MARCH 28, 2017

A fascinating opera about the life of Charlie Parker

Classical Music Critic

The new opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” came to Chicago last week for two performances only, courtesy of Lyric Unlimited, an arm of Lyric Opera of Chicago. The 90-minute chamber work was performed without an intermission and offered a fascinating look at the life of the jazz great.

Key to the success of the production was the presence of American tenor Lawrence Brownlee in the title role. Famous for singing Bellini and not bebop, Brownlee proved himself to be more than up to the task. His skill in bel canto translated into easy renderings of rapid vocal jazzy lines and he was he equally accomplished at occasional scat singing and blusy riffs.

Brownlee created a “Bird” who was wholly sympathetic, highlighting the man’s strengths even while his many failings — heroin addiction, alcoholism, the abandonment of wives and children, a stint in a psychiatric facility — was clearly portrayed.

Brownlee brought out the character’s drive, determination, and love of music. The only love song Charlie Parker sings is near the very end of the opera, and that is a tribute to his saxophone. He apologizes for cheating (he sometimes played the clarinet) and abuse (he might use the wrong reed) yet this loving account was a also a metaphor for Parker’s ardor for music itself.

The opera closes with the Yardbird singing an excerpt from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy” which contains the famous line, “I know why the caged bird sings.” Brownlee was stunning in his interpretation and then slowly receded to the back of the dark stage, representing Charlie Parker’s death.

Composer Daniel Schnyder has created a taut work that doesn’t rely on Parker’s music but instead inhabits the realm of contemporary classical music which makes use of brief quotations of jazz and infuses jazz elements into the score. Schnyder plays both classical and jazz saxophone, and his enthusiasm for Parker is evident.

While the opera’s music relies heavily on singing, one of the most beautiful points in the piece is when Parker is in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital, and a somber, sad flute solo plays while Charlie languishes in a straitjacket.

Librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly packs a great deal of information into the piece, which is made up of 21 short scenes. At times it is unnecessarily confusing, primarily because the opera isn’t a chronological approach to Parker’s life. Yet she creates some powerful moments while having fun with the text. There are numerous bird references throughout: jailbird, caged bird, cat bird, jazz bird, firebird, ladybird.

The balance of the cast was well chosen. Soprano Angela Brown’s portrayal of Addie, Parker’s mother, was moving and full of gutsy singing. Baritone Will Liverman, a Ryan Center alumnus, was a splendid Dizzy Gillespie, singing with both power and firmness. He was particularly affecting when urging his friend to beat his heroin habit.

The rest of the cast played Parker’s wives, a girlfriend (who considered herself his wife) and a friend and patron of Parker.

Soprano Rachel Sterrenberg was a gorgeous, sexy Chan, Parker’s last love. The high score for her role sometimes brought out the harsh sound in her voice but she was marvelous in the scene where she tells Parker that their daughter has died. Sung almost entirely in a whispery pianissimo, it was a beautiful moment in the opera.

Soprano Angela Mortellaro was convincing as wife Doris Parker and drew out that woman’s belief in all her rights as a spouse. As Parker’s first wife Rebecca, mezzosoprano Krysty Swann was compelling as she agonized over being abandoned to raise her son alone. Mezzo-soprano Julie Miller was a cool and composed Baroness Nico, the aristocratic friend of Parker in whose hotel suite he died.

Lyric presented the opera at the Harris Theater. The pit is so deep that conductor Kelly Kuo’s face could not be scene as he took his place in front of the orchestral ensemble. And so the first thing the audience experienced opening night was, appropriately, jazz hands as Kuo waved his recognition of the audience.

Kuo drew spirited sound from his 16 players, although the balance was such that it was at times difficult to hear the singers.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set was simple and meant to evoke Birdland, the club named after Parker. At the back of the stage were large letters spelling out “Birdland” and it was clear that this production, which was premiered in Philadelphia, was meant for a larger stage as the letters (which each featured a photo of a jazz luminary) were squashed together.

The house was packed and the applause long and appreciative when the opera reached its conclusion.