Treemonisha was not performed in its entirety until 1970, when the piano score was rediscovered. This discovery was called a "semimiracle" by music historian Gilbert Chase, who said Treemonisha "bestowed its creative vitality and moral message upon many thousands of delighted listeners and viewers" when it was recreated . The opera's theme is that education is the salvation of the Negro race, represented by the heroine and symbolic educator Treemonisha, who runs into trouble with a local band of magicians who eventually kidnap her . The musical accompaniment of the opera is in the romantic style that was popular in the early 20th century, and has been described as "charming and piquant and ... deeply moving", with elements of black folk songs and dances, including a kind of pre-blues music, spirituals, and a call-and-response style scene involving a congregation and preacher .
Treemonisha was completed in 1910, and Joplin paid for a piano-vocal score to be published in 1911 . At the time of the publishing, he sent a copy of the score to the American Musician and Art Journal, and Treemonisha received a glowing, full-page review in the June issue . The review called it an "entirely new phase of musical art and... a thoroughly American opera (style)" , which fit in well with Joplin's desire to create a distinctive form of African American opera . Despite this endorsement, the opera was never fully staged during his lifetime, and its sole performance was a concert read-through with piano in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, New York City, funded by Joplin himself . One of Joplin's friends, Sam Patterson, described this performance as "thin and unconvincing, little better than a rehearsal... its special quality (would have been) lost on the typical Harlem audience (that was) sophisticated enough to reject their folk past but not sufficiently so to relish a return to it" .
Aside from a concert-style performance in 1915 of the ballet from Act II, Frolic of the Bears by the Martin-Smith Music School, the opera was forgotten until 1970, when the score was rediscovered.
The world premiere took place on January 27 1972, as a joint production of the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia. The performance was directed by noted African-American dancer Katherine Dunham and conducted by Robert Shaw, one of the first major American conductors to hire both black and white singers for his chorale. The production was well-received by both audiences and critics .
Along with Joplin's first opera (A Guest of Honor, 1903), the orchestration notes for Treemonisha have been completely lost, so subsequent performances have been produced using orchestrations created by a variety of composers, including Thomas J. Anderson, Gunther Schuller, and most recently, Rick Benjamin.
Since its premiere, Treemonisha has been performed all over the United States, at venues such as the Houston Grand Opera, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and on Broadway to overwhelming critical and public acclaim. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "contributions to American music" .
In June 2003 Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra premiered their version of Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha at the Stern Grove Festival, an outdoor amphitheater located at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard in San Francisco, and the oldest festival of its kind in the United States. Treemonisha had originally premiered in 1975 with full professional staging by the Houston Grand Opera. However Benjamin thought that the Houston staging was “too heavy, too Verdiesque” and spent five years reconstructing the opera score for a 12-piece theater pit orchestra of the kind Joplin and his peers wrote for and performed with. “We want to do it exactly as we think he would have done it in 1911 on tour,” said Benjamin. “The train would arrive at some town in Iowa, and the cast and chorus would take a buggy, or maybe walk, down to the theater with their simple properties — maybe a couple of canvas backgrounds — set it up and give this show with the local pit orchestra.” In October 2005 Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra premiered his version of Treemonisha on the East Coast at Wake Forest University with a 13-piece orchestra and a cast of 40. Benjamin said that Joplin never intended for the "opera" to depend on a large orchestra. "His real dream was to give everyday people the opportunity, perhaps their only one, to experience opera on their own terms in the music halls and neighborhood theaters."
Benjamin says that Joplin “understood the power of the operatic medium to deliver a message. As a black man at the time, he probably wasn't allowed to go to the opera.” Benjamin hopes his new orchestration will encourage musical groups to perform Treemonisha “with a small orchestra, of modest needs, and still convey this wonderful message. Joplin would be beaming from some place, because his work is being performed.” “I see Treemonisha as ‘opera’ in name only,” writes Benjamin. “It is much more an amalgamation of the well-established American traditions of vaudeville, tab-show, melodrama, and minstrelsy, all held together by Joplin's marvelous music. For this, the ideal accompaniment should be provided by the regulation twelve-piece theatre orchestra of that era.”
Joplin's desire in writing Treemonisha was to make it both serious, like the European opera, as well as entertaining, drawing on the ragtime idiom only in the dance episodes of the story .
There has been speculation that the inspiration for Treemonisha may have come from Joplin's second wife, Freddie Alexander . Like the title character, Alexander was educated, well-read and known to be a proponent of women's rights and African-American culture . The fact that Joplin set the work in September 1884, the month and year of Alexander's birth, has added some weight to that theory.
Joplin biographer Edward A. Berlin, has stated that Treemonisha may have mirrored details from Joplin's own life. Specifically, that Joplin taught himself music fundamentals on a piano in the white home where his mother worked, just as in the opera, the title character receives her education in a white woman's home .
Treemonisha takes place in September 1884 on a plantation between Texarkana and the red River in Arkansas. Treemonisha is a young, educated black woman who refuses to accept the superstitions of the community. When the local conjurers try to sell Treemonisha's adoptive mother a "bag of luck", she denounces the conjurers, who retaliate by kidnapping her, and attempt to throw her into a wasp nest. Her beau, Remus, rescues her at the last moment and they return to the community. Accepted by her peers, she leads a campaign to educate the people around her.