PostHeaderIcon “Yardbird” Soars High

It’s ironic that the story of jazz  bebop pioneer, Charlie Parker, should be presented by Lyric Opera. Yet, it seems fitting in another respect. Parker, an icon of jazz’s hipster subculture and later the Beat Generation, was also a keen fan of classical music. He wanted to incorporate jazz with classical elements and recorded an album of ballads with a string section in 1949 for producer, Norman Granz.

Last week, Lyric mounted Parker’s story as a chamber opera at the Harris Theater with a highly appealing score by composer Daniel Schnyder and a compelling libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly.  Although a learned man, he hadn’t had time to write an autobiography or little else about his life. Parker died at the age of only 34.

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

Brownlee as Parker and Angela Brown as Addie.l  Photo by Todd Rosenberg

 

Wimberly situates the opera in Birdland, the New York nightclub named in Parker’s honor. He played his final gig there on March 4th, 1955, eight days before he died. The opera imagines Parker returning to the club after his death while his body lies unidentified in New York’s Bellevue morgue. He wants to compose the masterpiece he was unable to write during his lifetime before the news of his death goes public.  Yet, people and demons from his past–particularly alcohol and heroin–keep intruding.

Prior to the performance, I had little inkling of how much Parker had suffered in his life beyond his drug addictions. The libretto gave me a fuller picture of this troubled genius’ struggles: with his two wives, the death of his young daughter, Pree, and his commitment for six months to a mental hospital in California.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee delivered a magnificent vocal and dramatic portrayal, capturing both his genius and torment. He was supported by a cast of outstanding singers in every role, especially Addie, his mother, sung by Angela Brown and Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, his patron and lover, sung by Julie Miller. Will Liverman, as Dizzy Gillespie, Parker’s fellow bebop pioneer, is accomplished in his relatively small role. At one point, Gillespie sings, “Come on, Yard! Let’s get out of here! We still have to write that music down”. Unfortunately, those scores never got written.

I have two fairly significant caveats about the score. By having the singers deliver their lines in recitative mode, the modern wont, the score keeps the dramatic action trapped at ground level, unable to soar to the lyrical heights reached by Parker’s horn. I also found it frustrating that Brownlee kept carrying his saxophone case around throughout the opera but never once do we hear a solo by the band’s alto saxophonist to recreate a taste of Parker’s genius. There was a fine set after the performance of Parker’s music by Orbert Davis’ Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra but it seemed a little too late. Many in the audience had left by then.

Lyric Unlimited is the company’s bold initiative to expand opera’s reach into new audiences and musical arenas. “Yardbird” is the fifth in the Unlimited series and, while I haven’t seen any of the earlier ones, I’d say “Yardbird” could easily be the most successful to date. Credit must go to Lyric’s General Director and CEO, Anthony Freud, for his out-of-the-box experiment. Let’s have more!

 

 

 

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