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‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ a cry against the cage of racism

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee plays the title character in "Charlie Parker's Yardbird," the chamber opera performed at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia)

The first thing you see as you take your seat for “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” — the enthralling chamber opera about the bebop jazz revolutionary by composer Daniel Schnyder and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly — is a corpse on a gurney. Covered with a sheet, with only the feet exposed, the tag on the toe misidentifies the body. Parker was just 34 when he died in 1955, but the coroner conducting his autopsy is said to have initially thought he was examining a man of sixty.

Highly recommended
When: Sunday, March 26 at 2 p.m.
Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph
Tickets: $35 – $125
Info: http://www.lyricopera.org
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

The body may have failed, but Parker was a restless soul from his earliest years growing up in Kansas City, the only son of a single mother who could not protect him from the oppressiveness and dangers of a Jim Crow society. And in this opera he is not about to change his tune. He proclaims he still has work to do — an orchestral piece to write — and dressed in a suit, and carrying his alto sax, this very visible ghost heads straight for Birdland, the fabled jazz club at Broadway and 52nd Street named in his honor. It is from there that the opera (produced by Lyric Opera of Chicago and presented at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance this weekend for two sold-out performances), takes off.

Lawrence Brownlee stars in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” the chamber opera performed at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia)

All along the way in this moving fantasia that has been expertly directed by Ron Daniels, Parker (Lawrence Brownlee, whose silky tenor and naturalistic acting are key to a marathon role) must reckon with the many women in his life. They include: His adored and adoring mother, Addie (a stunning portrayal by powerhouse soprano Angela Brown); his first wife, Rebecca (mezzo Krysty Swann, in turns fervent and angry), who he abandoned after the birth of his son; his third wife, Doris (a restrained yet intense turn by soprano Angela Mortellaro), who stood by him when he was confined to a psychiatric hospital; his final common law wife, Chan (soprano Rachel Sterrenberg, notably sexy in an aria about her first encounter with Parker), a white woman who fell in love with the hepcat; and his patron, the wealthy Rothschild heiress, Baroness Nica (mezzo Julie Miller, ideal as the bohemian aristocrat), who found his body in her New York hotel room and feared the scandal this news would generate.

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Of course there also was Parker’s musical soul-mate, Dizzy Gillespie (baritone Will Liverman, as the loyal and unflappable friend). Like all the women, he also tried, but failed to save Parker from his demons, including the heroin periodically supplied here by Moose (who crosses the stage in a wheelchair).

Schnyder has not written a “jazz opera,” although “Yardbird” is injected with brief riffs of Parker’s work, as well as a hint of Gershwin and others. Yet intriguingly enough, his contemporary classical score — full of varied, fervent and seductive arias for Parker and the principal people in his life — has its own mix of discordant yet lyrical sounds that serve as a fine complement to Parker’s bebop innovations.

Wimberly’s libretto is masterful — comprised of short, poetic, character-revealing scenes that capture the essence of the man’s life and relationships. Of course as Parker acknowledges, his greatest love affair was with his music (“I blow my soul into your beautiful neck,” he says of his sax), just as it provided his only taste of freedom as a black man. And like Maya Angelou, Wimberly borrows the words of the African-American poet Laurence Dunbar: “I know why the caged bird sings, ah me/When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore/When he beats his bars and would be free;/It is not a carol of joy or glee,/But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.”

Riccardo Hernandez’s clever black-and-white set is comprised of giant letters spelling out Birdland that bear archival photographs of Parker, and Emily Rebholz’s costumes are rich in 1940s and ’50s elegance. Conductor Kelly Kuo and his small but superb orchestra are a seamless match for the singers in this work that clearly has attracted the ever-desirable “crossover” audience — a mix of both Lyric Opera fans and jazz aficionados.

Following Friday’s performance nearly the entire audience stayed for a half hour tribute to Parker’s music courtesy of Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. The set included lush renditions of standards Parker recorded, including the Vernon Duke-Yip Harburg song, “April in Paris” and the Gershwins’ “Summertime” (with a string quartet and oboe part of the mix); a playful spoken-word piece featuring a slew of titles from Parker ‘s many recordings (wonderfully performed by Angela Brown); and a terrific series of numbers in the Parker mode, played by a five-piece band that included Rajiv Halim Orozco (alto sax), Chris Davis (trumpet), Darwin Noguera (piano), Junius Paul (bass) and Clif Wallace (drums). This post-opera concert will be repeated on Sunday.

Lawrence Brownlee plays jazz master Charlie Parker and Angela Brown plays his mother, Addie, in the opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia)