And now for something completely different…here comes an opera by the Sultan of Swing himself, Duke Ellington.
The Duke without a doubt was one of the giants in American jazz in the 20th Century. In his over 50-year career as a pianist and leader of big band orchestras, the composer of more than 3,000 songs made such classics as Satin Doll, Take The A Train, Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me, and It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) staples of the musical lexicon.
But Ellington strayed from his comfort zone when, in 1962, the public broadcasting station in New York City, WNET, commissioned him to create an opera that was to be used as a television vehicle for the lovely Lena Horne.
Working with the lady who wrote the story of the opera, Betty McGettigan, the two concocted the narrative of Queenie Pie, the fictional title character who works in the beauty industry. She was inspired by the real life and work of Madam C.J. Walker, who became America’s first Black woman millionaire through the sale of her hair and beauty products.
The Duke worked on the opera sporadically, but it remained unfinished upon his death in 1974. Since then a handful of production companies have staged the opera after doing what’s commonly done when a musician dies in the midst of an unfinished project – throw in some of the artist’s old songs and try to polish a finished piece as smoothly as possible.
The Chicago Opera Theater is the latest company to try its hand at a production of Queenie Pie, this time in collaboration with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.
Only four performances will be staged: Saturday, February 15 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, September 21 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, February 23 at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday, March 5 at 7:30 p.m. All shows will be held at the Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph Street, with tickets ranging from $35 to $125.
This is truly a Black History month gem not to be missed – how rare a musical excursion is the operatic Queenie Pie for Duke Ellington?
So rare that it’s not even listed among Ellington’s works in his Wikipedia biography…and we all know what a comprehensive compendium of significant information that social media online encyclopedia is!
“Queenie Pie is a neglected gem, fascinating musically, dramatically and historically,” says Chicago Opera Theater general director Andreas Mitisek. “In keeping with our mission of producing adventurous opera experiences, particularly new and rarely performed work, we are excited to bring Chicago audiences a largely unknown piece by one of America’s greatest composers.”
The dynamics of the production are interesting. Queenie Pie is a co-production of the Chicago Opera Theater and Los Angeles-based Long Beach Opera, both of which are under the direction of Mitisek.
Ken Roht, director/choreographer for Long Beach Opera, performs that function for this production, while Chicago Jazz Orchestra’s artistic director Jeff Lindberg conducts the opera itself.
The opera’s star, Karen Marie Richardson, who plays the title role, was performing in Too Hot To Handel: The Jazz Gospel Messiah at the Auditorium Theater last year when the Chicago Opera Theater asked if she’d be interested in doing a Duke Ellington opera.
Richardson told N’DIGO, “I said, ‘Okay,’ and by the way, I was like – he did an opera? I wasn’t completely surprised because Duke Ellington could do it all, but the fact that he did one was like, wow.”
After the Handel gig, back in New York where she lives, Richardson auditioned for the Queenie Pie role for Roht and others involved with the production, but they were in Los Angeles while Karen was in a Gotham rehearsal room – the audition was conducted over iPhone and iPad through Skype and Facetime. So she captured the role through the magic (or drawbacks, depending on your perspective) of technology.
In the meantime, Roht updated Betty McGettigan’s libretto (story) of the opera, moving it to the Harlem Renaissance and playing on the age-old light-skinned/dark-skinned issues in the Black community – which today is politically-correctly termed “colorism.”
In Harlem, in 1937 Queenie has won her tenth Queenie Pie title, a national honor bestowed on the most talented and powerful beautician in the country. She has channeled her years of resentment at being the dark-skinned young woman surrounded by her family of lighter-skinned African Americans into an unstoppable business force.
After winning, she throws a self-congratulatory party and in walks Café Au Lait, a competitor for the Queenie Pie crown and a sore loser. She is a younger, light-skinned beauty from New Orleans who flaunts it.
At Queenie’s party, Café Au Lait announces that she is going to set up a beauty shop in Harlem to compete with Queenie’s salon and is dedicating herself to winning next year’s coveted crown. To drive home the point, she seduces Queenie’s man, the opportunistic Holt Faye, who is transfixed with this light-skinned beauty.
What follows next is that somebody gets murdered, somebody goes to jail, Queenie goes off to a remote island looking for a magical beauty plant, meets the island king and wants to become a real queen but the king rejects her, and Café Au Lait shows up on the island, where together, she and Queenie discover the secret of real beauty.
All this in 90 minutes – with an intermission.
“Opera prides itself, depending on the show, on suspension of disbelief that a musical would not in some aspects,” Richardson explains of the synopsis. “Opera is a lot more phantasmic about where it goes.”
About the colorism aspects of Queenie Pie, Karen says it wasn’t an issue in her life. She grew up in the Chicago suburb of Bloomingdale, Illinois, and for the most part, hers was the only Black family on the street, “until gentrification brought families from the West Side and South Side into the suburbs,” she says.
Then the issue for Karen became black vs. BLACK.
“For me the issue wasn’t light/dark, but rather, who was speaking eloquently or not, in other words, who was Black enough – you’re not Black, you’re not authentic, you’re not from the hood,” Richardson explains. “They called my brother Uncle Tom and they teased him; they told me all I needed was a blonde-haired wig and blue eyes and then I would be White and would fit right in the White world.
“So it wasn’t really about color where I’m from, it was about texture, that’s where the dotted line was drawn and you could hear phrases like, ‘Oh, she’s different; she can use that shampoo because she has good hair.’”
Those story issues aside, the main question becomes: What does a Duke Ellington opera sound like? At first blush, you’d probably conclude, well, at least you won’t sleep through it, as is the case with many operas.
The producers tout this production as a “street opera featuring a rousing musical score that blends Ellington’s signature big band sound and clever lyrics with the musical styles of opera, jazz and musical theater that interpolates additional songs from Ellington’s canon to complete the score.”
Richardson says, “This is definitely different. You’re going to get remnants of Duke Ellington, but you’re also going to get remnants of opera. It sounds like jazz with elements of opera included.
“You’ve got this incredible Los Angeles jazz orchestra over here and you’ve got the Chicago Jazz Orchestra over there that’s going to be hitting you with some brass and clarinets. They’re going to give you all kinds of sounds and the only strings you’re really going to hear are piano.
“Initially, you’ll hear the sounds of jazz, and the minute you’ll know you’re not in a normal opera is the moment that I sing my first song because I scat it. It’s all an interesting ear-collision.
Tickets are priced from $35 – $125 and can be purchased by calling 312/704-8414 or via chicagooperatheater.org. Tickets also can be purchased at the Harris Theater box office.