Students rehearse their lines for “Treemonisha” at Hibernian Hall in preparation for the opening performance on April 29. (Jessamyn Mayher photos)
Three weeks before the upcoming production of Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha,” more than two-dozen teens, ages 13-17 years old, crowd around a black piano in Hibernian Hall. They are awaiting instructions from their director Samuel Martinborough, founder of Mssng Lnks. The students have been rehearsing for an hour and a half and have more than three hours to go before calling it quits for the night.
Heralded as the first grand opera written by a composer of color “Treemonisha” takes place in the late 1800s on a plantation. Treemonisha refuses to accept the superstitions of the community and promotes education as the key to freedom. In lieu of her beliefs, Treemonisha (Anita Murrell) is kidnapped by conjurers and later rescued by Remus (Korland Simmons) whom she teaches to read and write. In the end, the community chooses her as their leader.
Completed by Joplin in 1910, “Treemonisha” was not fully staged until 1972 — more than five decades after his death. Co-sponsored by Mssng Lnks, Roxbury Center for the Arts and Opera Boston, the opera will be presented at Hibernian Hall from April 29-May 1.
On this recent rehearsal, the voices are shrill with youth and enthusiasm as they sing through a number of songs. They are attentive and well disciplined as Martinborough takes them through each scene. The singers have all the words down, but it’s confidence and presence that Martinborough is pushing for.
In the background, Rachel Adler Golden, education and community engagement manager at Opera Boston is helping out, making sure snacks are ready for their break at 7 p.m.
“Opera Boston and Mssng Lnks have done a number of shows together,” said Golden. “It’s amazing to watch these kids grow. Over time they become willing to take more risks. They learn to work in teams and trust each other.”
Martinborough teaches fifth, sixth and seventh grade. It’s obvious that he loves the arts and working with youth from the way he interacts with the young performers. He gently admonishes them, but treats them like professionals. He refuses to hear excuses for absences and demands their commitment until show time.
“When I talk about this show, I don’t say it’s a bunch of urban kids so be kind. I say, ‘I’m doing a show. We’re premiering “Treemonisha,’ ” Martinborough said.
Mssng Lnks was founded in 2004 and helps students find their voices literally and figuratively according to the mission statement. The organization also connects aspiring singers to other forms of support to aid them in their careers.
Both Opera Boston and Mssng Lnks are constantly looking for creative ways to present music and promote engagement. In February, they held a workshop series called “Emancipation Chronicles” that combined music with history. Using “Treemonisha” as a springboard, Martinborough created a curriculum combining vocal music with lessons on the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The constitutional amendments abolished slavery in 1865, granted former slaves citizenship in 1868 and gave black males the right to vote in 1870.
A brilliant tactic, the workshops raised awareness of the opera with teens. Opera is a tough sell to many adults, never mind video game playing, iPhone touting youth. But Martinborough succeeded in getting them excited.
“Opera is a form of storytelling,” Martinborough said. “It’s about passion, love and loss. It’s juicy stuff. It’s alive!”
At another rehearsal a week and a half before the show, the cast is chatting over dinner during their break. Many of the students are bubbling with energy that only comes from their premiere date coming closer.
“It’s really difficult at times, but I really love it,” said 16-year-old Christina McDonald. She said she plays alto sax, piano and flute and wants to pursue music after high school.
The multi-talented troop doesn’t seem to be worried about stage fright per se but some are thinking about performing in front of family members.
“I don’t want to look at my mom. But, I know she’ll say why not? I love you!” says Milan Anderson, 14, a student at Boston Collegiate Charter. Anderson just wants to make sure she stays focused on stage.
Bass Baritone Edward Ayala, 15, is a student at Boston Latin. During the break he sits on the end and isn’t talking to anyone. Ayala plays the trumpet and auditioned for “Treemonisha” at his choir director's prodding. Ayala is ready to perform but feels like the group could use more work with staging and placements.
The break is over and all the laughter stops as soon as places are taken and the music begins. Like a well-oiled machine, everyone is doing his or her part to make sure the show will go off without a hitch.
“Always be kind and true, always be kind and true,” they all sing with strength.
And this time, the sound fills the room.
Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. The Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m. and Sunday’s show begins at 3 p.m.