What Ever Happened to Bess?

Duke Ellington's opera, "Queenie Pie"

In the penultimate scene of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Bess, succumbing to the temptation proffered by drug pusher Sportin’ Life, departs for New York with him.

As appealing as Gershwin’s music is, the characterization of Bess and the other residents of Catfish Row to be in accordance with the existent stereotypical view of African Americans in the early twentieth century was objectionable to Duke Ellington, an early proponent of creating and promoting art that projected a much more positive depiction of his race in America.

Ellington’s objection was in accord with many other artists affiliated with the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement fueled by the massive migration of African Americans from the institutionalized racism of the Old South.

Duke Ellington, circa 1925

Gershwin’s Porgy premiered on Broadway in 1935; various notes, papers, and articles show that Ellington began composing an original American opera in 1936. Ellington, largely a self-taught composer and arranger, always had multiple projects in progress. Often a project would be set aside for months (or even, years) and then returned to for more work.

Circumstantially, the opera Queenie Pie is Ellington’s fanciful invention of what happened to Gershwin’s Bess, beginning at a point following her ten years residence in New York City’s Harlem. Long Beach Opera [LBO] will produce a performance run, beginning on Sunday, January 26 (see  www.longbeachopera.org).

This opera’s gestation period is the longest in opera history, continuing, in a de facto sense, until (even!) now. As was his wont, Ellington alternately set aside and then returned to this – what was to be – his only opera. As the years passed, he would compose new music, gradually stirring it into the score-to-be, often showing evidence of his being influenced by other composers - both contemporary and historical, including Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Richard Strauss.

Ellington was still working on Queenie Pie while on his death bed in 1974 and so the opera was left incomplete, leaving an almost finished vocal line (lyrics and melodies), but roughly only a twenty-five percent completed piano line and a rather tenuous libretto. As a consequence, both the libretto and the orchestration have had to be re-worked each time the work has been performed:

  • In 1986, it was produced for the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia
  • In 1993, a concertized version was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
  • In 2008, the Oakland Opera Theater produced a version, the orchestration and libretto being reworked by Marc Bolin
  • In 2009, the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music produced another version, with Ellington collaborator Betty McGettigan revising the text and lyrics

The story line vaguely (and whimsically) references the life of Madam C. J. Walker [1867 – 1919], an American entrepreneur, regarded as the first female self-made millionaire in America. She made her fortune by developing and marketing a highly-successful line of beauty and hair products for black women.

With the version used by the Oakland Opera Theater as a base, LBO has proceeded to do its own adaptation, with Stage Director Ken Roht adapting both libretto and choreography. Queenie Pie is in two acts: Act 1 is set in Harlem and features a melodramatic love triangle:

  • The character of Queenie Pie [QP] is an established, award-winning beautician [Ellington had in mind her being a Lena Horne-type jazz singer]
  • Café Olay [CO] is the opera’s antagonist, a younger woman, entering the story as the incipient competition to QP’s ten-year reign as Harlem’s leading beautician [the French spelling is “Café au lait” (coffee with milk), reflecting the preoccupation with gradations of racial color: CO is Creole.]
  • Holt Faye, the necessary apex of the love triangle, is a combination ballad singer and stand-up comic
  • Lil’ Daddy is a sometimes advisor, sometimes servant to QP

LBO has taken the logical step of contracting with experienced jazz musicians for the primary musical responsibilities: the orchestra will be the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited, veteran jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, Artistic Director; and the Conductor will be Jeffrey Lindberg, Artistic Director for the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.

Act 1 is basically a vehicle for the enjoyment of Ellington’s music, much as the Astaire-Rogers musicals of the thirties were vehicles with which to relish the choreography of Fred and Ginger.

Act 2 is all of that and quite a bit more: set on a “mystical island”, it features a group of highly-unique characters [e.g., a King, a Prince, a Witch Doctor and something like a barber shop quartet] participating in a series of highly-improbable plot twists. Writing in the Washington Post, Megan Rosenfeld thought that the unique characters were reminiscent of the Damon Runyon-like types in Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, while the highly-improbable plot twists were something that “Gilbert and Sullivan on hallucinogens” might well have come up with.

LBO’s Stage Director Ken Roht recognized a basic weakness in the libretto passed along to LBO from the Oakland Opera Theater: it contained no songs for CO in Act 2. So, invoking much the same spirit that the Komische Oper Berlin called upon when it included Mozart's fantasias K 397 in D minor and K 475 in C minor in Barrie Kosky’s production of The Magic Flute (seen recently here at Los Angeles Opera and played on an eighteenth century Hammerklavier), LBO has inserted two songs from the huge accumulation of Ellington material available from years past: “Black Butterfly”, a song written by the Duke along with Ben Carruthers and Irving Mill around 1958, and “I like the sunrise” (from 1947).

Here below is LBO’s cast for Queenie Pie, loosening up at break time from an early Piano Rehearsal:

Queenie Pie Cast
[
Photo by Maestro Andreas Mitisek]

And here below are the Principals, gathered around the piano, along with Conductor Jeffrey Lindberg. From left-to-right:

  • Karen Marie Richardson [Queenie Pie]. Karen has performed in Ragtime the Musical, in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, and Hairspray the Musical.
  • Jeffrey Polk [Lil’ Daddy (Act 1) & Witch Doctor (Act 2)]. Jeffrey ‘s stage credits are legion, including that of Jesus Christ SuperstarThe Music ManGuys and Dolls, and Hello Dolly!
  • Conductor Jeffrey Lindberg
  • Anna Bowen [Café Olay]. Anna’s multidisciplinary credits include CBSTV (As The World Turns) and various Broadway musicals, including 101 DalmatiansRent, and Evita.
  • Keithon Gipson [Holt Faye (Act 1) & The King (Act 2)]. Keithon, a member of the U. of Texas cast, has had recent roles in The Color PurpleCamelot, and Ragtime, plus the operatic roles of Almaviva (The Marriage of Figaro), the Elder McLean (Susannah), and Guglielmo (Cosi fan Tutti).

Queenie Pie Piano Rehearsal
[Photo by Bob Bernard]

Duke Ellington’s legacy, already listing honors that include 12 Grammy Awards & inclusion in the Grammy Hall of Fame; three Academy Awards for the 1959 film “Anatomy of a Murder”; an especially-cited Pulitzer Prize; the French Legion of Honor; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, will soon include the successful completion of his one opera.

The Queen is revived! ….  Long live the Queen!

 

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Author: Judy Lieb
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