2012-05-11 / Columnists

Notes From The High C’s

Rockaway Music and Arts Council
by Sharon Gabriel

“Treemonisha.“ Did you ever hear of it? It is only one of two operas written by Scott Joplin, the most famous ragtime musician of all time.

As part of the RMAC school opera program, Myra Berger and I attended a performance of “Treemonisha” presented in the auditorium of John Jay College in Manhattan. Attending with us were classes from P.S. 215 in Far Rockaway who are part of our program.

It was thrilling to watch the children and how intently they watched the opera, applauding and being part of the program. These are children, I would guess, who have never seen or heard an opera but they were engrossed in the performance.

As part of the program, the students learn the story in school from their teachers so that they understand the singing and performing. While our program also includes P.S. 104, P.S. 114 and P.S. 183, the performance we attended was with the students of P.S. 215.

“Treemonisha” is the story of a young black girl whose mother trades domestic work for her daughter’s education. We think this reflects Joplin’s own story as his mother worked as a cleaning lady and saved to purchase an upright piano for her son somewhere in the late 1800s.

Though sharing many characteristics with popular shows of the day, it’s combination of mid-nineteenth century European opera, African-American dance forms and American popular idioms, no private financial support was forthcoming and so Joplin self-published the piano-vocal score in 1911. At one point Joplin funded an unstaged production of the show which was poorly received and Joplin’s mental state deteriorated and his wife had him committed to a mental institution in 1916. Not until 1975 was “Treemonisha” revived by the Houston Grand Opera and it has since enjoyed widespread popularity.

This bio information is provided from liner notes from the “Treemonisha” Deutsche Grammerphon recording.

Thank goodness it has now become popular and our children have a chance to hear music by one of the greatest American artists of the last century.

Following the performance a lovely black lady came out on the stage and asked the children if they ever heard of Ruby Bridges. The children all yelled yes and she said, “I’m Ruby Bridges.” For those of us who don’t remember, Ruby Bridges desegregated the William Frantz Ele-mentary School in New Orleans Upper Ninth Ward.

As a nine-year-old girl with pigtails and a white dress, (we saw the pictures in the newspapers and on television over 50 years ago) she was depicted in Norman Rockwell’s picture “The Program We all Live With.” Now some fifty years later, Ruby Bridges has dedicated her life to social justice and healing and travels to scores of schools each year to speak with children about issues of race and social justice. At the end of her talk the children all applauded and gave Ruby Bridges a standing ovation.

What a wonderful day in the city. I only wish more of our schools would accept this program.

Music is something the children desperately need. In fact, all types of art, music and dance are sorely missing from many of our public schools today. In my day, (ancient history) we had a music assembly each week.

The girls had to wear navy blue pleated skirts, white middy blouses and a red tie knotted navy style. The boys wore blue pants, white shirts and ties. Sounds like the dress code today, right? We received our music appreciation via a phonograph and 45 records. Debussy and many other artists are still rumbling around in my brain.

On another subject, just to let you know, our Concert Series is being planned as we speak. There will be two performances in the Rockaway Theatre Building in Fort Tilden in June, July or August.

The artists will be a surprise and we will let you know as soon as everything if finalized.

See you around the neighborhood.

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