In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt made a politically bold decision when he invited African-American leader Booker T. Washington to have dinner with the Roosevelt’s at the White House. People of color worked in the White House but never before had an African-American man been an invited guest to dinner. Roosevelt received support and rebuke for extending the invitation, and Washington received support and rebuke for accepting.
Scott Joplin used this powerful yet polarizing event as the subject of his first opera. He defined his work as a ragtime opera, and named it A Guest of Honor.
On February 16, 1903, Joplin sent a letter to the United States Copyright Office and included the fee of $1 for “application for copyright.” It was and is customary to include copies of the work along with a copyright application, but if a copy was ever sent, it has never been found. In following the timeline of the copyright application and articles which appeared in publication, it appears Joplin applied for the copyright before the opera was actually completed. One of the remarkable aspects of Joplin’s opera is he composed all the music and wrote all the lyrics.
By April, a company of about 32 performers had been hired and rehearsals had begun. In August, a dress rehearsal was given in St. Louis and then the company went on the road. The tour schedule began with a performance in East St. Louis on August 30. From there, they traveled to Springfield, Illinois, for a September 2 performance.
The next scheduled stop for the “Scott Joplin’s Rag-Time Opera Co” was Galesburg, Illinois, for a performance on September 3 in the “Auditorium”. Several other venues were scheduled following Galesburg, but after the ad ran in the Galesburg Daily Republican Register, no other advertisements or reviews have ever been found.
So what happened? We don’t know for sure, but the September 26 issue of Freeman of reported that Joplin had been doing “big business” but encountered “misfortune” in Springfield when someone “embarks with the recipts, leaving them in a hole.” In other words, someone stole the money. By the end of September, Joplin was reported to be in Chicago. Did the troop try to present a few more programs in an attempt to regain some funds? Or was the situation so dire that they had to disband there and then?
Did Joplin and his troop make it to Galesburg to perform? I surely hope so, although I have never seen evidence that he did. Galesburg might have been the last place A Guest of Honor was ever performed. Or, it might be the first place on the tour where it wasn’t performed. Either way, no trace of the opera has ever been found and this example of Joplin’s amazing music, as well as his tribute to a great moment in history, has been lost forever.