Arts & Events

‘Queenie Pie,’ Ellington’s Only Opera, Performed with Shelby Jazz Orchestra

By Jaime Robles, Special to the Planet
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 10:19:00 AM

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 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 cancelled. The Oakland opera production references this history by staging the opera as a TV show, complete with commercial interruptions as well as 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 opera, much of it still in Ellington’s handwritten scores. 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 and homage to Ellington’s compositional style and to the African American performers of the day. The orchestra performing the work is superlative, filtering Ellington through their contemporary voicings, and fashioning a vivid au courant sound. 

Diedre McClure conducts the group with a splendid care and regard for the music and the musicians.  

The story itself is wonderfully fun: a tale that while winding through one disaster after another remains lighthearted, as the indomitable Queenie Pie scales the heights and depths of ambition and love.  

Queenie Pie—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 woman from Louisiana, Café Olay, has moved into Queenie’s territory, stealing not only her clients but seducing the love of her life, the handsome Holt Fay.  

Café Olay, 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 is an enactment of the African exoticism of Ellington’s day, one which sang and danced its way into the best night clubs 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, low voice set way deep 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 back-up girls, tripping out product jingles, to the Full Moon female trio’s exotic harmonizing. The under-12-year-old set were great: professional, dynamic and pitch pure.