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Opera Phila tells poignant tale of jazz in one word: Yardbird

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

The cast of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird presented by Opera Phila

Operatoonity.com review: Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a world premiere co-commissioned and co-produced by Opera Philadelphia with Gotham Chamber Opera
Live performance: Sunday, June 14, 2015, 2:30 p.m.
The Perelman Theater, Philadelphia
Music: Daniel Schnyder
Libretto: Bridgette A. Wimberly
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

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Tenor Lawrence Brownlee singing the title role Charlie Parker’s Yardbird | Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

It is a rich and thrilling time in which to live when the world of opera boldly embraces the world of jazz. Virtuosos from one musical realm inspire virtuosity from another, specifically bebop or the style of jazz invented by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that employed lightning fast riffs and sophisticated chord structures.

Opera Philadelphia presented a moving homage to the legacy of Charlie Parker with a world premiere of the chamber opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. The premise intrigues. On the day of Parker’s death, March 12, 1955, he arrives at Birdland to write his final masterpiece. There he encounters significant figures from his past including his mother, his past wives, his heroin dealer, and even Dizzy Gillespie until his body is identified, and he passes over into the next realm.

In this reviewer’s humble opinion, this work represents where modern opera needs to go: embracing current and timely myths and legends rather than those tales that have been done and overdone by classical composers.

Though robust, Daniel Schnyder’s musical score didn’t embrace as many dimensions as Charlie Parker’s did. Yes, Parker defined bebop together with Dizzy Gillespie, but he also played standards better than any saxophonist of his generation. I was hoping for more diversity of sound, a bit more convention and less aberration, more light and dark throughout. However, Bridgette A. Wimberly’s libretto was poignant and honest–a stunning treatment.

In the scene called ” Calvary,” Parker’s mother Addie and first wife Rebecca sing a tender duet of loss, each echoing the other’s words:

Ain’t easy, it ain’t easy to be a mother, a wife to a strong black man
This land ain’t no place for a jazz bird, for a jazz bird
For a jazz bird like my man got dreams

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Tenor Lawrence Brownlee was ideally voiced for the role. Vocally, he’s a monster, to borrow a term from jazz referring to a musician with chops that simply don’t quit. While Charlie Parker became addicted to heroin through no fault of his own–he was recovering from a debilitating accident–he became a drug addict nonetheless. Brownlee is, well, somewhat of a boy scout. Or at least that’s how he comes off onstage. Perhaps he is wild and raucous offstage–who knows? Regardless, a heroin addict is a theatrical challenge for the wholesome-looking Brownlee to portray convincingly.

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Soprano Chrystal E. Williams as Charlie’s first wife Rebecca and soprano Angela Brown as Charlie’s mother Addie.

The women in this show were a tour de force. Malleable, versatile, and adaptive, they were more than believable in their roles as discarded women, ex-wives, and illicit lovers. Angela Brown was the loving, long-suffering mother, Addie Parker whose son’s downward spiral evoked audience empathy since that she tells him he has become mean, either from the drugs or the success. She knows she has a prodigy in Charlie and can only wring her hands at his self-destructive choices. She sang with beauty and despair at his wanton choices and was warmly rewarded for her performance at curtain call.

AVA grad Chrystal Williams has been delightful in every role I’ve been lucky enough to catch her in at AVA and Glimmerglass. She can take on any role with sensitivity and believability. She has a clear, powerful soprano voice and tremendous stage presence, and I can’t wait to see her in her next role.

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Soprano Angela Mortellaro as Parker’s third wife Doris.

All of Parker’s wives evidenced incomprehensible devotion to him, despite his rejection and infidelity. Angela Mortellaro as Doris Parker and Rachel Sterrenberg as his fourth wife Chan brightened the stage with each appearance. Each had soaring voices and loads of presence on stage. While they each must have loved Charlie for the same reasons, it was hard to believe he could have cheated on either of these desirable women if he’d been of sound mind.

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Bird dies in the hotel suite of wealthy jazz patroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter or “Nica,” who endures life-shattering censure and scorn because a black man died in her segregated hotel suite. This lovely heiress, sung by Tamara Mumford with elegance and compassion, helped the audience better appreciate how much sheer appeal and charisma that Charlie Bird Parker possessed.

Tamara Mumford as Bird's patroness Nica.

Tamara Mumford as Bird’s patroness Nica.

From “Powder Her Nose” to “Silent Night” to “Dark Sisters,” it is vitally important to have a company with Opera Philadelphia’s resources and polish introducing contemporary works to today’s operagoers. Someone I greatly respect once said that if today’s opera could combine the melody of the classic works with the relevance of contemporary story, they’d have the ideal marriage of qualities to move opera forward to new audiences in the 21st century. Keep the new work and the chamber operas coming, Opera Phila. You are doing a tremendous service to the art form. Operagoers are indebted to you for your willingness to take chances and advance opera in the new millennium.

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