Orninthology: “Yardbird” in Philadelphia

That Yardbird, Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette Wimberly’s new Charlie Parker opera, should begin with its famous subject’s death is not surprising. Opera is often fixated on greatness and endings. Like Oscar, Opera Philadelphia’s other new opera this season, Yardbird concerns not its celebrity protagonist’s achievements but rather his legacy and renown. The subject—Oscar Wilde or, in this case, Parker—is a kind of synecdoche for American regional opera as a whole. His cultural authority is asserted rather than argued. His creations lie in the past while his descendents squabble over ownership of his life.

It’s a shame that this opera doesn’t work dramatically, because musically there is much to enjoy, and the performance is excellent.

Daniel Schnyder (music) and Bridgette Wimberly (libretto),
Charlie Parker’s Yardbid. Opera Philadelphia, world premiere at the Perelman Theater, 6/5/15. Production conducted by Corrado Rovaris, directed by Ron Daniels, sets by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by Emily Rebholz, lights by Scott Zielinski. With Lawrence Brownlee (Charlie Parker), Angela Brown (Addie Parker), Rachel Sterrenberg (Chan), Angela Mortellaro (Doris), Chrystal Williams (Rebecca), Will Liverman (Dizzy Gillespie), Tamara Mumford (Baroness).

The opera’s premise is that Parker is trapped in a ghostly purgatory after his death due to unfinished business, a kind of jazz Billy Bigelow or Faust. The nominal setting (sets by Riccardo Hernandez) is a jazz club named after Parker, Birdland, decorated with photos of jazz greats (projected onto huge letters spelling out “Birdland”). Ron Daniels’s production remains in this space even as it shifts fluently between time and place.

But despite the performance setting, the weirdest thing about the libretto is that it deals exclusively with Parker’s personal life and excludes music entirely. We flash back to meet three of his wives, Rebecca, Doris, and Chan, his mother, and his drug dealer, and we learn that he was maybe not the most reliable guy. But while he chats with Dizzy Gillespie and he picks up and sings to his saxophone at one point, we never get any sense of who he was as an artist or what he stood for.

Some of the unfinished business is personal, other musical. It’s curious that Parker sings, “How do I capture these black dots, blue notes flying out of my horn? How do I freeze these notes on paper?.. I will cage these notes between the lines inside the system… frozen for eternity!” This seems, well, not very jazz-like. Bebop is not music for paper, it lives in live improvisation (and recording), which is strangely thematically absent from this whole opera.* Bird’s musical dream is writing a score “for full orchestra,” which, well, that’s not in itself unexpected but if we’re talking about Parker’s legacy there’s something weird about portraying him as a failed orchestral composer rather than a highly successful jazz one, and that’s a conflict which is never really clearly framed.** The closest we get to a description of musical style is “a revolution” and “rich and beautiful.” It’s like writing a whole opera about Oscar Wilde and leaving out his writing.

Wimberley’s libretto is straightforward in its language, sometimes verging on the generic (I could have done without Chan’s refrain of “I love music!”), but simultaneously elliptical in its narration. Characters aren’t clearly introduced and the passage of time isn’t established. In a short 90-minute running time, there are two many events and characters for any to really be developed. Combined with the fragmented scenes and flashback structure, this deprives the events of any dramatic tension. It’s also rather bleak, never showing us Parker doing what he did best. He abandons lots of women and does a lot of drugs, but we never see him playing. The brightest moment is Addie, his mother’s, scene, “My Boy is King,” which is a welcome moment of joy.

Schnyder’s music, however, is interesting. I was skeptical of an operatic version of bebop, but it works–mostly by being more broadly jazz-influenced than Parker-like in particular. My first note from early in the score seems to say “Britten with blue notes,” which I think is a good starting point. Schnyder’s vocal writing is singable, laid out in melodious, arching phrases (and except a very few scat passages not at all like bebop), but the orchestration is complex, finding an impressive range of colors in a 15-person orchestra. He has a real knack for writing ensembles, such as the duet between Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and a mad scene which is dramatically abrupt but musically vivid. I also liked Chan’s solo “In the dark on the wrong side of midnight,” floating slowly in a high register over a gritty dirge. However, the absence of the hard-edged, driving quality of Parker’s playing exacerbates the absence of his musical voice.

Character-wise the singers didn’t have a lot to work with but they all sounded great (the singing style was absolutely by the book with little of the flexibility of jazz). As Parker, superlative Rossini tenor Lawrence Brownlee sang with a focused, clear tone and, in the few moments of passage-work, the kind of precision he brings to nineteenth-century repertoire. Angela Brown was a welcomingly energetic presence as Addie, her big, confident voice dwarfing the others onstage. As the many wives, mezzo Chrystal Williams was rich-voiced and powerful as Rebecca, soprano Angela Mortellaro brighter as Doris, and soprano Rachel Sterrenberg, last seen as Anne Trulove at Curtis, was ethereal as Chan. As the grandly-named Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, Tamara Mumford could have used more to do.

I love that Opera Philadelphia put on two new operas this season, but it’s so strange that they suffered from the same basic issue. It’s not that artists’ personal lives aren’t interesting or worthy of dramatization. But both treat their subjects’ greatness as a foregone conclusion and don’t even attempt to stage or come to terms with it. For Americans, opera often is considered a genre fit only for stories of greatness and cultural monumentality, whether that means historical events (wars) or outsized central characters (famous people). (Anna Nicole was basically an opera-length joke based on this premise, because its central character was not the kind of person operas are assumed to put onstage.)  It’s a measure of jazz’s current respectability that Charlie Parker has been given this treatment, but the result is, sadly, not very interesting. Charlie Parker sings that “music is my soul,” but for all the jazz in the pit, that soul is never revealed.

Yardbird continues through June 14, but is sold out. Gotham Chamber Opera will bring this production to the Apollo Theater in Harlem in May 2016.

Photos copyright Dominic M. Mercier.
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*I transcribed a few minutes of Charlie Parker soloing for a transcription seminar in grad school and trust me, that is not how that music is meant to operate.

**My note on this was, “this score is going to be the opera, right?” It wasn’t, I may have seen Lulu and Capriccio too many times.

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