Music News
6:42 pm
Sun February 2, 2014

Duke Ellington's Lost Opera, Forever A Work In Progress

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?

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Great composers have tantalized us by leaving behind unfinished works - Schubert's "8th Symphony," Mozart's "Requiem" and Duke Ellington's opera, "Queenie Pie." That's right. Ellington was writing what he hoped would be a great American street opera. But he couldn't finish it before he died in 1974. Since then, composers have adapted the work to try to figure out what the Duke wanted. NPR's Priska Neely reports on a complicated history of "Queenie Pie."

PRISKA NEELY, BYLINE: Before you imagine soothing arias or boisterous trills and vibrato, let me stop you. Duke Ellington's opera is very much jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "QUEENIE PIE")

NEELY: The opera has been performed only a handful of times over the decades. Karen Marie Richardson plays the lead character Queenie Pie in the latest production put on by the Long Beach Opera.

KAREN MARIE RICHARDSON: The minute that Queenie Pie has her first solo, which is a scat, people are caught off guard, you know, good or bad, but they're caught off guard by hearing a scat as opposed to what they think might be possibly a cadenza.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "QUEENIE PIE")

NEELY: 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 Cafe O'Lay.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "QUEENIE PIE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I can certainly see why the pageant has honored you as runner-up. Your complexion is so light.

NEELY: The production is in part a commentary on colorism.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "QUEENIE PIE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It almost looks natural.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It is natural. I'm Creole.

NEELY: But, of course, there's a love triangle. In this scene, Cafe O'Lay and Queenie argue over the same man using no words at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "QUEENIE PIE")

NEELY: OK, spoiler alert. Cafe O'Lay kills the lover in a fit of rage. And in the second act, Queenie Pie retreats to a magical island. Those main plot points - the rivalry, the murder, the island - have remained the same over the decades. But a lot of other things have changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEELY: The story of this production goes all the way back to the 1930s. That's 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 - New York's public TV station commissioned Ellington for an hour-long TV opera. Even after that project lost funding, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARC BOLIN: Because he never finished it. I see the current productions everyone to follow as well, evolving and getting closer toward what Ellington wanted. I think that's really our goal.

NEELY: Marc Bolin is the man who revived the work for the 21st century. "Queenie Pie" was pieced together for performances in the 1980s and '90s. But those scores weren't preserved. So in 2007, Bolin began a treasure hunt to find the pieces of this largely forgotten work. The Smithsonian museum had some elements, including hotel napkins with scribbles from Ellington. The library at UC Irvine had some pieces. But still, only descriptions of the characters, and only about half the orchestration.

BOLIN: It's almost like starting with a, you know, a sentence and then creating a chapter of a book.

NEELY: Bolin says there were some songs that were mostly finished.

BOLIN: It was (singing) All hail the queen. And it was this kind of fanfare, very fanfare kind of thing. That was mostly in place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEELY: In other cases, Bolin had just a few measures to start with, little pieces of melody that he fully orchestrated. The Oakland Opera Theater used his arrangement in 2008. That adaptation has been the guide for the couple of productions since, including the Long Beach Opera performance that opened here in southern California last weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(APPLAUSE)

NEELY: On opening night, the theater was full and the audience transfixed. Here's Annette Berry.

ANNETTE BERRY: You could feel Duke's legacy, his spirit in the music.

NEELY: And Mark Splan.

MARK SPLAN: Everything captured all that folks love about Duke Ellington. This really felt complete.

NEELY: Charlene Baldridge writes reviews for Opera News. She thinks the production is still a work in progress.

CHARLENE BALDRIDGE: It's got a long way to go to coalesce into something that flows. Right now, it's pieces. And they're wonderful pieces, but they're not of a show by any means.

NEELY: 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.

BOLIN: It's been mostly pleasant. And in some places, there's been growing pains, too, because I've become so attached to it. When it comes down to it, I'm just very excited to see the opera being performed and produced.

NEELY: Bolin gave a talk before the opening night of this Long Beach Opera show. He told the audience that this project is like a batch of sourdough bread.

BOLIN: You know, you've got this little germ of a bread. And you never get rid of the initial germ, but you can make tons of different loaves.

NEELY: This production will move to the Chicago Opera Theater February 15 through March 5. And who knows where that germ will go next? Priska Neely, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YORK, NEW YORK")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) New York, New York...

RATH: In 2010, the first studio recording of "Queenie Pie" was released by the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin. Here's the song "New York, New York."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YORK, NEW YORK")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) New York is a song. New York is a dance. New York is...

RABIH ALAMEDDINE: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. We're back again next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.