SIXTY years after his death, Charlie Parker's status as a jazz alto saxophonist supreme remains one of American music's most enigmatic legacies. Plagued by drug abuse, racism, the compulsive need for female guidance and the burden of musical genius, the man known as "Yardbird" - or simply "Bird" - lived a brief life filled with passion, tragedy and unforgettable characters: the core ingredients of opera.
"Yardbird," Opera Philadelphia's first world premiere since its first season 40 years ago, is told in flashbacks after Parker's death at only 34, in 1955. It's set in Birdland, the famous New York jazz mecca named after him (and which once kicked him out).
Parker's nickname may derive from southern slang for his favorite food, chicken, or from his high-flying bebop solos and their astonishing harmonic imagination. Some of the soaring flights he recorded, even while stoned or drunk at some of the famed Dial or Savoy sessions, are still analyzed with awe at jazz conservatories.
Still, "Yardbird" is "not a jazz opera," said Daniel Schnyder, who scored the one-act opera for 15 players. "It's made for classical singers and musicians, challenging and unusually hard because it's about a virtuoso. He studied Stravinsky and heard orchestral colors without losing the rhythm, always dreaming of composing for large orchestra. But he still changed the world of music."
"Yardbird" the opera boasts a dream cast and ideal creators, representing a highlight in the opera company's innovative history. Its gestation began four years ago in Lausanne, Switzerland, after company music director and conductor Corrado Rovaris (in his early days a jazz-quartet pianist at a ritzy Sardinian resort) saw the Swiss-born Schnyder, a saxophonist, perform.
"Daniel's works showed a strong classical background, and he also played saxophone with a natural jazz color," said Rovaris. "I suggested his writing an opera for Larry [renowned tenor Lawrence Brownlee], and when they met, Daniel immediately said, 'He's Charlie Parker!' "
Rovaris added, "I have a long history with Larry, because I auditioned him at La Scala for 'The Italian Girl in Algiers' [which has become one of Brownlee's signature operas], and gave him a contract."
Since then, Brownlee has sung here in several operas.
Librettist Bridgette Wimberly, an award-winning poet and playwright, was suggested to Schnyder by her percussionist brother, Michael Wimberly, who has performed with Schnyder.
"My mother's twin brother was an alto saxophonist," said Bridgette Wimberly, "and my grandmother felt that when he became a heroin user, it was Charlie Parker's fault! But my research about Parker moved me to the core, and I realized how much of his life was shaped by women. The story's not chronological, but about his never-realized musical aspirations and how he influenced future generations.
"Two years ago, actors read through my original libretto and, with suggestions from Daniel and director Ron Daniels, I tightened it up. . . . I gave more voice to his loving mother, Addie, [to] Baroness Nica, whose apartment he was in when he died, and his four wives, and then Daniel began composing."
Knowing his mastery of the bel canto style, Schnyder actually used a few of Parker's riffs in Brownlee's arias. "There are similarities to bel canto - florid passages, notes moving fast," said Brownlee, in his spare time an expert salsa dancer.
"Jazz musicians play the most extreme ranges of their instruments, while vocalists have a two-octave range. Widening is not a stretch for me, coming from a free and open background of doing gospel with my father, a church choir director who could rile people up with his singing, driven by emotion and conviction, emotion and joy.
"I approach this role with great deference, respect and admiration," Brownlee said, "putting myself in Charlie's place to imagine the pressure that he felt through racism, limited access to education and the lack of an iconic teacher. We're delivering something memorable to the audience in a work which I hope will have a long shelf life."
Angela Brown, the exuberant soprano who has appeared here often, was the perfect choice for Parker's mother, Addie - though hardly old enough to be Brownlee's mom.
"Larry and I go back to our master's program together at Indiana University," Brown said. "Once, in New Mexico, in the first-act finale of 'La Boheme,' because of Larry's small size and my larger stature, I looked then like his mom. We've come full circle!
"Addie taught her son right and wrong, though she didn't let him suffer the consequences. He did drugs in Addie's house, but she wouldn't let him bring women in, telling him to go to a hotel. She cleaned Western Union offices and houses, and went to school to become a nurse, a strong, doting mom who just couldn't control her son.
"The way Daniel has written her part, I feel snatches of blues, jazz, gospel, grounded notes that sometimes pop up into rhythmic things. There's a classical sound, though we have the freedom to express ourselves through his music."
Next June, "Yardbird" will be performed at New York's famed Apollo Theater, in Harlem, where Parker played his last concert.