by Steven Pisano
Saxophonist Charlie Parker was one of the seminal jazz musicians of the twentieth century, whose fast and furious improvisational style was the source of bebop, one of the defining styles of the 1940s and 1950s. Like the blues great Robert Johnson before him, Charlie Parker's tragic early death at the age of 34 from a heart attack--almost certainly hastened by years of heroin addiction--sealed his legend as a musician who utterly changed music, and whose influence still lingers into today.
The new opera Charlie Parker's Yardbird, created in cooperation between Opera Philadelphia and the late, lamented Gotham Chamber Opera, imagines Charlie Parker after he has died but before he has passed on into jazz heaven. (The production closes tomorrow at the Apollo Theater.) Audience members take their seats before an onstage cadaver lying under a sheet, its feet boldly sticking out.
Composer Daniel Schnyder and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly have written a strong work, which possibly might have been even stronger if it was about an lesser-known musician. Because Charlie Parker is such an outsized figure in jazz history, and because he died with so much of his enormous talent unfulfilled, there is a natural curiosity to know more about this musical genius. But the pieces of the story we see on stage are sketchy, and while occasionally interesting, don't really give us deeper insights into the man or his music.
Lawrence Brownlee plays Charlie Parker, and is on stage almost the entire show, his agile tenor bringing to life Parker's bouts of anger, joy, and dreaming, his strong physical presence keeping the audience riveted. Parker had something of a reputation as a pure artist, not someone trying to please more general audiences. He was also interested in the classical music of his era, revering work by Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok.
But what we see on stage are storylines having more to do with Parker's domestic life. His mother, portrayed by the superb Angela Brown, steals the stage, often singing or standing at the far edge of the apron with her arms crossed. We also see Parker often with one of his female companions, including Emily Pogorelc as Chan Parker, his last - though not official - wife, and with his benefactor, the Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter (sung by mezzo Tamara Mumford), in whose hotel home Parker was found dead.
Only in scenes with long-time collaborator and friend Dizzy Gillespie do we get an idea of Charlie Parker the musical genius and innovator. These scenes, with Will Liverman playing the beret-wearing Gillespie, crackle with electricity, the singing of the two men achieving a truly jazzy interplay.
Schnyder and Wimberly deliberately chose not to incorporate any of Charlie Parker's music in the score. While that decision seems understandable on one level--after all, this is a new work--it seems strange not to hear Parker's piercing saxophone during at least part of the show, maybe weaving in and out between the scenes. Can you imagine an opera about the Beatles without hearing any of their songs?
But all these quibbles are critical considerations, thinking about the opera in a greater context. Considered on its own terms, Charlie Parker's Yardbird is an excellent work of new opera, with enjoyable music throughout and a knockout cast. While it does nothing to really elucidate the origins of Parker's genius or explore the reception of his work both among jazz musicians and the general public alike, it is strongly recommended. (Final performance is tomorrow at 3pm at the Apollo Theater; tickets and more info here.)
(More photos can be found here.)