Madison Opera bebops with ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Would an opera about a jazz performer still be considered an opera? Or is it more like an extended jazz riff on the performer’s life?

According to composer and jazz saxophonist Daniel Schnyder, it can be a bit of both.

The Swiss-born Schnyder explored this thesis with Opera Philadelphia in 2015 through his work Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a fantasized look at 48 hours in the life of Parker, the influence of women in Parker’s life and the musician’s impact on a seismic shift in the direction of jazz.

Schnyder wrote the score and African-American playwright and poet Bridgette A. Wimberly penned the libretto.

After a run in Philadelphia, the opera received an encore performance with the same company at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, not far from where Schnyder lives in New York City.

Madison Opera, which is producing the show Feb. 10 and Feb. 12 at the Capitol Theater in Overture Center for the Arts, is the second company to mount a production.

“I see a lot of new operas every year and specifically traveled to Philadelphia to see the world premiere, thinking it sounded interesting,” said Madison Opera general director Kathryn Smith. “I loved the performance and said to a couple of cast members who had sung with Madison Opera before, ‘I want it.’ I started working on producing it here immediately.”

Despite the cross-disciplinary musical subject matter, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird is foremost an opera, Smith said.

“It’s an opera about Charlie Parker, who was a jazz musician, not an opera about jazz itself,” Smith said. “The music is classical, with jazz influences, and the vocal parts all call for major opera voices.”

Written for a Major voice

In fact, a major opera voice — tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who portrayed Parker onstage in Philadelphia — influenced the opera’s creation. Composer Schnyder and Opera Philadelphia maestro Corrado Rovaris were trying to find a project for Brownlee, who was well-known in the city, when the Parker theme occurred to the composer.

Parker’s legendary status in a musical discipline outside of opera offered some unique compositional opportunities.

“If you do an opera about Mozart that also would be interesting, but the score would inevitably sound like Mozart’s music, since he himself composed opera,” Schnyder said. “I thought it would be much more interesting to reflect Parker’s music. Even people like (philosopher Jean-Paul) Sartre and (composer Igor) Stravinsky were blown away by his bebop style.”

Joshua Stewart will make his Madison Opera debut as Charlie Parker and 17 members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra will accompany the show.

Death, women and music

Parker, born in 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas, is considered one of the leading lights in the development of bebop — a jazz form characterized by fast tempos, virtuosic technique and advanced harmonies. Parker was a remarkably fast player and he introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas, including rapid passing chords, new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions.

Parker also struggled for most of his life with a heroin addiction, the result of morphine treatments he was given as a teenager to ease back pain he suffered after a car accident. His addiction contributed to his death in 1955 at age 34 at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City.

The events following his death form the focus of the opera. Parker’s body went unrecognized in the morgue, causing it to be mislabeled for the first 48 hours following his death. Wimberly’s libretto focuses on that two-day period as a window in which Parker attempts to compose the larger orchestral work he had been wanting to do for years before having his body finally recognized and his death officially announced.

Wimberly also populated the narrative with the women in Parker’s life at the time, including his mother, Addie (Angela Brown). Schnyder believes the approach gives the narrative its forward progress and the emotional subtext critical to making the opera a success.

“The interrelationship between these women and Parker was emotional, difficult and very interesting. It was the right move to concentrate on that,” Schnyder said. “The other approach with just male jazz players would have been really boring and, frankly, an all-male opera just wouldn’t have worked.”

Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (Will Liverman), who helped usher in the bebop era with Parker, does make an appearance in the opera. The remaining five characters are female.

Whether Parker could have written the extended work he tries to complete in the short span that is the opera’s timeline is a question that never will be answered. Schnyder said while Parker may have had the talent, there are others factors that come into play in classical composition.

“There was an inner urge for Parker to do this, perhaps to leave something behind as a composer,” Schnyder said. “He could absorb music very easily, but a composer needs years of training and multiple trials to understand instrumentation and the other compositional factors.

“Surely, he heard something in his head that he wanted to do, but there was not enough time and he was not meant to do that,” Schnyder added.

On Stage

Madison Opera’s production of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird by Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette A. Wimberly takes the Capitol Theater stage Feb. 10 and Feb. 12 at Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. Tickets are $25 to $114 and can be purchased by calling the Overture box office at 608-258-4141.

More Charlie Parker

Madison Opera scheduled the following activities to support Charlie Parker’s Yardbird:

A Charlie Parker Concert and Discussion. Composer Daniel Schnyder joins UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble for an evening featuring music by Parker, with solos performed by both Schnyder and UW-Madison saxophone students. Morphy Hall, UW-Madison, Feb. 9, 7:30 p.m. Admission: Free.

• An Evening of Rare Jazz Films. Jazz archivist Gary Alderman presents films about innovators of modern jazz, including the only two known existing videos with sound of Parker. Alicia Ashman Library, Feb. 3, 7 p.m. and Goodman South Library, April 11, 6 p.m. Admission: Free.

The Life and Music of Charlie Parker. UW-Madison saxophone professor Les Thimmig talks about Parker’s life and music, as well as the history of bebop. DeForest Area Public Library, Feb. 13, 6:30 p.m.; Alicia Ashman Library, Feb. 24, 7 p.m.; Fitchburg Public Library, Feb. 26, 2 p.m.; Oregon Public Library, March 10, 6:30 p.m. Admission: Free.