All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Daniel Schnyder’s score for his and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly’s view of jazz great Charlie Parker in their opera, “Yardbird,” doesn’t quite have the bee-bop Parker and his contemporaries made the vogue of the early 1950s, but it suggests it. There’s a smooth chilliness, just enough of the right tinge of a 52nd Street club, that pays homage while staying on a line that invites once to sing over it.
Schnyder’s music will continue to be the highlight of “Yardbird,” and Rovaris and his orchestra sound as if they are enjoying their break from classics to play it. Why not? The lushness is there, only in a different idiom. While watching “Yardbird” and listening to Wimberly’s script, you’ll find yourself attracted to the instrumental scoring even though Lawrence Brownlee, who plays Parker, and the entire cast of “Yardbird” rate your attention and admiration. Particularly gratifying is the singing and overall performance of Rachel Sterrenberg, a recent graduate of the Curtis Institute for her work as Parker’s last of four wives, Chan.
Sterrenberg was impressive throughout her tenure at Curtis, her lead in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” being particular memorable, and it is a pleasure to see her shine on the Opera Philadelphia stage in a significant role.
As Schnyder is aptly introducing the world of Charlie Parker, and Scott Zielinski’s lighting takes you a closed Birdland that seems to have the cigarette smoke and evaporated ice from drinks lingering from the previous night, Brownlee’s Parker enters, as if to prepare for a comeback, an unscheduled comeback to the club that he made famous, that was named for him, but from which he had been banned a few months earlier as his drug habit spiraled out of control.
Brownlee, carrying a case that holds Parker’s tenor sax and a score the musician is, for once, committing to paper prior to improvisation, takes his place at a table and then stuns us a bit.
Drums, more insistent than emphatic, and intermittent horns and reeds, continue to punctuate at a pulsating rate, then the vocal line comes and 21st century opera, held over in this case from the late 20th century, infuses Philadelphia’s Perelman Theater in a way that smacks too much of opera.
“Too much of opera, you say? But ‘Yardbird is an opera, conceived by opera composers, produced by an opera company, and featuring opera singers! What did you want, Nat Cole starting off with some off-the-head scat and crooning Parker’s sentiments in a jazz or pop music style? Grow up, Zoren. Know where you are!”
That would have been nice, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.
Nor were Schnyder’s vocal line or Wimberly’s lyrics.
They smacked, unlike Charlie Parker’s music, of refrains you heard before. And not fondly.
As Brownlee’ Parker intones he is back home, at Birdland, and about to perform because the public and other musicians will clamor for him no matter what management pulls, he does so in a series long, lugubrious notes that connote lament and make Parker’s case clearly but seem out of keeping with Parker’s music and the Schnyder’s instrumental score as being conducted by Rovaris.
Each note, each word, is extended almost beyond tolerance. The vocal has no melody. And, yes, sentences or thoughts end on an off-note, Brownlee going sharp or flat as Schnyder determines but always seeming to lapse into the contemporary cliché for vocals.
Worse than the droning, plaintive song, which Brownlee performs beautifully in spite of its lack of originality and tedium — How often have you associated those words with Charlie Parker? — are the simplicity of Wimberly’s libretto which attempts poetry but doesn’t quite accomplish it and even becomes clumsy in its imagery.
The vocal becomes hypnotizing, as opposed to mesmerizing, and you take retreat in the better, more satisfying, more creative and entertaining music concertmaster Luigi Mazzocchi and Rovaris’s orchestra is playing while checking the supertitles to see if there’s anything of consequence you missed.
Not bloody likely that. Brownlee’s singing is clear and doesn’t need titles to inform or confirm what he is telling us. You can listen to Brownlee while concentrating on Mazzocchi and the band and miss nothing of the play Wimberly is setting up via her words. The odd part is the two musical parts, vocal and instrumental, both by Schnyder, register as separate, the latter receiving high marks while the former makes you yearn for variation. A quarter note, or even a half note, would be welcome. If Brownlee was auditioning using an opening passage from “Yardbird,” the eight bars he gets to prove his mettle might consist of one sustained note.
At least that’s the impression.
Meanwhile Brownlee, who is excellent throughout, established Parker has returned, unbidden to Birdland, to redeem himself, perform by popular and colleague demand, and to write his own magnum opus, a jazz score that will establish him as a great structural composer in addition to being an improvisational genius.
Interest and tempo pick up when Tamara Mumford enters as the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, handily known as “Nica.”
In actual life, Parker dies from a stroke in Nica’s apartment at New York’s Stanhope Hotel as the socialite, descended from the Rothschilds, panics because the Stanhope is a segregated hotel and Parker is living there as her paramour. Scandal looms of all sides.
Wimberly mentions but skirts that scandal. The tawdry doesn’t interested her. “Yardbird” goes more into the individual intimacy Parker shared with the women in his life, his mother, three wives, and Nica, than it does to details about Parker’s infidelities and bouts with the law. None of this information is omitted, but the relationship with Parker’s wives is the focus of Wimberly’s story and dominate her libretto.
When Nica appears, the vocal line remains an unmelodic hum for a period, then breaks into a livelier, more ragged, contrapuntal riff between Parker and his society benefactor, who claims to have scoured Manhattan to find Parker so she can inform his wife, Chan, of his death and begin more formal obsequies.
In truth, Parker’s lifeless body was whisked out of the Stanhope and taken to a morgue where it remained for five days, with the wrong name on its toe tag, until someone could identify and claim it while Nica fled New York and any immediately controversy, including eviction from the Stanhope which Wimberly mentions.
The revelation in “Yardbird,” though broadly hinted from the start, is Parker is dead, and the parade of three of his four wives, is showed in retrospect just as his musical ambitions become his reverie, his dream.
Once Mumford’s Nica appears, looking elegant in a red dress and long mink, Wimberly’s libretto takes on more interest. It never fascinates but it hold us for the last 80 of “Yardbird’s” 90 minutes in greater thrall than in the first ten.
The arrival of characters exponentially raises your curiosity as you watch “Yardbird.” All of the women in Parker’s life have had to cope with his addictions and temperament, but Wimberly shows they all maintain a bond with him and feel sadness at his passing.
Schnyder’s vocal line expands as the Perelman stage becomes more populated. Some jazz passages manage to mingle with the 21st century atonal, giving the overall score more richness. The vocal line never catches up with the orchestral line for variety, quality, or ingenuity.
Throughout “Yardbird,” it isn’t so much what people say that matters, or how interesting the music is by which they say it. Schnyder and Wimberly have written an opera about relationships, and stage director Ron Daniels has presented it in a kind of panorama that has the darkened Birdland — the original one from 52nd and Broadway, not the current Birdland at 44th and 8th — serve as a lot of places in Parker’s memory, even a mental hospital where he was confined in Camarillo, California in the late ’40s after possession of heroin led to an arrest in Los Angeles.
Each wife has her tale tell, and each captures our attention with what she has to say, although none of Parker’s lovers ekes the sympathy or elicits the emotion Angela Brown evokes as Parker’s mother, Addie, who has to keep Kansas City neighbors from shushing a teenage Charlie as he plays his music, more standard than jazz, at night and who stands her ground about a religious service and a Missouri burial at the end.
Because Wimberly keeps everything on a cerebral level, Daniels has to work to create sequences or images that might trigger emotion. One could argue Parker’s music was also cerebral, but that stance wouldn’t hold because so much goes into his compositions, and he has such fun with music, the variety and scope of his work supersedes any mood or tight definition.
Daniels provides drama in a grand way when he depicts the Camarillo asylum where patients wander in strait jackets and exist in a kind of perpetual stupor while enduring inane discipline. He takes a middle ground as you see a character enter in a wheel chair and realize he is Parker’s drug supplier. He supplies a more moving, quiet touch when he has Chrystal Williams enter as Parker’s first wife, Rebecca, un-self-consciously holding a stuffed rabbit by the tip of one hand, as if to represented Parker’s children.
(I was a little confused by this, or perhaps am having an image lapse as I write, because all but one of Parker’s children was borne by Chan Berg, and together, they suffered the loss of one child, Pree, to cystic fibrosis when Pree was age two. Pree is mentioned, but which wife did or said what is muddled in my memory. Charlie and Chan’s son, Baird, at one time lived in the Philadelphia area and may continue to do so.)
Mea culpa for not being able to pinpoint — I picture a the doll in black fingertips, and only Williams’s Rebecca is black, and I picture the person carrying the doll in a plainer dress from the one Sterrenberg wore as Chan — whichever wife carried the doll, it was affecting and added a sentimental note “Yardbird” craved.
I was focused on how each of the women sang, and each of them did a wonderful job presenting her character’s life with Charlie Parker.
Rachel Sterrenberg brought an air of class and sophisticated to Chan Parker. She represents Parker’s mature choice in a woman and the women who will accept Charlie after his drug use and alcoholism has led to institutionalization and health problems that signal drama and an early death.
Behind Chan’s veneer, Sterrenberg conveys Chan’s love for Charlie and her willingness to live with his self-destructive habits. Chan is aware of Charlie’s friendship with Nica but is willing to acknowledge the problem and humiliations she faces to enjoy the best Parker has to offer and his continuing artistry.
Angela Mortellaro is more accusing as Doris, officially Parker’s widow since they never divorced, and Parker could never marry Chan although he refers to her as his wife. Mortellaro gives Doris a solidity that colors her life with Parker as sad, a period of personal decline and squandering of advantages if not of musical diminishment.
As I come to Chrystal Williams’s Rebecca, I hear her singing with anger and toughness about how Parker abandoned her and their son. (So it was Williams holding the child’s toy!) Rebecca is with Parker in younger days, and her reminiscences are not a forgiving or as ameliorated by affection or awe for talent as Doris’s and Chan’s are.
You can see the way a portrait is unfolding, the later wives from a stormier period being able to cope more with difficult times because their expectations were lower, their romance included more admiration or Parker’s talent, and they had more established lives of their own, experiences that put Parker in more perspective than Rebecca could.
Wimberly neither flays nor praises Parker. She may be too removed as she weaves details from his life into a story that is actually Parker’s imagined review of his life following his inevitable, but sudden, death. In Wimberly’s hands, you see neither a troubled genius or a man who brooked no restrictions and lived on his own terms, unwise and destructive or not. As well as Brownlee performs, your impression of Parker is like Schnyder’s vocal line, objective and matter-of-fact without risking a point of view.
This Parker is saint and sinner. He’s musician and addict. He’s unfaithful scoundrel and valued partner. The contradictions prevail, and neither Wimberly nor Schnyder make the effort to sort them out. Rather, they made the decision to create an impression, keep matters vague, and leave any judgment of Parker to individual audience members.
That’s not a bad or lazy choice. It says the composers weren’t interested in assessing Parker’ life but in revealing it by presenting facts in a fantasy, or fictitious, setting.
Jazz is represented by Dizzy Gillespie, who lauds Parker as a great colleague and wonderful inventor of music. Will Liverman sings and portrays Gillespie appealingly.
The great achievement in “Yardbird” may be the one under the surface. Daniel Schnyder’s score for his opera may be six times longer than anything Parker ever performed, his riffs usually cooling down at 15 minutes tops. In that score, you hear a panoply of jazz styles and tunes, bebop sneaking in occasionally more than being featured, and never, for one minute, being more than highlighted.
Sacrilegious as it may be to say it, I would love to hear Schnyder’s music without “Yardbird’s” vocals. Of the three-ring circus opera today makes of music, singing, and referring to supertitles, I derived the most rewards and had the best time when I tuned out what was happening on stage — after getting the point of a sequence and realizing lines and tunes were repeating — and concentrated completely on Rovaris and Schnyder’s music.
I was taken with the composer’s variety and versatility. Schnyder has a gift for blending periods and genres within jazz. His score progresses entertaining. Using his own voice, and not Parker’s or Gillespie’s, he celebrates what is best about jazz, the freedom it gives its composer or improviser to explore, borrow, enhance, and fuse into something that engages.
Schnyder’s instrumental score was not as war with the vocal line. It served as fitting background for what was being sung. The instrumental surpasses the vocal by its inventiveness, wit, and variety. The art and fun of jazz are inherent in it, just as the discipline of the classical idioms can be heard. The background beats the foreground in “Yardbird,” and that’s one of the more difficult differences to reconcile.
Wimberly’s book never gets past the prosaic, and that may be for the best because it is the most successful when it straightforward and goes a bit awry when Wimberly aims for heightened language or fancy. While the libretto ranges into many topics and themes, it is most successful when it centers on Parker and his relationships with his wives and mother.
Angela Brown is strong, moving, and loving as Parker’s mother, a woman who would like to coddle her son but knows when it’s time for him to leave home and when to reclaim him.
Brown is totally realistic as Addie whereas all of the wives, especially Chan, have to show some kind of style or showier sides of her personality.
Scott Zielinski’s lighting always helps Ron Daniels maintain the right mood and tone and often enhances the drama of an situation. Riccardo Hernandez’s set is versatile, especially when it turns into a hospital with uniformed police at the corners, Nurse Ratched lurking arounds, and patients in various stages of flake. The columns that spell out Birdland and feature entertainers pictured in the cut-out letters — Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington — are as decorative and as interesting as they are authentic and framing.
“Yardbird” runs through Sunday, June 14 at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are sold out for the entire run. Tickets ranged between $300 and $200.