Charlie Parker Opera Captures Substance, Not Spirit, of Bird

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Lawrence Brownlee as the title character in Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD

(Photo: Courtesy of Lyric Opera)

The great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, (aka Yardbird, or Bird) is an attractive protagonist for an opera: brilliant, colorful and doomed to die at age 34 of high life and hard times. Yet Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD—a 90-minute chamber opera by Swiss-born composer and saxophonist Daniel Schnyder and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly for six singers and 15-piece orchestra—sheds little light on this icon and sidesteps the crucial aspects of his existence: his inimitable music and the post-World War II cultural context in which it emerged.

Two performances staged by Lyric Opera of Chicago at the Harris Theater March 24 and 26 reproduced the fine singing by the original cast and the efficient, spare setting, as premiered in June 2015 by Opera Philadelphia at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and later presented at the Apollo Theater in New York City. However, the work’s deep flaws also remain.

Focusing on the women Parker loved and worried—his mother, his wives and the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter—as well as episodes of drug use, mental breakdown and reminiscence with Dizzy Gillespie, YARDBIRD shortchanges the man himself, and stops short of addressing the gap between Parker’s legacy and operatic traditions.

The fault is not that of bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee, whose impersonation of Parker reflects the saxophonist’s ambition and brio if not his arch intelligence and dazzling formal breakthroughs.

When the opera opens, Browlnee as Bird finds himself freshly deceased yet sitting at Birdland, the club named for him but from which he was banned. He decides this is his last chance to write a long envisioned “score … a full orchestra, singing beautifully in harmony and counterpoint!” But it’s hard to compose in limbo, while being hectored by visitations of the distraught sopranos and mezzos whom he disappointed while alive.

The problem, according to Wimberly’s clichéd and anachronism-laden script, is that Bird only loved his horn, and depended on the women around him for care-taking akin to that provided by his mother Addie. As portrayed by statuesque Angela Brown, Addie is a showstopping force. Her every appearance—especially a duet with Brownlee in which they both proclaim “All I have is you/All I want is you,” and her later aria “My Boy Is King”—lends gravity to the loosely sketched scenes representing famous anecdotes about the saxophonist.

What’s missing is what makes Parker still matter: His sound and style. Schnyder’s incident-filled score is no help, overall a polyphonic mélange, if not pastiche, of theatrical music. His sonic world employs a cavalcade of references—’40s film noir soundtracks, minimalism, pastorals, the “Spanish tinge,” two-against-three hemiola, tango and Mahlerian detailed expansiveness—that offer little in the way of a through line or consistent mood, and refers rarely to bebop.

Highlights include Brownlee bursting briefly into Bird’s renowned break from “Night In Tunisia,” a semi-comic treatment of “Moose The Mooch,” and a moment’s notice of Thelonious Monk’s “Crepescule For Nellie.” But like the other themes that flirt with distinction, these quickly disappear.

The entire composition has little blues connotation, scant swing feeling and no standout instrumental solos even during the morose, unsung episode in what’s supposed to be Camarillo State Hospital. Brownlee and baritone Will Liverman sing “Bebop’s Gonna Change The World,” but Schnyder doesn’t prove it. Bird’s sound will last forever, the libretto assures us. Just not in this opera.

The singers demonstrated skill in the vibrato-rich operatic idiom, deftly dealing with a convention of tunelessness that’s temperamentally at odds with vernacular jazz vocalizing. Wimberley’s text moved swiftly, yet seems lazy. Her words are not well paired with Schnyder’s writing, and though it’s an artistic choice to end by quoting Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetic line “I know why the caged bird sings,” this is a missed opportunity to construe an appropriate new statement. Bird was free when he played, not when he died.

Reviews of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD have been generous. New York Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini noted that “combining jazz and modernist idioms can [sound] less like a merger than a compromise,” but reported he’d been engaged and ended up admiring the work. Heidi Waleson in the Wall Street Journal thought “devices like repetition and theme and variations … capture the essence of a jazz ensemble,” and lauded the opera’s “buoyant spirit.”

At the Harris Theater, the audience rewarded the show with a standing ovation. But a post-performance by members of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic featuring young Chicago alto saxophonist Rajiv Halim Orozco on music Charlie Parker actually played—including Jimmy Carroll’s arrangement for string quartet and a woodwind of “April In Paris” and “Summertime” and a quintet rendition of “Night In Tunisia”—was more sophisticated, collaborative, enlightening and enjoyable than the contrived chamber opera that preceded it. DB




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May 2019
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