‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ Ties Jazz and Opera Together in Philadelphia – NYTimes.com
‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ Ties Jazz and Opera Together in Philadelphia – NYTimes.com
‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ Ties Jazz and Opera Together in Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA — On a recent morning in a rehearsal room behind the Academy of Music here, the tenor Lawrence Brownlee practiced a tricky passage at the piano. The melodic profile of his vocal line zigzagged and spiked like an erratic electrocardiogram, but what gave Mr. Brownlee the most trouble was the text.
The composer had left it up to him to match syllables to the notes. But how best to render, say, a rising triplet followed by a longer high note? Was it ba-nda-doo-BAH? Or ba-nda-doo-WEE?
Mr. Brownlee, a rising bel canto star on the international opera circuit known for his nimble coloratura and buttery legato, is learning to scat. On June 5, Opera Philadelphia presents the world premiere of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” by the composer Daniel Schnyder, with a libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly. Mr. Brownlee stars as the brilliant jazz saxophonist and bebop legend best known by his nickname, Bird.
“I’ve been watching scat masters on YouTube,” Mr. Brownlee said during a break in rehearsals. “A singer like Ella Fitzgerald was able to use her voice like an instrument, and she knew exactly what vowels or syllables worked best for any given note. One of the challenges of this opera is to learn to think like an instrumentalist.”
Opera Philadelphia has much riding on this world premiere, its first since it unveiled Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Hero” during the company’s inaugural season 40 years ago. “Yardbird,” commissioned in partnership with New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera (which will produce it next season at the Apollo Theater), signals a wider shift toward more new music, co-commissions and a general willingness to take risks on unorthodox subjects and genres. Philadelphia’s last season featured the American premiere of Ana Sokolovic’s “Svadba,” a raucous Balkan wedding ritual; October will bring a “Popera” about Andy Warhol, mixing elements of cabaret and opera.
The mix of musical styles is especially risky in “Yardbird,” since it offers a portrait of a historical figure from the world of jazz, many of whose tunes have become iconic. But in an interview near his home in Harlem, Mr. Schnyder, a Swiss-born saxophonist and composer of sophisticated scores blending classical and jazz traditions, said he sees it as an opportunity to integrate “the Afro-American musical language that was developed in the 1920s and went on to change the world” into an operatic context.
So while there are occasional direct quotes — including the saxophone riffs Mr. Brownlee will render through scatting — they are woven into a classically rooted score that is very much Mr. Schnyder’s.
“You can’t use Charlie Parker’s music one to one,” he said. “That’s not playable with a classical orchestra, and it’s not going to sound right. But his language is made out of small motifs that return again and again — a bit like Mozart’s. If you use small things out of that language, you can use it also in an opera in a way that’s going to be recognized.”
The stylistic balancing act is also written into the libretto. Ms. Wimberly conceived the opera as a ghost story, taking as her point of departure Parker’s death, at the age of 34, from a heart attack related to alcoholism and heroin abuse.
Parker died on March 12, 1955, in the hotel suite of his wealthy patron Baroness Pannonica De Koenigswarter (in Philadelphia, the mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford), but the world didn’t learn of his death for another 48 hours. The baroness had trouble locating Parker’s wife, Chan, and in the morgue, his corpse was initially mislabeled: “They put the wrong name on his toe,” Ms. Wimberly said in a phone interview.
The opera takes place during those 48 hours, with Parker in a kind of purgatory. As the clock runs down, he sets out to write out some of the music he never had a chance to make in life — including working with instruments from the classical orchestra.
Parker’s interest in the classical music of his time is well documented: He once surprised Stravinsky, in the audience at Birdland, by quoting music from his ballet “The Firebird.” And he was interested in Varèse’s work developing a new sonic palette.
“He really wanted to explore different sounds,” Mr. Schnyder said, adding that Parker had voiced a desire to travel to Europe and study composition and had mentioned to friends that he wanted to write music for larger ensembles.
In life, Parker’s ambitions were frustrated by pervasive racism and segregation. In the opera, a succession of characters — his mother, his wives, his bebop partner Dizzy Gillespie — barge in and force him to re-examine his past.
Ms. Wimberly said she wanted to avoid the “tragic” label that is often attached to Parker. “Some people lived three times longer than Charlie Parker did,” she said, “but look what he did with the short time he had.”
But she, too, had to overcome her preconceptions of Parker, formed at her grandmother’s kitchen table. Ms. Wimberly’s uncle, Marcus Smith, was also a jazz saxophonist and obsessed with Parker, who was 14 years his senior. Like many jazz musicians at the time, Smith began using heroin, a drug many associated with Parker’s virtuosity and improvisational genius, and he died at 35.
“My grandmother hated Charlie Parker because she thought he got my uncle hooked on heroin,” Ms. Wimberly said. “All my life, he was just a bad name.”
Mr. Brownlee, a committed teetotaler, said that playing the role of a junkie was a new challenge. “I’ve never been under the influence of anything,” he said. “I’ve never drunk any alcohol — not even beer or wine — or used cigarettes, or drugs. So portraying something that has an instant effect on you is a challenge. But walking down the street in the center of Philadelphia, I see people who have obvious addictions and I’ve been studying these people to see the effect drugs can have.”
Above all, Mr. Brownlee said, he is trying to flesh out Parker’s character as the product of his time: “Growing up in the South prior to the civil rights movement, all the hardship he dealt with, riding on the back of trains with the rats and garbage and not being treated as a human — I try to show the effect this had on him.”
As for the music, Mr. Brownlee has a wide range of experiences to draw on. (And, in fact, he has to scat very little; many of his lines in the opera are smoothly lyrical.) He grew up singing gospel in church choirs and played trumpet, piano and drums. In his early 20s, he was the bass guitarist in a band that played Nine Inch Nails covers at the Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio.
And, he says, singing Rossini is actually not that far removed from jazz. “There’s a little bit of swing,” he said. “Even if it is written out, it has to have the idea and feel of being improvised.”
But Mr. Schnyder said too few classically trained musicians are stylistically versed in jazz. “The Afro-American heritage is not taught at conservatory,” he said. “When people confront it they don’t know how to deal with it. The result usually is corny. It’s like someone pronouncing everything wrong.”
His work with Opera Philadelphia’s chamber orchestra seems to have done little to dispel this view.
“It’s not about rhythmic challenges,” he said of his efforts to communicate stylistic nuances to the players. “It’s how to play the music right. If you have four eighth notes, classical musicians play them as written: ta-ta-ta-ta. Jazz musicians would play them as da-ba-du-BA! The second one is a little bit softer than the other ones, the last one a little bit shorter: You have to know that.”
He is fortunate in having the company’s music director, Corrado Rovaris, as an ally in the pit. It was Mr. Rovaris who connected Mr. Schnyder, whose music he had heard while conducting in Switzerland, with Mr. Brownlee. He appreciated the “dancing attitude” he detected in Mr. Schnyder’s music. And he happened to know of Mr. Brownlee’s prowess as a salsa dancer.
“I thought they would be a perfect match,” Mr. Rovaris said.
As for the musical world portrayed in “Yardbird,” Mr. Rovaris feels right at home: As a teenager, he played piano in a jazz quartet, performing during the summers in Sardinia. When he subsequently turned his focus to the classical scene as a harpsichord player performing Baroque music, he said: “It was very similar, and I had a lot of fun. I think that Baroque music is more related to jazz than the next two centuries of classical music, because you have changes of rhythm and improvisation.”
And, he added, just as in Mr. Schnyder’s da-ba-du-BA! example, within any group of equally notated notes, “there is the good note and the bad note.” Merging the worlds of jazz and classical music, Mr. Rovaris added, is something “I’ve been waiting to do for a long time.”
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