Composer Daniel Schnyder wanted to honor Parker’s legacy.
When Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith saw the world premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird in Philadelphia in 2015, she knew she wanted to bring the show to Madison.
“The jazz-inflected score, the truly American story and even its length [90 minutes] seemed a great next choice for sharing the ever-expanding operatic repertoire with our community,” says Smith.
Yardbird, which uses a fusion of jazz and opera to illustrate the life of the legendary jazz saxophonist and composer, will have its Midwest premiere at Overture Center’s Capitol Theater on Feb. 10 and 12.
The opera begins after Parker has died in the apartment of his friend and jazz patron, Baroness Pannonica (Nica) de Koenigswarter on March 12, 1955. As the audience enters the theater, Parker’s body is lying on the stage. The show’s director, Ron Daniels, calls it a “ghost opera,” where Parker’s spirit returns to the famed jazz club, Birdland, determined to compose a final masterpiece. “The ghost himself is real,” says Daniels, “as real as the memories he conjures up of his mother and the three women in his life.”
Librettist, Bridgette A. Wimberly, a Harlem-based playwright and poet, says she studied Parker’s life and music for two years before writing the libretto. “In my research I found that Parker’s body was sent to New York’s Bellevue Morgue with the wrong name and age tagged to his toe,” says Wimberly. “He was there for a few days unclaimed while the baroness searched for his last wife, Chan.”
In another connection to Parker’s real life, his friend and colleague, Dizzy Gillespie, also appears in Yardbird. In the 1940s, Parker and Gillespie created a complex variety of jazz called bebop.
But Parker’s memories aren’t all rosy. Failed relationships, the death of his child, racial tensions in Jim Crow America and his battle with heroin addiction loom large. The audience even meets his drug dealer, Moose the Mooche.
Before Wimberly wrote the libretto, composer Daniel Schnyder requested that the opera center around Parker creating music for a large orchestra, something Parker talked about before he died. In addition to weaving in bebop lines, Schnyder says his score reflects styles that came before and after Parker, including styles reflected in the compositions of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. While there won’t be any Parker-style saxophone playing — who plays like Charlie Parker? — a sax plays in the latter part of the opera to add the color of the instrument Parker loved.
Singers making their Madison Opera debuts in Yardbird include tenor Joshua Stewart (a rising opera star, who plays Parker), Julie Miller, Krysty Swann and Rachel Sterrenberg. Returning artists include Will Liverman, Angela Brown and Angela Mortellaro. They will sing in a variety of styles, from bel canto to scat singing.
The orchestra, conducted by John DeMain and made up of approximately 16 Madison Symphony Orchestra players, will also explore multiple styles, and DeMain says his versatile musicians are ready for the challenge.
Because of its multiracial cast, some reviewers have compared Yardbird to George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. But DeMain, who won a Grammy for his 1976 recording of Porgy, says there are significant differences between the two operas. “Porgy is a large grand opera with a chorus and a huge cast, while Yardbird is a chamber opera,” he says.
By the end of Yardbird, Parker’s spirit can finally rest, knowing that his music will live on. As Gillespie sings, “We hear your music. I swear to God it will echo out there in the universe, the unfinished symphony of your beautiful mind.”
In December, Madison Opera announced it was awarded a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the production and related events exploring Parker’s life and music. For information about events, many of which are free, visit madisonopera.org.