Chicago Opera Theater is jazzed about presenting Ellington’s “Queenie Pie”

Mon Feb 10, 2014 at 4:04 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Karen Marie Richardson stars in the title role of Duke Ellington's "Queenie Pie" at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff
Karen Marie Richardson stars in the title role of Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie” at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff

Any definition of the Great American Songbook has to include songs identified with Duke Ellington. It’s a lengthy list that includes such gems as Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, I Got It Bad and the jazz anthem It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing). Often collaborating with musicians from his band, Ellington wrote hundreds of tunes that are still among the standards cherished by veteran and newly-minted jazz singers alike.

But throughout his career, which began in the 1920s and ended with his death in 1974, the pianist, composer and conductor experimented with longer forms as well. A complete list of Ellington’s compositions includes long suites, quasi-symphonic pieces and sacred works.

From 1962 until he died, at age 75, he wrestled with an unfinished opera titled Queenie Pie inspired by a real person, Madam C. J. Walker, the dynamic African-American entrepreneur who became a millionaire selling hair and beauty products designed for the African-American market early in the 20th century. The story, which involves an imagined encounter between Walker and a young rival, opens in the very real world of Harlem in 1930s and continues on a fantasy island where Madam Walker hopes to find a magic potion to revive her failing business.

There have been assorted attempts to stage the uncompleted opera over the years: Oakland Opera Theater produced a version in 2008, and in 2009 the opera department at the University of Texas at Austin took a stab at it.

Now it’s Chicago Opera Theater’s turn. The company, headed by artistic director Andreas Mitisek, presents four performances of Queenie Pie at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15, 21 and March 5 and 3 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Harris Theater. California’s Long Beach Opera, also directed by Mitisek, presented the same production earlier this year.

Ken Roht, the show’s stage director and choreographer, adapted the libretto for the new production. Conductor Jeffrey Lindberg, artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra–COT’s pit band for Queenie Pie–arranged the music with trombonist Marc Bolin. Chicago-based soprano Karen Marie Richardson sings the title role.

“This is my third directing project with Long Beach Opera,” said Roht. “Because I’m a song-and-dance man and because I’m also a writer, Andreas thought this might be a good fit. So he brought me in to see whether I could bring this particular libretto to the next level. And there’s so much music that’s earmarked for choreography that they really did need a director-choreographer.”

Roht has worked with New York City Opera, the New York Philharmonic and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre, in 2004 as director of a musical titled The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World. Based in Los Angeles, he is founder-director of Orphean Circus, a “theatrical rock band,” in the words of the Los Angeles Times. Coming from the world of extremely free-wheeling theater, Roht wasn’t initially taken with the libretto for Queenie Pie. He especially disliked the device of a female narrator that appeared in recent productions.

“It seemed they needed a narrator character to bring the whole thing together,” he said. “Because there were so many incarnations of the piece, one could never tell where the inspiration came for this particular character or how she spoke. There was a sense of beat poetry that the character was enacting that seemed a little out of sorts with the sophistication of Ellington. It wasn’t necessary as far as the telling of the story is concerned.”

Deciding to drop the narrator, Roht settled in to chart the story line of Queenie Pie. Basically, he said, his job was “to be a script doctor, to figure out the best way for it to be structurally sound and entertaining. Also, my instructions were to see whether I could really tell the story in a way that was a little more emotionally or psychically resonant.”

Prompted by the name of Queenie Pie’s rival, a young dazzler called Café Olay, he decided to explore the idea of light-versus-dark-skinned beauty, a long-standing divisive issue for African-Americans.

Duke Ellington

The opera’s mix of reality and fantasy wasn’t particularly daunting to the director steeped in avant-garde theatrics.

“I like to be very playful with design and choreography,” he said. “My company’s name is Orphean Circus, so there’s always a circus element to [my work]. As long as we had a strong emotional through-line that’s real to the characters, it doesn’t matter where they are in space and time. I see everything as a collage, the plot is really like a parable.”

Though Lindberg knew about Queenie Pie, he didn’t know its music until he started working as co-arranger and conductor on this new production.

“Some of the pieces written for the work specifically, I wasn’t familiar with,” said Lindberg. “But the problem with Ellington is that he had so many people–Billy Strayhorn and other members of the band–contributing to his output. And he liked to recycle things too. In the case of this production, I don’t have any problem that Ken has taken some really standard Ellington pieces and put them in to carry the dramatic flow.”

Among the more familiar tunes COT audiences will hear in Queenie Pie are Black Butterfly and I Like the Sunrise, a song identified with both Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.

“That arrangement for Sinatra was done by Billy May,” said Lindberg, “and that’s actually he one I transcribed for this production because it was in a nice key for our Café O’Lay. It’s a gorgeous tune.”

Though Ellington never finished Queenie Pie, Lindberg says the opera demonstrates his gift for writing music designed specifically for the often-legendary musicians in his band.

“What strikes me with the music we’re playing,” said Lindberg, “is that it really sounds like Ellington. You can hear the way Ellington would write for the individual members of his orchestra. You hear parts written for Cootie Williams [trumpet], parts written for Harry Carney [saxophones, clarinets] and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet. The music comes alive, and a lot of it is music we don’t know about because it was so late in Ellington’s life. It t didn’t have a proper vehicle for performance.”

Illinois native Karen Marie Richardson sings the title role in Queenie Pie. The alto has appeared in shows ranging from Ragtime at Drury Lane Oakbrook to Too Hot to Handel, the jazzy, blues-flavored riff on Handel’s Messiah that moves into Chicago and other cities at holiday time.

Originally from Bloomingdale, Richardson began singing as a toddler. Her father siblings sing, and she sang in church though she points out that she doesn’t consider herself ‘gospel singer.’ Too Hot to Handel, she said, changed her “whole musical life.”

“Before that, I had only touched on jazz music,” she said. “I had not really known things like scat singing. Those performances were really impeccable influences on my jazz singing.”

Her father had urged her to explore jazz for years, but, like any self-respecting teenager, she resisted.

“I was young and I write my own music as well,” said Richardson. “I think [jazz] wasn’t current at the time, I thought it was for an older generation. But as soon as I started to sing jazz, my heart got really light and I felt so different. I felt really happy inside.

“Singing jazz for me is almost like singing Christmas songs at Christmas time. It makes my heart warm and jolly.”

Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Duke Ellington’s Queenie Pie opens 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Harris Theater and runs through March 5.; 312-704-8414.

Posted in Articles

Leave a Comment