Charlie Parker's Yardbird
On February 22, 2020, the Seattle Opera debuted Charlie Parker's Yardbird. While I have been an avid theater fan since a pre-teen, I am surprised to realize that this was the first full opera I have ever seen. I feel I must disclose this because it so heavily informs my opinion. But if this art form is to survive, it needs to continue finding new audiences. From that angle, I am the target audience of this original piece created in 2015 for the Opera Philadelphia by Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder and American Librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly.
The storyline plays with time, jumping between moments in the life of Charlie Parker, King of the Saxophone. The stories of those moments are told through the eyes of the prominent women in his life. The feminine lens these stories are told through highlights Parker's failures and sickness rather than celebrates his music. Characters are flat and one-dimensional, given little chance for development in this structure of vignettes.
I didn't know what to expect from an opera -- much less one based on an American jazz legend. But one glaringly obvious omission was what this opera celebrates -- Parker’s contributions to jazz and bebop. Perhaps a better-trained ear than my own would be able to wade through the cacophony of the score and appreciate the marriage of classical and jazz, but the result for me was tense, manic music for too much of the show, leaving me mildly anxious and uncomfortable during moments which should have been tender or touching.
That's not to say this piece does not have triumphs. The orchestra performed deftly under conductor Kelly Kuo. I just didn't happen to want to like what was written on the page in front of them. The singers were masterful in creating melodic line with vocal character and beauty. It just didn't necessarily always fit with what the orchestra played. More often than not I felt a wild disconnect between vocals and orchestra, somewhat reminiscent of jazz musicians like John Coltrane, whose later pieces were often purposefully chaotic and disjointed, lacking in melody and structure. Perhaps this marriage of jazz and classical is simply one I do not have the musical maturity it takes to enjoy. Perhaps it means the marriage is contrived, and the two were never meant to be.
Due credit must be given to Joshua Stewart's performance of Charlie Parker. I’m sure it was zero percent accurate, considering the mannerisms and vernacular of jazz musicians of the time, but suspending disbelief I enjoyed his performance. Stewart remained on stage for 92.5 minutes of this 93-minute intermission-less show. He made it look easy, and his vocals sustained throughout the entire show. If Stewart was ever fatigued, his voice did not betray so. A solid performer, Stewart is the anchor of this show.
Jorell Williams plays trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie so masterfully it seems the part that was written for him. The energy Williams brings on stage is electric. The chemistry between Stewart and Williams is magnetic and elevates Stewart's already apt performance. Their duet "Bebop's Gonna Change the World" came closest to audibly honoring Charlie Parker's contribution to the genre. Jorell brought the cool, and the music followed him. This debut performance at the Seattle Opera is no doubt the first of many.
Established Soprano Angela Brown plays the role of Charlie's mother, Addie Parker. Her professional performance and perfected technique did not mask the richness of soul and depth of passion that resides at the core of her talent. Miss Brown’s performance makes it clear that the stage was always her destiny. With a plethora of vocal styles to pursue, opera owes Miss Brown a debt of gratitude as she inspires the new generation opera fans and performers to keep the genre alive.
The piece de resistance in this performance of Yardbird belongs to Donald Byrd and Mikhail Calliste, choreographer and principle dancer, respectively. Byrd constructs a modern dance, capturing the violence and sickness of a heroin withdrawal with staccato movements, and takes us on a journey of healing as Parker sobers up in a mental hospital. Byrd's vision is captured and performed masterfully by Calliste, whose passion and skill captivates, mesmerizes, and then releases. Byrd can be nothing less than elated at the prodigy’s performance, which alone is worth enduring the whole show. The piece's accompanying vocals by Jennifer Cross only served to lift the emotion, finally providing that feeling of losing myself to the muse. Miss Cross' exceptional vocal performance was the cause of titters from surrounding theater-goers, and a topic of conversation post-performance amongst my viewing guests.
Upon curtain call applause was verdant for all performances, but the audience erupted upon the appearance of Mr. Mikhail Calliste, the obvious breakout star. He received the first wave of well-deserved standing ovations, which continued sporadically for the remaining cast, who performed first-rate despite the little they were given to work with.
While Yardbird may fail to make the charts of history, it is a noble effort, only quelled by the constraints of expectations. If opera is to live, it must evolve. And in the evolution, risks must be taken. Not every risk will pay off, but lessons will be learned. While I hoped for a fusion of both jazz and opera out of this performance, I understand that it can't be easy to preserve the tradition of opera while reaching to incorporate the inevitable progress of society.
In a way, the struggle to find balance is the story of jazz. And jazz is the story of America. It's the marriage of different cultures, different generations, different ideas, which come together to create something altogether original, yet familiar enough to feel safe. But much like the traditional idea of what it means to be American must yield to the progress of the new generations, I suspect this search for a new balance in opera is the birth of what will become a new art form, a sort of neo-opera, different enough to be something new, but familiar enough to still be called opera.
While I didn't love Charlie Parker's Yardbird, it did not discourage me from continuing my own evolution as a theater fan. I look forward to the Seattle Opera's upcoming performance of La Boheme, coming this spring.
Performers to watch: Mikhail Calliste & Jorell Williams