How would it be possible to meld the disparate sonic universes of contemporary opera with the fearsome, virtuosic bebop style of jazz developed by saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker in the 1940s and ’50s?
‘CHARLIE PARKER’S YARDBIRD’
When: 7:30 p.m. March 24, and 2 p.m. March 26
Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph
Tickets: $35 – $125
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
That was the question facing the Swiss-born, New York-based composer Daniel Schnyder when he first set out to write “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” the chamber opera that debuted at Opera Philadelphia in 2015, arrived at Harlem’s Apollo Theater last year, and will have its Chicago debut March 24 and 26 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance under the auspices of the Lyric Opera.
It certainly helped that Schnyder, 56 — who studied cello as a child, and later played the flute and saxophone — has a long history of trying to bridge the worlds of classical, jazz and ethnic music in innovative ways.
“I began with classical music but then found out about jazz by way of the radio,” said the composer. “I grew up in Zurich, and Swiss Radio had a program, ‘Radio Big Band,’ that I loved. I was fascinated by the idea of playing that music, and by the concept of improvisation, which I thought was so much more creative than classical music, which you feel as if you must just play as well as possible without screwing up.”
“Also, my father was an archaeologist for museums who traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran in the 1950s and ’60s, and he was totally into music played on exotic instruments. I began improvising on them (and destroying them), and then in my teens started on the piano and saxophone. I had already discovered Charlie Parker, and his really hard, fast, complicated, intellectual music that was meant to go deeper than being just pleasing or entertaining. Also in my teens I went to London and bought recordings by Bird, and started understanding that he had a very clear system to his music that could analyze and re-use. He also was interested in classical music — he loved Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ — and wanted to write a symphonic piece himself.”
In preparation for the opera, Schnyder did a great deal of research about Parker’s short but intense life (he died in 1955 at the age of 34), and came to understand the importance of Dizzy Gillespie, Parker’s friend and collaborator, “even though the two men had completely different personalities.”
Schnyder also realized he could not have a singer actually play the saxophone on stage, and that “even though the jazz world of the 1950s was a macho preserve, not having women as part of the story wouldn’t really fly.” So he went in search of a librettist and found Bridgette Wimberly, a Harlem-based poet and playwright, who created something of a fantasia on Parker’s life.
The opera begins the day Parker died of heroin addiction, alcoholism and other health problems, in the hotel suite of his British-born friend and patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (“Nica” ). He first appears as a sort of ghost who arrives at Birdland, the Manhattan jazz club named for him. Flashbacks bring the important people in his life to the fore: His mother, Addie, a hospital worker who raised him as an only child in Kansas City, Mo.; his wives, including Rebecca, with whom he had a child while still in his teens, and Doris, the good soul who cared for him when he spent six months in a Los Angeles mental hospital, and Chan Parker (who he never legally married); and Dizzy Gillespie.
As Schnyder noted: “Parker grew up in the Jim Crow era, and later encountered the difficulties faced by all black musicians who struggled to survive because they couldn’t collect the royalties they had earned. So his behavior was triggered by a lot of pain, and that works well for opera. I also wanted to show how important jazz was to the development of 20th century music, because if we forget this pop music will wipe us out. But I haven’t written a jazz opera, even if I could not avoid using very brief riffs from ‘Ornithology’ and ‘Yardbird Suite,’ and other pieces. Rather, I’ve reflected on jazz through the medium of classical opera.”
Of course another challenge was finding the right singer to play Parker. And that turned out to be Lawrence Brownlee, the lyrical tenor who was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and grew up playing trumpet, guitar and drums, and singing gospel music in church. He was only propelled into opera “by a high school teacher who told me he heard something special in my voice.”
“I thought I was going to be a lawyer,” said Brownlee, laughing. But by 2001, at the age of 27, he won the hugely prestigious Metropolitan Opera Grand Finals singing arias by Rossini and Donizetti, and within a year was singing at Milan’s La Scala, where he has had 10 contracts, all along being hailed for his mastery of the 19th century bel canto style.
“Parker was a man of few words and a dry sense of humor, and in recordings of his speaking voice I’ve heard he seemed very easy and relaxed,” said Brownlee. “He did all his talking with his horn — although in the opera I never put the saxophone to my lips. But do have some scatting — and that was a steep learning curve for me.”
NOTE: There will be a pre-opera talk one hour before each performance and, following the opera, there will be a 30-minute performance of Parker’s music by Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.