the story of a young woman’s harrowing journey to eventually be chosen by her people as the leader their divided community needs to become whole.

Written long before women were granted the right to vote, the opera was both

feminist and progressive, introducing conversations about Black identity and leadership that were far ahead of its time. This proved too thematically subversive for the early-1900s New York opera scene, which was in any case unready to embrace a work written by a Black composer for an all-Black cast: no backer at the time would support Treemonisha; Joplin’s orchestral parts were thrown out after his death in 1917.

He died in poverty, never having seen Treemonisha reach an opening night.

In short, Joplin’s era was hostile to a Black opera composer. But this is something that remained true well into the 21 st century – it was only in 2021, that Terence Blanchard became the first Black Composer to have an opera produced by The Metropolitan Opera (Fire Shut Up in My Bones).

Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha premieres at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, June 6-17, 2023.

Tickets are now on sale and available at by phone at 416-366-7723 and 1-800-708-6752, or by email at