Duke Ellington was a frequent visitor to downtown Oakland back in the day, playing frequently at Sweet's Ballroom throughout the 1930s and early '40s. Ellington may be a long time gone, but this week he's back in the neighborhood at the nearby Oakland Metro for the world premiere of a newly completed Queenie Pie, the great jazz composer and big bandleader's only opera.
If you didn't know Ellington wrote an opera at all, you're not alone. Hardly anyone's ever had a chance to hear it.
A comic opera commissioned in 1962 for an hour-long television broadcast that never wound up happening, Queenie Pie is a fictional fable of a Harlem beauty queen loosely inspired by Madam C.J. Walker, a daughter of African-American slaves who became the first female self-made millionaire as an entrepreneur of cosmetics and hair-care products.
It's perfect fare for Oakland Opera Theater, a company devoted to operas from the 20th and 21st centuries, whether it's Philip Glass, an opera about Malcolm X, or Prokofiev retooled for Jonestown and Dan White.
The only trouble is, Ellington never finished Queenie Pie, and the material he left behind when he died in 1974 is scanty and scattered. After some initial resistance from Sony Music, which owns the rights to the Ellington oeuvre, Oakland Opera's Skye Atman went on a scavenger hunt to assemble mostly handwritten manuscript pages from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of California, Irvine.
"Sony had a pretty firm 'no' answer to anyone that wanted it, and we found out later that was simply because they didn't know what they owned," says jazz musician Marc Bolin, who was enlisted by Oakland Opera to complete the score. "They had titles and that was it. So they couldn't give permission to perform it because they didn't know what it was."
Finally Atman wound up with several incarnations of the unfinished libretto, some versions going back to the 1930s, and mostly small fragments of a couple dozen songs.
"For the first time, this was all put together in one score — but very incomplete," Bolin says. "We only had maybe 10 percent of the piano score, and the vocals were 90 to 95 percent complete."
There had been two previous attempts to complete the opera, both in Pennsylvania: at the American Music Theater Festival in 1986 with George C. Wolfe working on the libretto and Duke's son Mercer Ellington leading the band, and an After Dinner Opera Company production in 1993. Neither version survives in any form that the Oakland Opera folks were able to track down, so they had to work pretty much from scratch.
That's when they called Bolin, a tuba and trombone player, frequent Oakland Opera musician, and member of the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra that will accompany the production. Bolin took on the mammoth task of trying to complete Ellington's music from the scraps the jazz giant had left behind. Hip-hop theater artist Tommy Shepherd was enlisted to flesh out the libretto, and director/choreographer Michael Mohammed coordinated the endeavor into a cohesive vision evoking the TV program it was intended to be, complete with fake commercials written by the Duke himself.
Jazz singers Amanda King and Kim Nalley were cast as Queenie and rival Cafe Olay, but Nalley had to drop out while going through a divorce and struggling (successfully) to save her club Jazz at Pearl's, so Kathleen Antonia stepped into her role.
"They had called to see if I could end the piece, and they wound up asking me to just rewrite the whole thing," says Shepherd, who'd previously played the Metro with his own Beatbox: A Raparetta. "There was very little dialogue in the piece, and they wanted to fill out the characters. I started researching and saw how George C. Wolfe ended it, and realized I had to end it a different way because that was the way I was thinking about ending it."
While Shepherd was fleshing out the narrative with scenes, Bolin was busy trying to reconstruct entire songs out of as little as eight bars of music.
"I've really made an attempt to have all of Ellington's notes in my score," Bolin says. "I'd say there's 70 percent new orchestrations put to his 30 in order to complete the thing. I've not slept since January."
One familiar tune is "Second Line," which Ellington originally wrote for Queenie Pie but later incorporated into his New Orleans Suite. Bolin imported a couple of existing Ellington songs into the piece, "Creole Love Call" and "On a Turquoise Cloud," because he felt their worldless "vocalese" would fit well in an opera.
"Most of the time people attending an opera don't know what the heck is being said anyway," he says.