by DUKE ellington
Libretto by Betty McGettigan, additional material by Tommy Shepherd, adapted for LBO by Ken Roht.
Opera heads to Harlem for a Big Band makeover in the Duke’s only opera! Ellington’s opera buffa is the story of a Harlem belle, who finds an elixir of “everlasting anythingness” in her pursuit of straight hair and a crown. Our heroine is inspired by the life of Mme. C. J. Walker, hair product mogul and this country's first female African-American, self-made millionaire. Social status, beauty, and racial divides are redefined in the Duke’s raucous affair, forging hot jazz, cool blues, and gravity-defying bouffants.
About queenie Pie
Duke Ellington’s only opera and one of his fairly unknown and rarely performed works, Queenie Pie, blends big band sound and clever lyrics with the musical styles of opera, jazz and musical theater. The title character, Queenie Pie, was inspired by the life of Madam C. J. Walker, the first African American self-made woman millionaire, who developed and sold a line of hair and beauty products through innovative mail orders and door-to-door sales. Interested in the opera genre since the 1940s, Ellington started composing Queenie Pie in 1962, when he received a commission from the New York public TV station WNET. In collaboration with librettist Betty McGettigan, he worked on the opera from 1967 to his death in 1974, but the work remained unfinished. Since then, different versions have been produced (1986 in Philadelphia and Washington, DC; 1993 in Brooklyn; 2008 by the Oakland Opera Theater and in 2009 at the University of Texas, Austin.)
a note from stage director ken roht
In August of this year, Andreas asked if I would be interested in undertaking the task of adapting Queenie Pie into a piece more resonant to current issues than the one presented at Kennedy Center almost thirty years ago. After reading the existing libretto, I found it to be a perfect template to investigate the issues of intraracial colorism, while it offers great opportunities to explore movement-based storytelling.
The story that I read in Ellington's original, unfinished version, augmented by director George C. Wolfe and librettist George David Weiss, pitted an older, more established professional woman, Queenie, against a younger upstart. It addresses, in more or less a light-hearted way, the social malady of ageism, as it playfully prods concepts of “beauty”. But the younger, Creole woman's name in the story is Café O'lay. That was my cue to look at the drama of a light skinned African-American Café O'lay asserting her socially bequeathed entitlement over a dark-skinned Queenie, who in turn deploys years of resentment in a fierce desire to destroy Café O'lay.
Since the story takes place in Harlem, I focused on the very rich period of the 1930's Harlem Renaissance, where/when Duke Ellington was fully established as a premiere band leader, to discover literary works that deal so adroitly with colorism. The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman, Black No More by George Schuyler and Quicksand by Nella Larson are so important to my understanding of this still-prevalent issue that sometimes divides people in African-American communities.
It is an honor to lend my perspectives to the original libretto, which holds the work of so many talented forefathers. It remains an ebullient melodrama, due to Mr. Ellington’s amazing, multi-faceted music and the story’s dreamlike, highly allegorical plot of two vastly different women, who are very much the same, rediscovering their essences by making a spiritual journey to a mystical island.
Such a pronounced metaphoric landscape is the perfect canvas for imaginative staging that maintains the heart, the history and the “swing” represented in the original piece. As a choreographer imagining the staging of Queenie Pie, I ruminated about it in the context of a ballet. What movement and staging would best tell this story as if there were no words? I looked to choreographers like Pina Bausch, and to the contemporary storytelling that director/choreographer Matthew Bourne employees, in order to best theatricalize the music in the piece. Accordingly, sometimes exaggerated characterizations and surrealist imagery are part of our lexicon of staging devices. Instead of maintaining absolute historical accuracy in all design elements, I find it much more interesting to play in the alternate universe that the original historical setting inspires. The goal is to contemporize the piece, and also to make the piece timeless, dealing with challenging social issues that seem to persist.
Edward kennedy "duke" ellington
Listen to NPR's jazz profile "Duke Ellington: The Composer."
Duke Ellington called his music "American Music" rather than jazz, and liked to describe those who impressed him as "beyond category. He remains one of the most influential figures in jazz, if not in all American music and is widely considered as one of the twentieth century's best known African-American personalites. As both a composer and a band leader, Ellington's reputation has increased since his death, with thematic repackagings of his signature music often becoming best-sellers. Posthumous recognition of his work includes a special award citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board.
Duke Ellington influenced millions of people both around the world and at home. He gave American music its own sound for the first time. In his fifty year career, he played over 20,000 performances in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East as well as Asia.
Simply put, Ellington transcends boundaries and fills the world with a treasure trove of music that renews itself through every generation of fans and music-lovers. His legacy continues to live on and will endure for generations to come. Wynton Marsalis said it best when he said "His music sounds like America." Because of the unmatched artistic heights to which he soared, no one deserved the phrase “beyond category” more than Ellington, for it aptly describes his life as well. He was most certainly one of a kind that maintained a llifestyle with universal appeal which transcended countless boundaries.
Duke Ellington is best remembered for the over 3000 songs that he composed during his lifetime. His best known titles include; "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing", "Sophisticated Lady", "Mood Indigo", “Solitude", "In a Mellotone" and "Satin Doll". The most amazing part about Ellington was that he was the most creative while he was on the road. It was during this time when he wrote his most famous piece, "Mood Indigo" which brought him world wide fame.
When asked what inspired him to write, Ellington replied, "My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people".
Duke Ellington's popular compositions set the bar for generations of brilliant jazz, pop, theatre and soundtrack composers to come. While these compositions guarantee his greatness, what makes Duke an iconoclastic genius, and an unparalleled visionary, what has granted him immortality are his extended suites. From 1943's Black, Brown and Beige to 1972's Uwis Suite, Duke used the suite format to give his jazz songs a far more empowering meaning, resonance and purpose: to exalt, mythologize and re-contextualize the African-American experience on a grand scale.
Duke Ellington was partial to giving brief verbal accounts of the moods his songs captured. Reading those accounts is like looking deep into the background of an old photo of New York and noticing the lost and almost unaccountable details that gave the city its character during Ellington's heyday, which began in 1927 when his band made the Cotton Club its home.''The memory of things gone,'' Ellington once said, ''is important to a jazz musician,'' and the stories he sometimes told about his songs are the record of those things gone. But what is gone returns, its pulse kicking, when Ellington's music plays, and never mind what past it is, for the music itself still carries us forward today.
Duke Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973, the highest civilian honors in each country. He died of lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday, and is buried in the Bronx, in New York City. At his funeral, attended by over 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion, "It's a very sad day...A genius has passed." (reprinted from www.dukeellington.com)
Today, in Harlem 1937, Queenie has won her tenth Queenie Pie title, a national honor bestowed on the most talented and powerful beautician in the country. Queenie has taken her years of resentment at being the dark-skinned young woman surrounded by her family of lighter-skinned African Americans, and turned it into an unstoppable business force, always getting her what she wants. After the competition, Queenie wants a big congratulatory party so, par usual, she throws one for herself, with lots of her fabulous friends in attendance, her on-again-off-again lover and business manager Holt Fay fluffing her up, and with the undying efforts of her manservant, and often spiritual advisor, Lil Daddy. A yearly after-party that is the popular desitation of the Queenie Pie competitors and their retinues, Queenie's door is wide open to receive admirers and the like.