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CHARLIE PARKER'S 'YARDBIRD' TO RECEIVE WORLD PREMIERE IN JUNE 

 


By Culturekiosque Staff

NEW YORK, 22 APRIL 2015

"They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art."

— Charlie Parker

The American jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920 -1955), best known as "Bird" (short for "Yardbird"), was one of the most influential soloists in the history of jazz and a central figure in the development of bebop. The Grammy Award-winning jazz legend is the subject of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, the first world premiere in almost four decades for Opera Philadelphia, recognized by Opera News as "one of the leading instigators of new work in the country." The new chamber opera was created for American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a nominee for the 2015 International Opera Male Singer of the Year Award, by composer Daniel Schnyder, whose "thrilling classical-tinged jazz blend … constantly pushes the envelope" (Jazz Times), to a libretto by award-winning poet and playwright Bridgette Wimberly. Directed by Ron Daniels under the leadership of Music Director Corrado Rovaris, Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD premieres in Opera Philadelphia’s Aurora Series for Chamber Opera, crowning the company’s 40th Anniversary Season with a five-performance run in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater (5 - 14 June 2015). 

Co-commissioned and co-produced with Gotham Chamber Opera, Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD was conceived and written for Lawrence Brownlee’s agile, expressive voice, which Schnyder likens to the color and technical virtuosity of Parker’s music-making. As the New York Times notes, the tenor "soars easily up to ringing top notes, high Cs and even higher. Mr. Brownlee’s singing is a model of bel canto style." "Taking on this role is a challenge that I have greatly enjoyed. It is a step outside of the Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini roles that I have been singing for many years," the tenor explains. "I am a great appreciator of jazz, gospel, classical, R&B, and Latin music, and I think this opera has elements of all of those genres of music. Some of the riffs that are associated with Charlie’s jazz virtuosity are reflected in Daniel’s music. Charlie’s life was filled with hardships and trials as well as successes, and I think this opera will bring people an even greater appreciation for the man behind the music that we all love so much." 

"Since launching the American Repertoire Program in 2012, Opera Philadelphia has been committed to supporting composers who are telling American stories, and in Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD we chronicle an iconic musician whose triumphs and tragedies are truly operatic," says David B. Devan, General Director and President of Opera Philadelphia. "Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette Wimberly have crafted a work that captures Charlie Parker’s complex musical genius and troubled life in an engaging an honest way. We are honored to bring together a diverse group of artists, some of whom are new to opera, to create a work that will expand the boundaries of operatic music through the influence and infusion of Parker’s music." 

Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD owes its inception to Corrado Rovaris, Opera Philadelphia’s Jack Mulroney Music Director, who first met Schnyder in 2011. "I was taken with his compositional style," explains Rovaris, at whose suggestion the composer embraced the idea of writing for Brownlee. "When Daniel listened to Lawrence Brownlee, he immediately likened the color of his voice, the virtuosity of his singing, and his technical command to that of Charlie Parker. Thus, the idea for the opera was born." 

Set in New York City on 12 March 1955, the day Parker died, Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD invites its audience directly into the mind and heart of a musical genius. In the twilight between the here and the hereafter, Parker sets out to write his last great musical work. The famed New York City jazz club Birdland becomes his personal limbo, where he revisits the inspirations, demons, and women who fueled his creativity. In an illuminating preview video, librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly explains: "It’s inspirational, and it’s moving, and it’s colorful, and it’s strong, and it’s American." Hailed by the New York Times as "one of the country’s most powerful chroniclers of the black underclass," Wimberly made her off-Broadway debut to sold-out houses in 2001 at the Women’s Project, with the first of her eight plays, Saint Lucy’s Eyes, starring Ruby Dee.

Composer and performer Daniel Schnyder has won renown in both the classical and jazz fields. An accomplished saxophonist, he has toured Europe and Australia with his trio, playing the music of Gershwin, Bach, Vivaldi, Wagner and Ellington in addition to his own compositions, which bridge the realms of classical, jazz, and world music. His output includes orchestral variations on themes by such non-classical music icons as Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones, and he designs programs for orchestras outside the mainstream concert format, as played by the Calgary Symphony, the Absolute Ensemble, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. 

Under the direction of Ron Daniels, who brings to the project his extensive experience in multiple genres including opera, theater and film, Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD costars soprano Angela Brown as Parker’s mother, Addie. Familiar from her leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera and her touring recital, Opera…from a Sistah’s Point of View, Brown has a long association with Opera Philadelphia, having performed the role of Cilla in the East Coast Premiere of Margaret Garner, the title roles in Aida and Ariadne auf Naxos, and the female leads in Don Carlo, Il Trovatore, and Porgy and Bess. "I hope that people will learn something about Charlie Parker, and be both inspired and entertained by YARDBIRD," Brown says. "Having operas that represent African-American subjects is very important, because we helped build this country."

Praised by Opera News for his "noble sound and bearing," baritone Will Liverman, a member of Opera Philadelphia’s Emerging Artists Program, creates the role of jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, with mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, who impressed the Wall Street Journal with her "rich tone, incisive phrasing and focused, highly physical acting," portraying Parker’s longtime friend and patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, in whose apartment the legendary jazzmaster died. 

To complement the world premiere production of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, Opera Philadelphia is offering a trio of enrichment events at community locations around the city: a screening of Clint Eastwood’s movie BIRD (1988), starring Forest Whitaker in the role that won him the Cannes Film Festival’s award for best actor (8 April,  Philadelphia Clef Club); a free preview titled A TASTE OF OPERA: Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD (15 May, Philadelphia Museum of Art); and In Recital: Lawrence Brownlee and Damien Sneed, a program of original spiritual arrangements drawn from the tenor’s 2013 album Spiritual Sketches, at the National Historic Landmark where Marian Anderson sang as a child (8 June, Union Baptist Church, Philadelphia).

Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program has already resulted in such success stories as the East Coast premieres of Kevin Puts’s Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, and Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt, an Opera Philadelphia co-commission starring Frederica von Stade, as well as a production of Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters that built upon the success of its New York premiere. The new commission of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD reflects the company’s commitment to programming works relevant to the multicultural Philadelphia community, and to broadening and diversifying opera’s audience; as radio station WRTI-FM observes, Opera Philadelphia "is clearly not your father’s opera. It’s actually more like your hipster nephew’s opera."

Headline image: Lawrence Brownlee as Charlie Parker
Photo: Dominic M. Mercier

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