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.
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!