It's business as usual for Long Beach Opera, opening its 2014 season with a production of yet another obscure work, Queenie Pie, written by Duke Ellington.
Whoa, back up — Duke Ellington wrote an opera?
Non–jazz fans likely have encountered some of Ellington's jazz standards, such as "It Don't Mean a Thing," "Prelude to a Kiss" or "C Jam Blues." Fans of historical jazz own his band recordings — some of the greatest jazz of the 20th century. But not many people know about Queenie Pie.
Ellington was an experienced composer for ballet, stage revues and films. In 1970 — 47 years after he made his first recording — New York public-television station WNET commissioned him to write an original opera. Ellington worked on it when he could during his extensive touring, but by the time he had something for WNET in 1973, the funding was lost. Undiscouraged, he expanded and refined his ideas for a "street opera" up until his death in 1974.
Queenie Pie, the heroine, is a cosmetics magnate whose character was based on Madam C.J. Walker, the first American woman to make a million dollars on her own. The first half of the musical (the spoken dialogue between numbers make it more that than opera) consists of her rivalry with a new competitor in the beauty products field, Café Olay. The second part has Queenie Pie traveling to a mythical Caribbean island in search of the ultimate cosmetic ingredient, only to find self-fulfillment after a stint as Queen of the Island.
Queenie Pie's debut was delayed by years of arguing between Ellington's co-lyricist, Betty McGettigan, and his son and heir, musician Mercer Ellington, over their shares of the copyright. When the dispute was finally resolved, a production was planned for Philadelphia and then Washington, D.C., but bringing the work to the stage was difficult. Only 25 percent of Ellington's score was harmonized; the rest consisted of unaccompanied melodies and lyrics.
Maurice Peress, Ellington's orchestral collaborator, was recruited to adapt the music for the 1986 premiere, and Broadway playwright-director George C. Wolfe rewrote the libretto. Critics praised the score but many disliked the book and characters. The Washington Post's critic called the plot "preposterous," likening one number to "Gilbert and Sullivan on hallucinogens."
Queenie Pie has had a few more productions since then, including Oakland in 2008 and Austin, Texas, in 2009. Peress' adaptations were lost, so Oakland Opera hired arranger Marc Bolin to wade through Ellington's incomplete manuscripts and assemble a new score. It's this version, tweaked again in the Austin production, that Long Beach Opera will premiere in Southern California.
On a recent Tuesday evening, the stage manager called rehearsal half an hour too soon; the actors, on their way to their cars, realized the mistake. "They walked back in and said they wanted to keep going. I never saw that before," director Ken Roht said via phone later that night, at 11 p.m. He sounded tired but exuberant. His enthusiasm must be contagious.
In the problematic libretto, Roht found poignancy in the rivalry between Queenie Pie and Café Olay, whose name and New Orleans origin suggest a mixed-race heritage. Roht realized that the opera could examine issues and prejudices associated with differing skin tones within the black community. He constructed a monologue for Café Olay out of 1930s skin-lightening ads, which promised women, "You too can be beautiful if you lighten your skin."
"My biggest challenge," Roht says, "is overcoming the self-consciousness I feel being a white guy trying to address a black cultural issue." He trusts his African-American cast to keep his ideas authentic.
Other parts were tweaked to keep up with current conventions. In the original plot, Café Olay jealously murders her boyfriend, goes to prison and is never seen again. Roht brought her back for the final scenes, in which Queenie Pie and Café Olay learn to get along. The scenes previously in that slot, on the Caribbean island, were uncomfortably dated, with their naive, condescending depictions of primitive jungle people.
It's tough to cram this much reworking into Long Beach Opera's rehearsal schedule. A typical Broadway show has at least six weeks of rehearsals. "We have two weeks to mount an entire musical," Roht says. "I have to teach dance combinations that really honor the swing vocabulary."
Jeffrey Lindberg, the musical director, spent weeks transcribing arrangements from the Austin production, which he prefers to Bolin's charts for Oakland Opera.
The tricky part of Lindberg's job is that Ellington's arrangements were tailored to the sound of a specific musician. He didn't simply write for alto saxophone — he wrote for Johnny Hodges. One reason modern band performances don't sound like Ellington, even when they play accurate transcriptions, is that so much of Duke's sound was inseparable from the performers in his band.
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Lindberg tackles that issue on a case-by-case basis. "If players are able to get that Ellington soloist's sound, they will," he says. "If not, they'll do it their own way."
The cast isn't made up of traditional opera singers. They're well-schooled in jazz — Karen Marie Richardson (playing Queenie Pie) and Anna Bowen (Café Olay) both scat sing. And they are all are called on to dance as well. Jeffrey Polk — in dual roles as Lil Daddy (Queenie Pie's servant) and the island's Witch Doctor — has extensive dance experience, having appeared as Banzai the hyena in the Pantages production of The Lion King and choreographed Smoky Joe's Café at the Pasadena Playhouse last year.
Roht hopes his changes will pave the way for more productions of Queenie Pie. Regardless, you likely won't find another musical in Southern California with a score that swings half as hard as this one will.
QUEENIE PIE | By Duke Ellington | Long Beach Opera at the Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. Sixth St., San Pedro | Sun., Jan. 26, 7 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 1, 8 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 2, 2 p.m. | (562) 432-5934 | longbeachopera.org