"Charlie Parker's Yardbird" plays off the strengths of American opera
American opera is finally getting its chance, and seizing the opportunity with a revolutionary spirit. All at once, at companies across the country, ambition and opportunity are coming together to create a national product with a true, New World identity.
And it is all so American, circa the 2010s: Diverse, rowdy, proud, different. New operas debuting in places like Santa Fe, St. Louis, Philadelphia and San Francisco take on the struggles of blacks and gays. They explore those things that define us alone, like jazz music and the great Civil War. They're written by women as well as men and star counter-tenors as well as handsome baritones.
Like that other notable American revolution, this movement is getting a lot of steam from Philadelphia, where "Charlie Parker's Yarbird" premiered last week capturing the spirit, if not the actual sound, of the talented, troubled, 20th century saxophonist. It's a major achievement from a company that is committed to creating a fresh work every year for a decade.
Composer Daniel Schnyder's music is alternately lively and sober, full of counterpoint and counter punches. Bridgette A. Wimberly's libretto is the best to come along since Terrence McNally's "Dead Man Walking" in 2000, potent and human, though lifted up with an artful, poetic swing. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, for whom the piece was written, brings Bird back from the dead with daunting vocal precision and little sentimentality.
"Yardbird" is a unique piece that treads its own ground, yet its emergence, and likability, seals the deal on what American opera is shaping up to be: Short in duration at about 90 minutes, cheap to produce with just 15 musicians, and direct in the exploration of social issues. The new opera, light and dark, hopeful and condemning, and centered on an outcast character, feels a lot like "Dead Man Walking," about Texas killer Matthew Poncelet, but also recent works like Terance Blanchard's "Champion" about boxer Emile Griffith, who killed a man in the ring; Ricky Ian Gordan's "27," about Gertrude Stein's ex-pat years; and Theodore Morrison's "Oscar" about Oscar Wilde.
These are not perfect works by any stretch, the drama tends to come and go as quickly as a prime-time TV procedural and to be enhanced, falsely, with easy theater tricks, like projections and strobe lights. The sets haven't caught up to the quality of the music. Like those Verdi and Puccini tropes that came before, they beg for overacting and often get it.
But all of the operas above are compelling in a truly contemporary way. They combine complex narratives with music rooted in the present. People still die — actually, they always die — but at least its not from broken hearts or consumption.
Charlie Parker, for example, puts himself down, with heroin and a bad attitude, though society makes its easy in an era of mid-century racism that turns so many things difficult for a black man. "Yardbird" tells his story in bits and pieces, yet all in reverse. He is dead when the show opens, at just 34 years of age, and the women in his life, wives, mother, girlfriends, come to pay their respects and note their regrets for having known him.
The tale weaves from Kansas City, where Parker was born, to New York, where his unprecedented improvisation skills made him a legend.
For opera and jazz to meet honorably, both genres have to bend, and that happens here. "Yardbird" is, no doubt, a piece of classical music, written for orchestral instruments and operatic voices. In that way, it is firmly structured like classical, even the few lines of scat snuck into the production appear to be written in by the composer.
But Schnyder, a saxophonist himself, understands both forms. He allows in moments of bebop, especially in a duet between Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and mines the origins of jazz by letting the blues flow. Wimberly supplies lyrics that mimic the repeated phrases of jazz, its unexpected syncopations.
Parker sings to his sax: "Every time I have something good to say, swell to tell, cool to play. Every time, every time your bell will tell, your neck shall sing, your keys will swing."
Brownlee and the soprano Angela Brown, who plays his mother, jump on these openings. They don't so much improvise as real jazz permits, but they do allow the personality of their instruments to define their performances — as jazz absolutely requires. This work, co-produced with New York City's Gotham Chamber Opera, next plays the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where the real-life Parker once performed, and it will not feel out of place there.
In the end it is that presence of personality, powered by the protagonist's locomotive ego and the audience's wait for the train to wreck, that define "Yardbird" as well as the other recent works commissioned by companies in this country. Parker, Stein, Wilde, Griffith, they were all self-aggrandizing in their way, capitalists investing in their own talents, entrepreneurs selling their own souls, though it cost them the most — at least that's how their opera's convey them.
They may not all have been American-born, but they were American-made. Their stories are taking American opera to new heights.