Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Blues Opera” is coming back to the stage

Harold Arlen (left) and Johnny Mercer (right), 1959

Harold Arlen (1905-1986) is best known for his contributions to movie musicals, penning one of the most popular songs in movie history, the Wizard of Oz’s “Over the Rainbow.” What is not as well known are his works outside of Hollywood. A little known opera Arlen composed in 1959 with librettist Johnny Mercer, Free and Easy is coming back to life, now under the original name, Blues Opera.

This background of this opera is a fascinating tale. Arlen composed the opera between 1954 and 1958, using songs he has already written for the musical St. Louis Woman. This musical was based off of the novel, God Sends Sunday by Harlem Renaissance author Arna Bontemps. The book to the musical was written by Bontemps, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes whose work was uncredited.[1] The musical St. Louis Woman premiered in 1946 and had several hits, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” and “I Had Myself a True Love” but the quality of the music wasn’t enough to make up for the weakness in the book. The musical closed after 113 performances.

Arlen was contacted by Robert Breen of the Everyman Opera Company who encouraged him to expand the musical into an opera. Arlen worked with longtime lyricist, Johnny Mercer for the libretto, and the work now had a new title, Blues Opera. Arlen was in poor health and ended recycling several of his hits, “That Old Black Magic,” “Ac-cent-tchu-Ate the Positive,” and “Blues in the Night.” Quincy Jones, only 26 years old at the time was hired to direct the orchestra. Rather than hiring a symphony orchestra, Jones put together a jazz band to accompany the opera. I’ve constructed a partial list of the band which included the following:

Trumpet: Clark Terry, Benny Bailey

Trombone: Melba Liston, Jimmy Cleveland, and Quentin Jackson

French Horn: Julius Watkins

Saxophone: Phil Woods, Porter Kilbert, Jerome Richardson, Budd Johnson, Sahib Shihab

Piano: Patti Brown

Guitar: Les Spann

Bass: Buddy Catlett

Drums: Joe Harris [2]

Blues Opera, now renamed as Free and Easy opened at the Royal Theater Carré in Amsterdam in 1959. The plan for the opera was to tour Europe, then come back to the states for a Broadway premiere starring Sammy Davis Jr.[3] Instead of the tour, the show got as far as Paris before it was canceled. Free and Easy never got it’s American premiere. Few recordings of this opera exist, but I was able to find one recording of the music starring Martha Flowers, one of the original cast members.

Why is this opera making news now? Conductor and historian, John Mauceri, first heard about this opera from Quincy Jones. Jones told him there was no score, as the musicians memorized their parts.[4] When Covid-19 hit in 2020 and everyone was stuck at home, Mauceri set out to find the score, working with librarians in special collections. After all that work, Mauceri found a piano reduction of the complete score.

Mauceri already had familiarity with this work, conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra’s recording “Blues Opera Suite” in 1996. The orchestration of the suite is for a full orchestra and three saxophones. The saxophone has several small solos throughout the suite. You will recognize songs by Arlen quoted in the suite including “One for My Baby” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

This Suite was premiered at New York Philharmonic under the direction of Andre Kostelanetz in 1957. This was the closest Arlen had come to hearing the work, as he was not in good enough health to see the premiere in Europe.[5]

The full score to the opera is currently being orchestrated. Mauceri is using the Suite as inspiration for the orchestration of the opera. The American soprano, Angel Blue has already signed on to play the lead character, Della. There is no date on when this opera will premiere, possibly next year, but check out this Billboard article here that goes into more detail on this work.

If you are interested in what happened to Quincy Jones after the opera folded, Jones and the band were stranded in Paris with no money to get home. He considers this opera “one of the darkest periods of my life.”[6] He did the only thing he could do, he kept the band together and toured Europe. I don’t have all of the musicians in this video listed above, but my guess is this is the complete band for the opera. Here is a video of the band in Belgium and Switzerland, the music is quite burning. I hope you enjoy.

If you are enjoying what you’ve read here, please donate! Any amount will keep this website running.

[1] Fredric Dannen, “A Lost Operatic Masterpiece Written by White Men for an All-Black Cast was Found and Restored. Can it be Produced without Controversy?” Billboard (3/27/2023). https://www.billboard.com/pro/lost-blues-opera-harold-arlen-johnny-mercer-stage-theater/

[2] Europeans hail ‘free, easy’ play featuring U.S. cast. (1960, Jan 09). The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/europeans-hail-free-easy-play-featuring-u-s-cast/docview/493003620/se-2

By JOHN S. WILSON. (1980, Jul 18). This bailey says he’s home to stay. New York Times (1923-) Retrieved from https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/this-bailey-says-hes-home-stay/docview/121349071/se-2

Pitts, G. E. (1960, May 21). Patti austin show biz ‘veteran’ at age of 9. New Pittsburgh Courier (1959-1965) Retrieved from https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/patti-austin-show-biz-veteran-at-age-9/docview/371598646/se-2

[3] Fredric Dannen, “A Lost Operatic Masterpiece Written by White Men for an All-Black Cast was Found and Restored. Can it be Produced without Controversy?” Billboard (3/27/2023). https://www.billboard.com/pro/lost-blues-opera-harold-arlen-johnny-mercer-stage-theater/

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: