Backstory: This is Duke Ellington's last large-scale work and only opera, which he wrote as a tribute to Madame C. J. Walker. The daughter of slaves, Madame Walker invented a hair straightener and discovered the virtues of mail order and door-to-door sales, thereby allowing her clients to buy cosmetics and hair products without leaving their homes. For this innovation she became the first female African-American millionairess.
Queenie Pie, the story of a Harlem beauty queen, was originally commissioned by Public Television for the WNET Opera program and designed to be an hour-long work, with Ellington as narrator. The idea for the work was not new, Ellington had begun the opera several times, in varying versions, since the 1940’s. Even after the telecast fell through, Ellington continued to work on the piece until his death in 1974. He left the work unfinished.
Oakland Opera’s Skye Atman began a researching quest into the origins of Queenie Pie, which eventually lead to a compilation score based on versions found among the Ellington papers at the University of California, Irvine and the Smithsonian Institute. The Oakland Opera assembled an expert team to finish the orchestration and create a version of the Duke's unfinished opera much like it might have appeared on television in the 1960’s.
The score for this is amazing. There are some songs with 7 part harmonies (huh?). He was the "Duke", after all, and the jazz arrangements are phenomenal. So how did these two become Harlem street kids? Well, Ry found out about the audition from the school music teacher and jumped on it....brought home the info, etc. Si, is interested in anything Ry does, so we thought...sure....let them audition...it'll be a great experience. We worked up different song treatments for them of chorus songs they knew already...with a musical theatre edge, of course. These are kids who are used to standing there with their hands to their sides and singing. They didn't believe me when I showed them some "Broadway" hand movements to show emphasis, etc. So thank you to You Tube, once again, where I could show them I wasn't crazy. They were ready.....they had significantly loosened up....so off we went. Well guess what? They never even got to sing their songs. The audition consisted of teaching them one of the songs from the score to see how they could sing and how they could pick up the music. When I saw the process I started to get worried. This is all they've done since they were two....listen to music directors and then do exactly what they were supposed to do - in key, on pitch, and in tempo. This was supposed to just be for the experience. They weren't supposed to make it in. We really don't need to add this to our plate, do we? Ah well. They'll actually be singing and dancing and moving around all at the same time.....can't wait. There is an awesome orchestra and I think it's going to be a really fun show. This is not a kid's show. That doesn't mean it's inappropriate for kids.....but if you want to bring the kids, just be aware that there are only 5 or 6 scenes with kids it it. Very cool ones.