Opera Theatre

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis will present the world-premiere of a reimagination of Scott Joplin’s ‘Treemonisha’ as part of its 2023 festival season, which features the work of renowned composer and musician Damien Sneed (above.) The production runs May 20 – June 24 at The Loretto-Hilton.

When Damien Sneed was a freshman at Howard University, a woman he had never seen before approached him. She shared a brief message and handed him a folder. He never saw her again.

The Augusta, Georgia native went about his studies at the famed HBCU. While searching through archived videos of operas at the campus library, he stumbled upon footage of Howard University’s music department voice chair, the late Carmen Balthrop in the Houston Grand Opera’s production of Treemonisha. Sneed instantly connected with the music and story.

In an unrelated mundane chore of an end of semester dormitory move out, he found the folder shared with him by the anonymous woman during a paper purge. By that time, he had all but forgotten about the exchange. He opened the folder and was stopped in his tracks. She had given him the sheet music for Treemonisha. He instantly recalled the brief, but hauntingly prophetic message she said to him as she handed him the folder – which went through him like a bolt of lightning.

“You are going to complete this,” the woman said, according to Sneed. “I tried and never could, but you must finish it.”  In that moment, he understood that his relationship with the opera was divinely ordered.

Twenty-seven years after the purpose shifting exchange that he almost dismissed altogether, Sneed is an award-winning composer preparing for the world to see his adaptation of Joplin’s Pulitzer Prize winning opera for the first time when it premieres this Saturday as part of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis 2023 season at the Loretto-Hilton.

“This is an assignment for me. This is my calling,” Sneed said. “When we are obedient to the assignment, nothing can stop it – nothing can stop us. Nothing can abort it. Nothing can impede it.”

Rajendra Maharaj directs this new adaptation of Treemonisha that stars Justin Austin, Brandie Inez Sutton, Tichina Vaughn, Phillip Bullock, Norman Garrett, and Amani Cole-Felder to name a few.

Sneed’s experience with this work, including other attempts that never happened, make him even more grateful that the stranger was true to her purpose of putting him on the path to see Joplin’s vision through. “That was Joplin’s plight – he never had a chance to see the opera completed before he died,” Sneed said. “He died very sad that he couldn’t complete the opera – and we incorporated that into the opera.”

Sneed calls this latest version, “an opera within an opera” as they infused Joplin’s real-life race against time and tragedy to see the work to completion with the original storyline.

“It’s rare that you see Black love and Black joy in opera,” Sneed said of Treemonisha, which Joplin wrote in 1911, but never lived to see a fully staged production. “It’s a timeless piece.”

The updated 2023 staging is the second time Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has presented Treemonisha – the first being in the 2000 season. Sneed is grateful that after several attempts, it is Opera Theatre of Saint Louis that will see his divine assignment through to completion when the production opens this weekend.

“They have presented some of the greatest new works in the whole canon of opera,” Sneed said. “I’m honored that they selected me and gave me an opportunity.”

In the quarter-century or so since Treemonisha found him, Sneed has developed a stellar reputation as an award-winning musician, singer, songwriter, composer, and music educator who seamlessly weaves through musical genres. He played with Aretha Franklin during her final years. He worked with the legendary Clark Sisters. He sang behind Diana Ross. He counts Wynton Marsalis and the late opera diva Jessye Norman (who was also his godmother) as mentors and has an international reputation as an artist and performer in his own right. He has also composed four operas.

“My education, the people I have met, the musical experiences that I have had have helped to inform my composition skills and my writing for Treemonisha,” Sneed said. “It gives me a wider palette from which to paint from.”

Among those connections include Treemonisha librettist Karen Chilton, who also worked with Sneed on The Tongue & The Lash that highlights the genius of author and cultural critic James Baldwin.

One of the biggest lessons he learned in bringing Treemonisha to the stage was that operating in one’s purpose does not guarantee that the work will be easy.

After dissecting the music of Treemonisha for the sake of updating the opera, Sneed knows all too well the musical ingenuity that went into Joplin’s work.

“The difficulty was making sure that as I composed that people couldn’t say, ‘Oh, that’s Damien’s writing and that’s Joplin’s,’” Sneed said. “I had to try to blend – just like in a choir when our voices blend – I had to learn how to blend my voice with his so that it was one composed work and not just little pieces thrown together. To make sure that there is one thread that goes through the entire work.”

He calls this upcoming production an “epic moment for Black opera.”

“It is surreal to me that I am the one that has had a hand in it, and what we were able to create,” Sneed said. “It hasn’t quite hit home yet – maybe it will on opening night.”

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ production of Treemonisha will run May 20-June 24 at the Loretto Hilton on the campus of Webster University. For tickets and or additional information, visit https://opera-stl.org/

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