With a creamy smooth trumpet rising over the exotic beat and slightly moody sound, giving over to the close couple dance of flute and bass and followed by an ultra-cool sax solo, the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra swung into the big band sound of Duke Ellington in the Oakland Opera Theater’s ebullient production of Queenie Pie, the jazz master’s only opera.
Ellington began the opera in the 1940s and worked on it off and on during his lifetime. Its one scheduled performance, on the Ed Sullivan Show in the late ’60s, was canceled. The Oakland Opera production references this history by staging the opera as a TV show, complete with commercial interruptions and a moderator/anchorwoman who narrates the action in hip-hop jingles written by Tommy Shepherd.
When Ellington died in 1974, he left behind an incomplete opera. Last year, OOT Assistant Musical Director Skye Atman tracked down what remained of the work, much of it still in Ellington’s handwritten scores. With the rights to the music secured, arranger Marc Bolin signed on to fill out the score.
According to Bolin, some 95 percent of the vocal line—lyrics and melodies—had been written, but only about 25 percent of the piano line. Bolin has managed to make a whole cloth out of threads, weaving a musical and theatrical work that is both re-creation of and homage to Ellington’s compositional style and to the African-American performers of the day. The orchestra members performing the work are superlative, filtering Ellington through their contemporary voicings and fashioning a vivid au courant sound.
Dierdre McClure conducts the group with a splendid care and regard for the music and the musicians.
The story itself is wonderful fun: a tale that remains lighthearted while winding through one disaster after another, as the indomitable Queenie Pie scales the heights and depths of ambition and love.
As the opera opens, Queenie—based loosely on Madam C. J. Walker, the self-made African-American cosmetics millionaire—has been voted the “best” cosmetician in Harlem for the past ten years. But this year an aggressive and beautiful young Creole from Louisiana, Café Olay, has moved into Queenie’s territory, not only stealing her clients but also seducing the love of her life, the handsome Holt Fay.
Café, finding flirtatious Holt hanging with Queenie, shoots him dead and is led off by the police. Queenie, distraught, is saved by the advice of her longtime friend Lil’ Daddy, who entices her to return to his island, where the cure to all things—and anything—can be found under the full moon.
On the island, Queenie encounters a new entourage, composed of spear-wielding, sarong- and tunic-sporting natives. This half of the opera may get under the skin of the sensitive politically correct, but it is an enactment of the Negro exoticism of Ellington’s day, one that sang and danced its way into the best nightclubs of Harlem.
Amanda King performs Queenie in a blond wig, exuding lots of stage presence and powerful vocal skills. In the middle of her range she sounds a bit like Ella. She also has a light, full high voice, which she uses in her shipboard lament about missing New York, and a low deep voice, set way down in the chest and solid gold in placement. My only complaint was that most of the songs she sang were very short, almost conversational in tone. I longed to hear her sing on, to tell us the story, verse and refrain.
Actress Kathleen Antonia sang Café Olay, and she did a lovely job vocalizing during the seduction scene, a muted trumpet joining her amorous writhing. Noah Griffin sang an exceptional Lil’ Daddy, round toned, sweet and vibrant. All the ensemble work was delicious, from the male quartet, which was tight and velvety, to the TV studio backup girls, tripping out product jingles, to the Full Moon female trio, with its exotic harmonizing. The youngsters were great: professional, dynamic and pitch pure.
Oakland Opera Theater’s Queenie Pie continues May 22–25, Thursdays– Saturdays at 8 p.m, Sundays at 2 p.m., $24 seniors, $28 in advance, $35 at the door. For tickets and information, call 510-763-1146 or visit www.oaklandopera.org.
Originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet
Originally published in the Piedmont Post