Review: Charlie Parker’s Yardbird

By George Loomis

For an opera about a composer, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird is oddly deficient in music by its subject. Instead, the Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder has paid tribute, after a fashion, to the jazz great by fashioning a jazz-infused score in the tradition of Bernstein or Gershwin. If the opera, given its world premiere by Opera Philadelphia, leaves Parker musically under-characterised, at least it meets operatic expectations, especially in its ingratiating vocal lines, and, while uneven, has more musical verve than most new operas. 

But Charlie Parker’s Yardbird lacks dramatic shape. Following Parker’s death in 1955 at the age of 34, his body was misidentified, which prevented the news from becoming known for two days. The libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly turns this gap into a kind of purgatorial period during which Parker, a functioning ghost, sets out to write a magnum opus “with orchestra” — a dubious idea given the musician’s actual accomplishments. In reality, though, the period becomes one for revisiting Parker’s life. We meet his mother and his various wives, learn of his burgeoning musical talent and of racial injustices suffered, and observe him in a treatment centre for alcohol and drug addiction. The list goes on, but the succession has no more dramatic coherence than a musical revue.

Two episodes stand out: a bluesy number for Parker’s wife Chan about how his music won him her love, arrestingly sung in a rich, iridescent soprano by Rachel Sterrenberg, and an aria of show-stopping vitality in which Parker’s proud mother Addie — Angela Brown in exuberant form — expounds on her son’s accomplishments. An otherwise bland song for Parker in praise of his saxophone would have been an excellent occasion for an infusion of echt Parker music. But it, like everything else he sings, benefits from Lawrence Brownlee’s style and honeyed tone, although the famed Rossini tenor cuts too dapper an image to make of Parker a tragic figure. Tamara Mumford scores as the Rothschild heiress who befriends him. 

The production by Ron Daniels, with a polished black set by Riccardo Hernandez depicting Parker’s New York performing venue Birdland, looks good, and Corrado Rovaris brings out the score’s best moments.