The American tenor Lawrence Brownlee rose to fame singing bel canto repertory, operas that require a light and agile voice with a bright, even brassy tone. This month at Opera Philadelphia, Brownlee applies his remarkable instrument to the title role of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD. In this new opera by Daniel Schnyder, Brownlee portays not just the famous jazz musician (who died in 1955 at just 34 years old) but his signature alto saxophone sound, using his nimble instrument to create the vocal equivalent of Parker’s bebop.
Yardbird (the libretto is by first-timer Bridgette A. Wimberly) imagines Parker’s ghost hovering after hours on the stage of Birdland, the nightclub in New York that still operates and still bears his name. The opera has Charlie, sax case in hand, trying to create one last musical masterpiece in his short time remaining on Earth, even as his body lies in the morgue wearing a toe tag that reads “John Doe.” The unusual circumstances of Parker’s death serve as a jumping-off point for an exploration of his artistic influence and troubled personal life, and Parker’s mother, three wives and final companion are all important figures in the show.
All this juicy scandal is secondary to the music, which draws on and alludes to many Parker tunes for its inspiration. Even the arias are structured along jazz lines, mimicking the formulas of 20th century pop songs. Schnyder’s music also closely adheres to the libretto, changing keys or creating dissonance in direct relation to points in the rapidly unfolding plot. Modes, bop and big band all sound forth from the orchestra pit, and classical techniques (hinting at the post-Parker “third stream” sound) are also employed. This is a jazz opera in the best sense of the word.
Parker was one of the leaders of the bebop revolution, playing speedy, nimble horn lines over fast tempos and changing not just the way jazz was played but how it was presented as well. It is Brownlee’s task to mimic this technique using his operatic training. He sings with flexability and considerable power, leaping fearlessly up scales, against difficult jazz rhythms and across wide intervals. He does all this with style and aplomb, coping with quick shifts in tempo and maintaining a purity of tone that matched Parker’s legendary horn.
The libretto forces Brownlee to balance throughout the work, splitting his focus between the positive and negative sides of Parker’s personality. His scenes with Dizzy Gillespie focus not on music but on idealism and a plea for social equality and against the evils of segregation. (It seems a little forced.) The opera also delves into Parker’s womanizing, multiple marriages and drug addiction, while attempting to deal with the grief caused by the death of his daughter. This scene should be poignant but doesn’t quite work.
Angela Brown is an overwhelming presence as Charlie’s mother, singing praise of her young son’s musical ability (he picked up the sax at the age of 11) with fervent joy that turns to bitter grief at his passing. Tamara Mumford is the Baroness Panonica di Koenigswater, who starts as a strong early figure but becomes less important as the show progresses. Chrystal Williams is Rebecca Parker, mother of his son. She has a tremendously powerful instrument and dominates the ensembles. As Doris Parker and Chan Parker, Angela Mortellaro and Rachel Sterrenberg are almost interchangeable, moving on and off in various states of grief.
Although Parker moved among the elite of New York’s jazz scene, the only musician represented in Yardbird is his longtime friend and collaborator Dizzy Gillespie. He enters halfway through the opera, played by baritone Will Liverman (in his debut) and carrying Dizzy’s bent-bell trumpet like a totem. Liverman is strong in his early sceens but is later overwhelmed by the other singers, although a good deal of musical humor is wrung from quotations of his pieces and his claims of authorship of certain important jazz tunes.
In the last scenes of Yardbird, all these characters gather to view Parker’s corpse and collectively grieve. This morgue-side scene is heavy and overwritten, with Schnyder trying to cram every musical idea in at once. But this kitchen sink approach undermines and underwhelms, thanks to a petty argument over the disposition of Parker’s corpse. Far better is the final tableau, with Brownlee singing “I know why the caged bird sings” as he slowly walks into fading darkness. This at last is a fitting tribute and a strong ending to an interesting new opera.
Photos by Dominic M. Mercier
Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD at Opera Philadelphia
Jun 5, 7, 10, 12, 14, 2015 | Perelman Theater