‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ at Seattle Opera offers an unlikely mashup of jazz and opera. How well does it work?
Feb. 25, 2020 at 6:00 am Updated Feb. 25, 2020 at 1:00 pm
Seattle Times features reporter
Outside McCaw Hall, a lone saxophone player serenades arrivals with jazzy tunes. Inside, well-placed display boards boast of “Jazz’s Black History,” “Cultural Appropriation in Jazz” and the roots of jazz legend Charlie Parker’s musical genius.
This careful presentation eases concerns about the unlikely mashup of jazz and opera in Seattle Opera’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.” Suddenly, an opera house seems as likely a place as any to see a musical rendition of the life of one of the originators of bebop.
The basis for the opera is Parker’s own unrealized dream of composing an opera that incorporates jazz and classical elements. Librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly gives Parker the chance to realize these dreams by setting the story in a kind of limbo at the famous jazz bar Birdland, where Parker was a frequent headliner.
The celebrated musician sets out to compose his great masterwork post-mortem as he looks back at his life through the eyes of the women he loved and who loved him.
Telling the story of a jazz legend on stage through opera and classical music is an ambitious, and unexpected, undertaking. Yet with a talented cast, an intriguing premise, a composer — Daniel Schnyder — with a strong background in both jazz and classical music, and a librettist who has a family connection to Parker and a background as a poet, “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” is certainly poised to deliver on its ambition. However, not all of these elements come together well.
On Saturday night, the orchestra was excellent playing the dazzling score with references to jazz classics. The libretto features strong lyrics like in “Calvary,” in which Parker’s mother, Addie, poetically laments “This land ain’t no place for a Black man child, got dreams.”
At times, the singers seem rhythmically disconnected from the score, which bounces between jazzy quotes and more classical tones. However, Joshua Stewart as Parker (Stewart alternates in the role with Frederick Ballentine) masterfully navigates the challenging score, adapting with jazzier vocals or powerful vibratos.
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As Parker’s contemporary and friend Dizzy Gillespie, Jorell Williams steals the show with his easy charm and stunning vocals that cut through the music that often overpowers the voices of other cast members. During an overpopulated and conflict-burdened funeral scene that otherwise leaves one unmoved, Williams’ “Farewell” is beautifully delivered and draws one back into the gravity of the scene.
Although the set changes minimally during the 90-minute opera, its design is brilliant in its simplicity and works beautifully with the lighting to highlight the many different moods and scenarios that the opera moves through.
When taken a la carte, nearly every independent element of the opera is enchanting. However, the opera as a whole lacks cohesion and suffers from a lack of context and a dizzyingly rapid pace that can leave all but the most ardent jazz fans and Parker enthusiasts confused and lost.
Without the context of specific moments in Parker’s biography, many finer points of the opera will be lost on many patrons. For example, when an actor drops a large cymbal onto the stage, it represents the moment when a teenage Parker attended a jam session in which Jo Jones, the drummer for the Count Basie Orchestra, threw a cymbal at Parker’s feet when the young Parker couldn’t keep up. Without that knowledge, the cymbal-ism (ahem) would be lost on most casual observers.
At times, the come-and-go of characters on the set makes the story feel more like a series of loosely related vignettes than a cohesive narrative. Parker marches off the stage after an aria invoking the evils of segregation and lynching, then Addie Parker takes the stage to sing about her pride in her son’s success. Then suddenly Charlie Parker is back on stage, distressed and in his underwear, as his lover Nica tells him that his daughter (who has not previously been mentioned) is dead.
These abrupt transitions can leave the audience emotionally disconnected and maybe even confused at a moment when one would hope to feel the wrenching pain of what Parker is enduring.
That said, the beautifully simple set, lighting and staging for the scene that comes afterward, in which Parker is committed to a mental health institution, slows the pace as principal dancer Mikhail Calliste delivers a powerful performance. (That’s right, there’s dance in this opera, too!)
By the last aria, Parker is alone on an empty stage, singing lines from Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” over a minimal score as he walks off into heaven. The simple beauty of this last scene is a relief from all the competing ambitious elements of the opera.
That relief is underscored as we leave the auditorium for the lobby where a jazz ensemble plays Parker’s works, unobscured.
There’s no doubting the talent at work in Seattle Opera’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” but more than anything, it made me want to rush home and put on one of the albums of the Yardbird himself to enjoy, without all the extras.
“Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” music by Daniel Schnyder, libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly. Through March 7; Seattle Opera at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets start at $61; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org
This review has been updated to omit mention of specific albums that may have been referenced in the score.
Crystal Paul: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter: @cplhouse. Crystal Paul is a features reporter at The Seattle Times. She is interested in stories about the people, places and histories that capture the soul of their communities.
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