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An opera by Duke Ellington? Well, almost, sort of. Like many of the Master’s creations, tunes and notions for Queenie Pie had been marinating in his well-traveled trunk for an extended period until public broadcasting commissioned the project in 1970 as a one-hour television opera. After funding dried up, Ellington worked on expanding it to a full-length piece until his death in 1974. Loosely inspired by the model of cosmetics mogul Mme. C.J. Walker, America’s first female self-made millionairess, Queenie Pie was not merely unfinished, but meaningful portions of the original materials and subsequent orchestrations have also been lost. So although efforts have been made to mount a playable version since 1986, none can be justly called a “reconstruction” or “restoration” because it has never actually existed in any determinate form. Instead, each attempt must content itself with seeking new inspirations based upon the core of Ellington essence.
This new coproduction between Long Beach Opera and Chicago Opera Theater (both felicitously under the artistic management of Andreas Mitisek) represents an aspirational and relatively expensive undertaking for the scrappy companies. Happily, from the opening fanfares the pit band nails the Duke’s distinct orchestral sound, splendidly seeded with such star ringers as Dr. Bobby Rodriguez, Justo Almario, Prof. Charles Owens, George Bohannon and Trevor Ware, all of whom have Ellington spliced into their DNA.
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With the first act set in Harlem among upper-crust aspirational blacks, and the second on an unnamed imaginary island inhabited by natives of obscure French-African pedigree, the progress of the libretto often seems bumpy and ill-matched. It is apparent, however, that the composer was consciously reaching for a juxtaposition of the urban and the pastoral with an ambition grounded in an awareness of Shakespeare and Mozart, though ineffably expressed in his idiomatic voice.
The central conflict concerns the rivalry of older, established beauty celebrity Queenie (Karen Marie Richardson), who clings in vanity to her annual crowning as the best of her peers, threatened by the ambitious, more youthful — and, most critically, far lighter-skinned — Café O’Lay (Anna Bowen), an upstart newly arrived from New Orleans to seize her fortune by hawking whitening treatments. The promoter romancing them both, Holt Fay (Keithon Gipson), sincerely believes he can serve two mistresses both professionally and personally, and pays for it as both opera and the blues demand. While Café serves her prison term, the grieving Queenie seeks solace in search of a magically transformative fleur Africaine in the birthplace of her factotum Lil’ Daddy (the appropriately indispensible Jeffrey Polk), where she is importuned yet not seduced by both the Witch Doctor (Polk) and the widowed King (Gipson).
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The production is beset by more than its fair share of troubles, though at base it remains unfailingly interesting, not only due to Ellington but also to the talents engaging him. There is an ample amount of new music, invariably engaging to hear, though also liberal ransacking of his familiar catalogue. Provenance throughout is bedeviling: what comes from the Duke’s intentions for this work or from intervening revisions or the current adapters can’t be discerned.
There is real bite to the satire of intraracial pigmentation consciousness, a bracing reminder that Ellington could articulately manifest real anger beneath his unyielding unflappability. One can infer some intriguing ideas about writing for the voice, though the lyrics are too weak to realize these suggestions, and the cast can be vocally uneven. There are indications of some haste in the staging, although the intelligent and generous choreography of director Ken Roht may be quite the best LBO has yet had the privilege to enjoy. Costume and scenic design are witty and apt. Most severe, however, were profoundly compromising problems with glitchy microphones on opening night: no sound designer is credited, and someone was sorely required. One hopes it can be remedied over the run. It improved meaningfully but not yet adequately in the second act.
Those expecting a full-blown opera or polished musical may well be frustrated, but attentive ears and patient minds will derive a great deal of stimulation and intermittent rewards from this worthy endeavor, the sort to which the LBO admirably dedicates itself.
Venue: Warner Grand Theatre, San Pedro (runs through Feb. 2), continues at Harris Theater, Chicago (Feb. 15-March 5)
Cast: Karen Marie Richardson, Anna Bowen, Keithon Gipson, Jeffrey Polk (principals)
Composer: Duke Ellington
Libretto: Duke Ellington, Betty McGettigan, Tommy Shepherd, adapted for Long Beach Opera by Ken Roht
Arrangement & Orchestration: Marc Bolin and Jeffrey Lindberg
Conductor: Jeffrey Lindberg
Stage Director & Choreographer: Ken Roht
Scenic Designer: Danila Korogodsky
Light Designer: Brandon Baruch
Presented by Long Beach Opera, Chicago Opera Theater
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