Q&A: Katie Lee's Folk Opera

Courtesy of Katie Lee

Our May issue, on newsstands now, focuses on Lake Powell and Glen Canyon, and includes managing editor Kelly Vaughn's essay about the esteemed Katie Lee — who's spent most of her 97 years protesting Lake Powell's existence. Today, the actress, folk singer, author and wilderness activist lives in Jerome and is assisting on the first-ever production of Maude, Billy & Mr. "D," a folk opera she performed on her traveling show in the 1950s. It's being produced by the Blue Rose Theater of Prescott and will be performed one night only, Saturday, May 6, at Mingus Union High School Theater in Cottonwood.

We asked Ms. Lee to tell us a little about the opera, what inspired her to write it and what viewers can expect.

When did you originally write Maude, Billy & Mr. “D”?
I wrote it way back in the '50s, and for years I performed it as the second part of my concerts when I would do shows. I was on the road for many years, and I did concerts for universities, and for organizations and for clubs. I always used this because it was a beautiful thing to put at the end of a show. Kids from 4 and 5 years old through up to 95 years old, they just sat very quietly and watched this little drama unfold. It’s quite a story.

But I didn’t write [the original story]; I read it as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, and the woman who wrote the story, Helen Eustis, actually wrote the first paragraph in rhyme. Maybe she knew it, maybe she didn’t, but that just set me off. I said, “This story needs music!” So I just began writing music for it, and that’s how it all began.

I played it for her one time where she lived in New York; while I was on the road, I stopped in and played it for her, and she said, “That’s the best treatment I’ve ever heard of my story.” It had been done as a short for television and in the movies, but she didn’t like the way they treated it.

Did the Blue Rose Theater approach you to put on the show, or was it your idea to put on the show? How did it all come about?
That came about very strangely. I met this little girl a couple of years ago at a book signing who is a classical violinist; her name is Erin Burley. It seemed that she really wanted to make music, rather than read music. She was playing with orchestras, and she was also a teacher of violin.

We became friends, and I introduced her to Peter McLaughlin, who is an incredible musician and songwriter. They got together, and he started teaching her how to listen to words and make the music fit the words — that’s the way folk musicians work. She loved doing it, she was good, and she was quick to learn.

She wanted to use a song from the folk opera, which I had given to her to listen to. All she wanted to do was to come up and celebrate my birthday and play some songs for me with some other musicians she knew, and it just mushroomed. When I told my friend who owns the Blue Rose Theater over in Prescott, Jody Drake, she said, “Oh, my God! This needs to be produced!” And from there it just snowballed.

[Erin] became very ill, and we’ve missed her a lot because she can’t come to the rehearsals. But we’re still very much in touch with her, and we’re hoping she’s going to be able to come to the production with her family and sit in the front row and see what she started. Really, we just owe this whole thing to her.

When was the last time it was on a stage?
It has never been produced before. I put it on a CD back in the '70s, after I performed it for 20 years or more on the road, as a traveling musician. This is the first and only performance so far, but I know there’s an organization down in Tucson that wants the show, so it will probably be performed more than once.

Tell us a little about the show; what is it about, and what should viewers expect?
Maude Applegate is a young girl that goes out after Mr. Death to get him to stay his hand against her boyfriend, who just got shot up. While Billy lies there dying, Maude decides to go find Mr. Death, get him to stay his hand against her true love, and that begins the story. It’s a story kind of destined to discover whether true love can overcome the power of death.

The show features really fine performers that are actors as well as singers. It held audiences just spellbound when I used to perform it. It’s a simple story, but it’s really hard to explain — but people leave the theater feeling elated.

What role have you played in the production?
I’m not singing in this show. They just consult me whenever they need to know anything about the script. I help wherever I can. I’m just in the background, watching and waiting to see what’s going to happen.

— Emily Balli

Maude, Billy & Mr. "D" will be performed one night only, Saturday, May 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the Mingus Union High School Theater in Cottonwood. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/bluemaude, or call 928-899-5472 to purchase tickets.

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