Duke Ellington added more than 3,000 songs to the American music vault before his death in 1974. He also started composing what he hoped would be a great American street opera — which composers have spent 40 years adapting, trying to figure out what the Duke wanted for his unfinished opus.
But before you imagine soothing arias or boisterous trills and vibrato, let me stop you: Ellington’s opera is very much a work of jazz.
Queenie Pie has been performed only a handful of times over the decades. Karen Marie Richardson plays the titular character in the latest production, put on by the Long Beach Opera.
“The minute that Queenie Pie has her first solo, which is a scat, people are caught off guard — good or bad — but they’re caught off guard by hearing a scat as opposed to what could possibly be a cadenza or another sound,” Richardson says.
The opera tells the story of Queenie Pie, a Harlem beautician voted the best in town for years on end until she’s challenged by a lighter-skinned woman named Café O’Lay.
The story is, in part, a commentary on colorism. But of course, there’s also a love triangle: Cafe O’Lay and Queenie argue over the same man, until Café — spoiler alert — kills the lover in a fit of rage. In the second act, Queenie retreats to a magical island. Those main plot points — the rivalry, the murder and the island — have remained the same, but a lot of other things have changed.
The opera goes all the way back to the 1930s, when Duke Ellington had the idea to write a musical about Madame C.J. Walker, the black millionaire who made her fortune from hair and beauty products. Fast-forward to the 1960s, when New York’s public TV station commissioned Ellington for an hour-long TV opera, which ran into complications.
He didn’t let Queenie Pie go. In his final years, Ellington really started to focus on it, collaborating with writers on the plot and libretto. But when he died in 1974, it was still incomplete. Queenie Pie was pieced together for performances in the 1980s and ’90s, but those scores weren’t preserved.
Finally, in 2007, musician Marc Bolin began a treasure hunt to find the pieces of this largely forgotten work. The Smithsonian museum has some elements, including hotel napkins with scribbles from Ellington. The library at the University of California, Irvine, had some pieces, but they were limited: only descriptions of the characters, and only about half the orchestration.
“Because he never finished it, I see the current productions, [and] every one to follow as well, evolving and getting closer to what Ellington wanted; I think that’s really our goal,” Bolin says. “It’s almost like starting with a sentence and then creating a chapter of a book.”
Bolin says there were some songs that were mostly finished. In other cases, he had just a few measures to start with — pieces of melody that he had to fully orchestrate.
The Oakland Opera Theater used his arrangement in 2008. That adaptation has been the guide for the handful of productions since, including the Long Beach Opera performance, which opened in Southern California last weekend. For this production, the show was adapted yet again. The director, Ken Roht, tweaked the tone and plot to put colorism more on center stage. Marc Bolin says it’s been quite a journey watching his adaptation change.
“It’s been mostly pleasant, and in some places there’s been growing pains too because I’ve grown so attached to it,” he says. “When it comes down to it, I’m just very excited to see the opera being performed and produced.”
Bolin gave a talk before the opening night of the Long Beach Opera show. He told the audience this project is like a batch of sourdough: “You’ve got this little germ of a bread, and you never get rid of the initial germ, but can make tons of different loaves.”
This production will move to the Chicago Opera Theater Feb. 15 through March 5. And who knows where that germ will go next?