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"Problematic" is a word that comes up when the story (as opposed to the music) is under discussion.
Ostensibly inspired by the life of cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker, the opera consists of a first act set (in this production) in 1930s Harlem and a second act that takes place on an imaginary tropical island. The title character is a successful African-American businesswoman in the hair- and skin-care industry, but the plot is all about the competition between two women in love with the same handsome man. (Spoiler alert!) One of them finds him in a compromising situation with the other, shoots him dead, and goes to prison for it. When they meet again, on the island, the women get over it and become friends.
Ellington tinkered with Queenie Pie for years without finishing it. The few times it has been produced, it's been patched together, incorporating additional Ellington music and liberal tweaks to the libretto, which is credited to Ellington associate Betty McGettigan, "with additional material by Tommy Shepherd." (COT's version was adapted by its director, Ken Roht.) The piece, closer to musical theater than to opera, has been staged so infrequently that Ellington's granddaughter, Mercedes Ellington—who came to Chicago for the opening weekend in February—told me at intermission that this was the first time she'd seen it.
She also noted that it's "very autobiographical."
Which would make it not only about Madam Walker, but about Duke.
For one thing, she said, "he loved women."
That sent me to Terry Teachout's biography, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, published last year. It's no secret that the always elegant Duke was charismatic. But in his closely guarded private life, he was also a consummate ladies' man who fancied the women as much as they fancied him. And he spent a lot of time on the road. Teachout writes that Ellington's wife, Edna, slashed his cheek in rage over an infidelity before they separated. But they never divorced, and in the long run she was less of a problem in that regard than his longtime live-in mistress, former Cotton Club showgirl Beatrice "Evie" Ellis.
According to Teachout, when Ellis caught wind of Ellington's affair with a newer lover, Fernanda de Castro Monte (also known as "the Countess”), she is said to have hopped on a plane to Tokyo, where she found them in bed together and pulled out a gun.
Ellington apparently finessed that escapade; the two mistresses remained in his life until his death, from lung cancer, years later.
His Queenie Pie counterpart is not so lucky.
As for Madam Walker: she may have confronted an errant husband with a pistol (The Black Rose, a fictionalized version of her life by Tananarive Due, based on research by Alex Haley, includes such an episode), but she didn't pull the trigger either.
Queenie Pie, Thu 3/20, 7:30 PM; Sun 3/23, 3 PM; Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312-344-7777, chicagooperatheater.org, $35-$125