Opéra-Cosmétique

I’m starting a new job today at a beauty company in New York so I thought I’d celebrate with the one opera I can think of about a beauty magnate:  Queenie Pie by Duke Ellington!

That’s right, legendary jazz band leader and composer Duke Ellington had a brief foray into opera when he received a commissioned by New York’s public television station WNET for an hour-long opera in 1962.  He used this commission to finally see to fruition a long-standing interest in opera, including the idea to create a musical about Madame C.J. Walker, an African-American woman who became a self-made millionaire with her beauty and hair products marketed to African-American women.

Madame C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker

Queenie Pie is definitely not biographical though, apparently going a very different route with a title character only loosely inspired by Walker.  It’s too bad since Walker sounds like a fascinating figure; the first child of her parents to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation becoming America’s most successful female entrepreneur, with plenty of twists, turns, and reinventions along the way.  (See also the official Walker website)

Unfortunately, only bits and pieces of Ellington’s score were completed when he died in 1974, and because of the collaborative nature of his compositional practice as a band leader, it’s hard to complete the picture without him…  It’s been attempted on a few occasions for different productions, most recently at Long Beach Opera earlier this year.  The LA Times review gives lots of  details about the make-up of this most recent performance, and this NPR story goes more into depth with one of the most recent people to take on the challenge of reconstructing the score, musician Marc T. Bolin.

Anyway, wish me luck with my new job!

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Cape of Good Opera

I’ve been making an effort to go to more Juilliard concerts lately, so I saw the New Juilliard Emsemble‘s concert on contemporary South African composers on Monday, programmed to complement Carnegie Hall’s current South African performing arts themed Ubuntu Festival.  It was an interesting sampler of seven living composers, ranging in age from 65 to 36.

CarnegieHall-UBUNTUNow, you know me, always looking for the operatic connection, and this performance had a couple of oblique ones.  Andile Khumalo‘s “Shades of Words” for ensemble and spoken word narrator set poetry by countrywoman Alexandra Zelman-Doring; Michael Blake‘s “Rural Arias” was composed for the eerily voice-like singing saw (though it can also be performed by a plain ol’ soprano).

That being said, only one composer’s bio made any mention of opera and that was Bongani Ndodana-Breen.

His site lists five operas, including his most recent, the 2011 bio-opera Winnie, about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the activist and politician in the South African liberation movement who was married to Nelson Mandela‘s during his 27 years in prison and served as his public face in that time.

Given what I heard of his music at Juilliard, I’d certainly be curious to hear one of his operas!  For the more classically minded, there’s another South African take on opera in New York, through November 9th, at the New Victory Theater.

The Magic Flute by Isango Ensemble, at New Victory Theater

The Magic Flute by Isango Ensemble, at New Victory Theater

Isango Ensemble from Cape Town takes pieces from the Western canon and recontextualizes them through a South African lens, bringing in actors and musicians from local townships.  They’ve turned their eye on opera several times, including La Boheme and Carmen, but it’s their version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that they’ve brought to New York!

The New Victory Theater is all about all ages, family friendly theater; they’re advertising this show as appropriate for audiences 8+, so take your favorite little one!

This was an interesting subject, so I might just have another post on South African opera in me!

To Know to Know to Love Her So

A saint is one to be for two when three and you make five and two and cover.  Source

Four Saints in Three Acts premiere performance with sets by Florine Stettheimer

Four Saints in Three Acts premiere performance with sets by Florine Stettheimer

The other night I had a chance to speak to Gertrude Stein at a party at Pablo Picasso’s home (I’ll explain…), and I regret not asking her about her collaboration with American composer Virgil Thomson, for whom she wrote two opera librettos in the last two decades of her life.  They were classic Stein, meaning they didn’t make any logical “sense”, but as the introduction to the 1947 CBS radio broadcast of their first collaboration, Four Saints in Three Acts, says…

Gertrude Stein’s words made no sense to anyone. …  Afterwards however, people went away with an embarrassed feeling that the thing made more sense than they thought.  They began to see that the authors wanted them to understand not illogical words, but a fine symbolism of the gaiety and strength of spiritual and consecrated lives.  Source

Four Saints in Three Acts premiered in Connecticut in 1934 and went on to Broadway later that same year.  The thought that a modernist, non-linear opera ran on Broadway is confounding enough, but to add to that, the opera was also performed by an all-black cast.

At any rate, you can judge the opera for yourself thanks to a digitized 1947 CBS Radio broadcast, conducted by Thomson a year after Stein’s death.  Reading the libretto may not make sense, but hearing it sung, it certainly has a good rhythm to it…

Set design for 27 at Opera Theater of Saint Louis by Allen Moyer

Set design for 27 at Opera Theater of Saint Louis by Allen Moyer

From writer of librettos, to the subject of a libretto herself, Gertrude Stein‘s 27 Rue de Fleurs Paris apartment, the site of her celebrated salon, is the setting and namesake of the forthcoming opera 27, by Ricky Ian Gordon, another American composer, to be given its premiere by the Opera Theater of Saint Louis this summer.  Here’s an article in Opera News in anticipation of this premiere.

And most importantly!

If you want to meet Gertrude Stein in person, then don’t miss the last few performances of A Serious Banquet, a Cubist dinner party featuring such luminaries as Stein, Picasso, Braque, and Rousseau among others, hosted by This is Not a Theater Company.  The Rave reviews are in, the company is legendary, and dinner is included!  What’s not to love!

40 Years of Funky

Today’s Saturday morning cartoon post is about a new exhibit on black cartoon characters up at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (host to the Black Comics Fest a few weeks ago).

Specifically charting the increasingly positive depictions of black characters in cartoons from the 1970s, the show is actually the first traveling exhibit of the Museum of Uncut Funk, founded by Sista ToFunky (favorite comic? Heroes for Hire) in 2009.

The show features characters like the Jackson 5ive, Harlem GlobeTrotters, and of course Fat Albert:

One noteworthy cartoon here is “Kid Power“, which I’d never heard of, but was based on Morrie Turner‘s nationally syndicated multicultural comic strip Wee Pals.  Turner died in January of this year.

If you can’t make it to New York, you can see selections from the museum’s animation collection online.

Black Comicks

Black Comic Book Festival 2014 poster

This weekend is the 2nd Annual Black Comic Book Festival at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.  Over Friday and Saturday, there will be 40 exhibitors in the convention, as well as several panel discussions, cartoon screenings, and some comic-related workshops.

Though admission is free, you do have to reserve tickets, separately for each day.

As a newly minted library scientist, I’m pleased to see libraries getting in on the comics game.  Seems like a perfect match, since libraries already collect comics.  Would also seem like a natural setting for comic-making workshops; teens would be all over that, right?  Hope the 2nd installment of this fest goes well, and that it has many more installments to come, and hope the comic bug spreads out to more NYPL branches…

A Champion’s Opera

Boxer Emile Griffith

Opera companies’ announcements of their next season is like early Christmas for me, and the end of summer provides a mini-offering of season announcements from the summer opera festivals.

The Opera Theater of Saint Louis is one such summer opera festival, and a pretty adventurous one at that; their recently announced 2014 season includes a newly commissioned opera, part of a series initiated by this season’s world premiere…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature&v=Oe-KTfFqqwc&w=350&h=300]

Champion, an “opera in jazz” by Terence Blanchard was based on the true story of Caribbean-American boxer Emile Griffith, a champion welter- and middleweight infamous for beating a 1962 opponent to death.  Griffith’s sexuality had been called into question by his opponent, and he was later severely beaten outside a gay club in 1992, ultimately admitting in a 2005 interview that he’d had relations with both men and women.  Gotta love this poignant quote from Ron Ross’ 2006 biography: Continue reading

Krazy Kartoons

For some historical research projects in school I’ve been using the Internet Archive to find public domain multimedia resources, but every time I go I realize I’m just scratching the surface…  Case in point, they have all sorts of animated shorts up for full viewing, and even downloading.  So this Saturday morning let’s enjoy some Krazy Kat kartoons!

(Why Embed no Work?  Link to Krazy Kat cartoons on Internet Archive)

These shorts are from the 19-teens, and Krazy Kat ran from 1913-1944, so a pretty early adaptation.  Created by George HerrimanKrazy Kat was maybe the first comic strip to earn the respect of the high arts world, the best example being cultural critic Gilbert Seldes‘ article The Krazy Kat That Walks By Himself:

KRAZY KAT, the daily comic strip of George Herriman is, to me, the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America to-day. With those who hold that a comic strip cannot be a work of art I shall not traffic.  (Source)

Krazy Kat rondel

A more recent academic article on Krazy Kat, by Elizabeth Crocker