Here we are, one evening in October 1901. The President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, has been in office for one month. He has invited Booker T. Washington, writer, teacher and activist for the rights of African-Americans, to the White House. They have dinner, and afterwards the president’s family are escorted back to their apartments. The host and the guest find themselves alone, one-to-one. During their conversation they confide their intimate feelings about each other, for better and for worse.
A GUEST OF HONOUR is a recomposition of an opera of the same name, the first created by composer Scott Joplin in 1903. During the original opera’s tour of the midwestern United States, the box office was stolen, financially ruining Joplin and leaving him unable to pay the production staff. Many of his personal effects were confiscated, including a trunk containing many scores, among them that of A Guest of Honor, which will never be recovered.
As the score of the original work is now lost, A GUEST OF HONOUR has been recomposed from the very few remaining fragments of information left today, including newspaper clippings suggesting that the opera’s argument was about a dinner that took place between Washington and Roosevelt in October 1901. The conditions of this meeting are still difficult to verify, as the White House suppressed the news following virulent criticism of Roosevelt from opponents in the southern states, who censured the president for his perceived proximity to a Black campaigner for the rights of African-Americans.
While the meeting between the two men was widely satirised at the time through songs and cartoons, Washington’s dinner with Roosevelt also became a symbol of social and racial equality. Joplin’s interest in this encounter reflects the meeting of two musical traditions in his work, which encompasses influences from 19th century African-American music and Western classical music. His interest in the ideas of Washington, whose belief in the emancipation of the African-American people through education he shared, subsequently resurfaced in Joplin’s second opera, Treemonisha.
This performance has been developed in a friendly collaboration with How To Show Up? in Amsterdam and with support from Institut francais Royaume-Uni.