Angela Brown, Will Liverman, Rachel Sterrenberg and Angela Mortellaro.
On opening night of Madison Opera’s production of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a full house packed Overture Center’s Capitol Theater for a chance to see the Midwest premiere of the opera that explores the highs and lows in the life of the iconic jazz saxophonist and composer.
Yardbird is extraordinary in many ways. It combines opera and jazz, and has a libretto by an African American woman, Bridgette A. Wimberly. It explores the life of real people. And even its length — under two hours — is unusual for an opera.
The opera unfolds in a dreamlike sequence of memories. After Charlie Parker dies in 1955, his spirit goes to the jazz club, Birdland, where he is determined to write his final masterpiece. But his old life haunts him. His wives, Rebecca, Doris and Chan, appear with stories of love and disappointments. Addie (Angela Brown), his protective mother, admonishes him. His friend and jazz patron Baroness Nica must find Chan to identify Parker’s body, which lies unclaimed in the morgue. His drug dealer tempts him with heroin, and his colleague Dizzy Gillespie reminisces about their performance days. But by the end of the opera, Parker finds peace from the chattering voices, knowing that his music will live on.
Composer Daniel Schnyder, a sax player and classical flutist from Switzerland, pushes the limits of the singers’ range from tensely high to growlingly low.
Tenor Joshua Stewart, who plays Parker, is a captivating actor. His warm voice has some reediness in the middle range, and there were balance issues between him and the orchestra. But his aria, “My Horn,” an ode to his saxophone, rings out clear as crystal. Rachel Sterrenberg (Chan) has a sultry stage presence, but when their daughter dies, her moving aria, “Pree is Dead,” is eerily bleak.
On opening night, the audience adored Brown’s performance as Parker’s doting mother. Her voice is like Parker’s sax playing — bold with razzle-dazzle technique. Will Liverman is a cool and collected Gillespie. Rounding out the septet of singers is Julie Miller (Nica), Angela Mortellaro (Doris) and the radiant-voiced Krysty Swann (Rebecca).
The minimalist stage set comes from Opera Philadelphia and consists of caged birds and larger-than-life letters that spell out “Birdland.” The set, along with Ron Daniels’ stage direction, adds simplicity and flow to an opera that leaps through space and time.
John DeMain conducts a small orchestra of Madison Symphony Orchestra musicians who adroitly navigate the score’s unstoppable rhythms and variety of styles and textures.
Overall, the music requires a little work on the part of the listener to glean its meaning. In the first part of Yardbird, dissonance and angular rhythms mirror the discontent of Parker and the women in his life. But as he finds peace toward the end, the music shimmers with ethereal beauty.
Yardbird plays again on Sunday, Feb. 12, at 2:30 p.m. at Overture’s Capitol Theater. If you go, consider attending the free pre-concert talk at 1:30 n the Wisconsin Studio.