A contradictory enterprise

Opera Philadelphia’s Yardbird’ (first review)

5 minute read
Charlie’s first wife (Chrystal E. Williams) sings about Charlie (Lawrence Brownlee) abandoning her and their son. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier)
Charlie’s first wife (Chrystal E. Williams) sings about Charlie (Lawrence Brownlee) abandoning her and their son. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier)

An opera about Charlie “Yardbird” Parker is a contradiction in terms. Bird’s musical creations were in-the-moment improvisations, and his recording tracks rarely exceeded ten minutes. But opera thrives on contradictions, often using historical realities in the context of an imaginative fantasy that allows the audience to relish the magnificent voices, the intense emotions, and the grand scope of the story and the setting.

That is what makes this newly commissioned opera succeed as well as it does. It thrusts one into an imaginary situation, into which bits and pieces of Parker’s biography are inserted and then take on a life of their own. Librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly wrote her own story in her own words, even while aspects of the protagonist’s life form its nucleus. Composer Daniel Schnyder scored his own music rather than provide a resampling of Parker’s own extraordinary work.

The opera takes place primarily in Birdland, the nightclub named after him, where he often performed but from which he was, at one point, barred. It becomes a Dante-esque purgatory where Bird encounters his mother, wives, and drug dealer, as well as his cohort Dizzy Gillespie and the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, the jazz patroness in whose apartment he died from drug-related causes at the all-too-young age of 34. In a fantasy limbo, Bird decides to write a full-length orchestral suite, fulfilling a lifetime dream, though, even here, he never completes it.

The imaginary composition points to the contrast between jazz improvisation, where the music goes directly from the mind and heart into the horn, and written scores, where the music is frozen in time and loses some of its spontaneity and freedom. This is exactly the problem composer Schnyder faced in creating an opera about Charlie Parker. Schnyder is both a classical composer and a jazz saxophonist, and you can hear this struggle in his music, which is remarkably beautiful and accessible given the enormous task he set for himself.

A musical mixture

It is undoubtedly the music that many operagoers and critics had been waiting with anticipation to hear. What kind of music would it be: jazz, classical, modern classical (think of Benjamin Britten), or postmodern (think of Philip Glass or John Adams)? It turned out to be a brilliantly conceived mixture of genres.

The overall musical trajectory is the combination of blues, swing era, and French impressionist pentatonic chromaticism that George Gershwin used in Porgy and Bess, making Yardbird a close cousin to Gershwin’s quintessential realization of the history and struggles of African-American life. But composer Schnyder went well beyond this 1930s popular music style (which, by the way, was the legacy that Parker and cohorts unabashedly used as a foil to create the new bebop jazz) to create a unique synthesis of many other musical ingredients and flavors.

Beneath the relentless plaintive blues arias of the singers, the orchestra is playing a complex mixture of modalities. One clearly hears allusions to jazz standards like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” as well as Parker compositions like “Now’s the Time,” “Moose the Mooche” (a homage to his drug dealer!), “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” and “Confirmation.”

There are also stylings reminiscent of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner floating around in the score. In the stunning counterpoint of the vocal duets and ensembles, you can hear the finely crafted linearity of Renaissance vocal music such as that of Palestrina. Add touches of Stravinsky, Debussy, and John Coltrane, and you’ve got a cocktail that could easily have gone wrong but turns out just right, bringing the music well into the eclecticism of contemporary opera

The meaning of (Parker’s) blues

There will inevitably be considerable discussion of what this opera means as an American original artistic work. Wimberly’s libretto intends it to be a story of African-American history, with Parker as a legendary figure, but with an emphasis on the recurrent tragedy of the African-American family in which the father flees to pursue his own ambitions and life of pleasure. Parker’s mother, wives, and his daughter Pree, who dies in childhood while Parker is away from her, are all victims of that impulsive lifestyle, which was also explored in A Raisin in the Sun and James Baldwin’s writings. But the implication that Parker himself was a quintessential figure in African-American mid-20th-century history is questionable. Although his music was indeed a major force in jazz in the “hipster” era of nonconformity and social change, Parker himself was apolitical and never associated himself with the civil rights movement.

Instead, his tragedy was not so much that of the African American as of the jazz musician drug addict — as were Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, and other white musicians. Wimberly does not imply heroic status for Parker, viewing him more as a tragic figure, but a cultlike hero worship has grown up around the “Bird Lives” graffiti that was scrawled on many walls after he died. To be historically accurate, when, at the end of the opera, Parker, going into the darkness, releases the birds from their cages and sings lines from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “Sympathy” (“I know why the caged bird sings”), he is freeing himself and generic mankind with his soaring music, not carrying on the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois.

A few words are in order about the overall production, in which all the elements of a complex production came together magnificently. The singers and orchestra gave an outstanding performance. Lawrence Brownlee, Angela Brown, and Will Liverman not only sang beautifully, but their acting gestures were also perfectly attuned to one another and at times heartrending. The set design by Riccardo Hernandez captured the opera’s mood perfectly. This commission and world premiere is a great accomplishment for Opera Philadelphia and positions them a notch higher in the lineage of the great repertoire companies.

Note: The author interviewed composer Daniel Schnyder for All About Jazz, where he is a senior staff writer.

For Bruce Klauber’s review, click here.

For Steve Cohen’s review, click here.

What, When, Where

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. Music by Daniel Schnyder. Text by Bridgette A. Wimberly. Ron Daniels directed. Corrado Rovaris, conductor. World premiere by Opera Philadelphia, through June 14, 2015 in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia. 215-732-8400 or

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