Rita Addico-Cohen Triumphs as Treemonisha

      With a new orchestration by Rick Benjamin, The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra has brought to life America's first musically significant opera, Scott Joplin's (1868-1917) Treemonisha (1908-1911) with Rita Addico-Cohen in the title role. After the performance at Wake Forest University on October 27, 2005 the reviewer William Thomas Walker wrote: "The most finished voice was the bright, high soprano of Rita Addico-Cohen. Her diction was consistently clear and her high notes were on dead center. "Walker also praises Tidewater's own baritone Frank Ward Jr. for his comic timing and an infinite number of facial expressions in the role of the father, Ned.

      Personally I'm delighted to hear that Rita Addico-Cohen has found an opportunity to use her high, light voice in a leading role. This physically beautiful, slim, well-trained singer has often discussed with me the challenge of balancing the roles of wife and mother of two young children with her career as a singer for which she studied and trained for many years. Her undergraduate degree is from the University of Virginia and her master's degree from Manhattan School of Music. She has studied with Bill Schumann and Adele Addison and is currently in the voice studio of Dr. Julian Kwok in New York City.

Rita Addico-Cohen as Treemonisha      Some years ago I borrowed a video of Scott Joplin's ragtime opera from Virginia Beach Public Library (it's still available) and was not impressed. The 1975 production was by Houston Grand Opera with orchestration by Gunther Schuller. Schuller and William Bolcom led a ragtime revival with their popular recordings. Joplin's music was used for the soundtrack for the movie The Sting in 1973. Joplin had orchestrated his opera in 1915 but did not find backers for a production. Later he self-published the piano score but his orchestration is lost. Treemonisha is an unsophisticated American morality tale and the heavy European orchestration by Schuller overwhelmed what might be a charming folk opera with a score of ragtime tunes. Ms. Addico-Cohen commented "Imagine if Wagner had composed Die Zauberflöte. Yes, I would flinch also!"

      Rick Benjamin's new musical score is for a twelve piece theater orchestra of the sort that traveling minstrel shows used during Joplin's time. Benjamin uses a string quartet, double-bass, flute, clarinet, trombone, two cornets, piano and a collection of drums and other percussion instruments to achieve a sparkling ragtime sound. Ms. Addico-Cohen says "Having had the privilege of singing the title role in the restored orchestration, I for one can attest to the fact that it is much more successful with a smaller orchestral arrangement, as Joplin would have surely intended. At the turn of the century when the opera was composed, it would have been sung by an ensemble cast and orchestra, who would travel, to tour the opera. In addition to the singers, a 50-piece orchestra would just have been too cumbersome and expensive to move around!"

      Ms. Addico-Cohen continues: "While I praise the work as a legitimate operatic composition, I still have some minor problems with it. My biggest problem is with the libretto for which Joplin is responsible. Act I has only one solo, The Sacred Tree, sung by Monisha, the mother. There are none in Act II, and four, one after the other in Act III, with only short interjections sung by Treemonisha and the chorus to separate them. The first is Remus's Wrong Is Never Right (which sounds incredibly like a Viennese waltz once the chorus joins in); then Ned's When Villains Ramble Far And Near, who suddenly becomes eloquent while heretofore speaking only in dialect. Both of these are termed 'lectures'. Then, finally, after two acts of endless one-liners and mini duets, Treemonisha sings her solos. She sings We Will Trust You as Our Leader, then A Real Slow Drag. All of these solos, including the one in Act I, are long! In both the Schuller version and the PRO versions, there were enormous cuts, and they still felt long!"

      "Another major bone of contention is that we never see or hear Treemonisha actually teaching her 'student' Remus. What a lovely scene that would be. It would also let the audience glimpse how their teacher-student relationship blossomed into one of love, as the pair's music clearly indicates (Joplin does use leitmotifs!). Another slight problem is how Joplin sometimes sets the text to the music; Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress springs to mind. At one time or another, all of the principal singers have to find a convincing way to sing some of their lines comfortably."

      Ms. Addico-Cohen, a native of Accra, Ghana in West Africa, wonders why this opera has been so neglected. "Could it be that the topic of the opera, specifically about the first generation of free black Americans using what was taught them by white Christians to better themselves, is too dated and well, too specific? Then what about Le nozze di Figaro, The Crucible, Les dialogues des Carmelites, Lucia di Lammermoor, and countless others? Aren't they dated as well? Well, the very first and perhaps most significant difference between these operas and that of Joplin's is the length, and therefore the amount of music contained therein."

      "The irony about the performance (or lack thereof) of Treemonisha is that while it is rarely performed in America, it is performed quite often in Europe, from Norway all the way to the Czech Republic. Google Treemonisha and find out for yourself. Perhaps opera companies shy away from it because it is too short to stand on its own, and then it would have to be presented as a 'double bill' with another opera, which would altogether be costly. Well, other short operas are presented in such a manner, so, why not? Again, in my opinion, these are minor problems which would be encountered in any 'major' opera of any language. So why is Treemonisha not performed more often? Something tells me that it will be. Natchez Opera is doing it in May of '06, and PRO will still be touring their production. Who knows? It could come to Hampton Roads in the near future." Rita tells us "Frank Ward is now in Providence, RI, not teaching, but freelancing and singing like myself. We were both pleasantly surprised to see each other at the first music rehearsal."

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