Operatic Portrait of a Jazz Legend

United StatesUnited States Schnyder, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird (world premiere–co-commission and co-production with Gotham Chamber Opera): Soloists, Opera Philadelphia, Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.6.2015 (BJ)

Charlie Parker: Lawrence Brownlee
Addie Parker: Angela Brown
Chan Parker: Rachel Sterrenberg
Doris Parker: Angela Mortellaro
Rebecca Parker: Chrystal Williams
Dizzy Gillespie: Will Liverman
Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter: Tamara Mumford

 Ron Daniels (director)
Riccardo Hernández (set design)
Emily Rebholz (costume design)
Scott Zielinski (lighting design)
David Zimmerman (wig and makeup design)
Becki Smith (stage manager)


To write an opera, as composer Daniel Schnyder and his librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly have done, with a cult figure of Charlie Parker’s celebrity as its central figure has a certain built-in advantage, witnessed by the fact that the Philadelphia run of five performances (preceded by three in New York) was completely sold out before it even started. It might be suggested at the same time that there is a concomitant disadvantage on the artistic side, when that central figure is an instrumentalist, in that a member of the audience may be forgiven for being theoretically disappointed that he never starts playing.

Well, we knew that wasn’t going to happen. But this new music-theater piece, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, was creative and inventive enough to sustain interest throughout its 90-minute intermission-less duration, even for a benighted spectator like me who had never heard a note of the real Parker’s music.

Riccardo Hernández’s largely black-on-black set, featuring “Birdland” in large letters and decorated with images of leading jazz figures, made a strong impression while an orchestra of 14 players, with single strings, woodwinds, brass, and piano, played before the action started on stage. Then Charlie made his entrance, in the person of Lawrence Brownlee, familiar as a brilliant exponent of the stratospheric tenor bel canto repertoire, but seeming quite at his vocal ease in this very different style of music.

Quite what that style consisted of is a question not easily answered. Daniel Schnyder has crafted a score that aims to blend jazz idioms with quasi-classical elements, and my own feeling was that the mix didn’t quite achieve artistic coherence—for in music, as in gastronomy, I tend to prefer individual traditions interpreted with purity over the various possible brands of fusion. Still, there was plenty of agreeable melody and lively rhythm to listen to.

Bridgette A. Wimberly’s libretto is hung on Parker’s supposed obsession, in the last of his regrettably few years, with the idea of writing a large-scale piece for full orchestra. Every now and then, the Charlie Parker we saw on stage made tentative stabs in that direction, but the action inevitably gave more prominence to the real-life Parker’s sometimes feckless relations with the women he drew into his clearly fascinating orbit. Like Brownlee himself, all of them were strongly acted and sung, with some especially sumptuous vocalism contributed by Angela Brown in the role of Addie Parker, Charlie’s evidently strong-willed and strong-minded mother, and by Will Liverman as a Dizzy Gillespie portrayed as a model of devoted friendship and moral rectitude.

Conducted with impressive stylistic versatility by Opera Philadelphia’s music director, Corrado Rovaris, the orchestral part was skillfully balanced with the voices on stage. Altogether the event—astonishingly, Opera Philadelphia’s first main-stage world premiere since Menotti’s The Hero 39 years ago, in the very first season of what was then known as the Opera Company of Philadelphia—clearly gave the capacity audience exactly what it was collectively hoping for.

Bernard Jacobson

Leave a Comment