By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy, who is himself a senior and who has followed opera for many decades and across several continents, including North America, Europe and Asia. Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.
By Larry Wells
On Sunday afternoon I attended the second, and final, of two sold-out performances of Daniel Schnyder’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” presented by Madison Opera, which gave the Midwest premiere of the new work.
Although it is a chamber opera featuring only 16 instrumentalists and running a little over 90 minutes, it was an engaging, satisfying and often hypnotic operatic experience.
The orchestral and vocal music were readily accessible. As a compliment to the composer, I was reminded of the later work of the great British composer Michael Tippett.
The plot features Charlie Parker’s mother, three of his wives, his friend Dizzy Gillespie and his current patroness, the fascinating Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, as they confront Parker’s spirit after his death but before his removal from the morgue and burial.
(Below, standing in front of the photo-portrait set of the Birdland jazz club, are the major cast members, many of whom were in the original world premiere productions at Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater of Harlem in New York City. From the left, they are: Angela Brown as Addie Parker; Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie; Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan Parker; Angela Montellaro as Doris Parker; Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker; and Krysty Swann as Rebecca Parker.)
A pioneer and innovator of bebop in the world of jazz, saxophonist Parker died young and dissolute, destroyed by drugs and alcohol. Portrayed by Joshua Stewart (below), Parker is unsympathetic and weak, desperate to create but distracted. Stewart is a fine, convincing actor. His singing was often compelling, but his voice was too thin in the higher reaches demanded by the score.
The other characters were ably portrayed and consistently strong vocally. Will Liverman’s Dizzy Gillespie was a standout – lyrical and touching.
Likewise, Krysty Swann (below center with a baby) was solid vocally and emotionally convincing as Parker’s abandoned first wife Rebecca Parker.
Rachel Sterrenberg was moving and gripping vocally as Parker’s final wife Chan.
Julie Miller as Baronness Nica commanded the stage whenever she appeared, perhaps because of her bright red dress in a sea of black garments but also because of her powerful portrayal and expressive singing.
Whenever Angela Brown (below right, with Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker) was onstage as Parker’s mother, Addie, she was the focus. She owned the role, she sang beautifully, and she had some of the best material to sing.
One of the finest moments in the opera was an orchestral interlude followed by a vocalise by another of Parker’s wives, Doris, sung by Angela Mortellaro (below). I was totally captivated, as I was by the quintet toward the end with Dizzy, the three wives and Parker’s mother.
Such are the moments for which an opera aficionado waits – several minutes of total aural delight.
Maestro John DeMain was, as always, in full command of the score as he led members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. I was in a position to watch him conduct, and he was always totally involved in the moment. I repeat what I have said before: Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) is a treasure for which Madison should be constantly grateful.
I personally like newer music and always welcome the chance to hear something other than the tired Brahms overtures, Tchaikovsky symphonies and Mozart piano concertos.
The argument in Madison seems to be that to fill seats, you have to give the audience what it wants; and the belief is that it wants music that is tried, true and safe.
The fact that this new work sold out both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center and that the audience was not entirely made up of seniors seems to suggest that the halls can be filled if the programming is more adventurous.
I say let’s hear more music of the 20th and 21st centuries, draw in a new audience and give the seniors a little thrill.
What do you think?
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear has received the following information to post about a local opera production that is both exciting and an inspired choice to mark February as Black History Month:
For more information about the cast and the production as well as about purchasing tickets ($25-$114), go to:
With music by Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder (below top) and a libretto by writer and poet Bridgette A. Wimberly (below bottom), the acclaimed opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” tells of the legendary jazz musician and the people closest to him.
The opera, which melds jazz and opera, is set on the day that saxophone great Charlie Parker died in 1955. As his body lies unclaimed in a New York City morgue, Parker returns in spirit to the jazz club Birdland, determined to compose a final masterpiece. Family and friends blend in and out of his memories, including his three wives, his mother, his friend Dizzy Gillespie and even his drug dealer.
Charlie Parker’s Yardbird premiered in June 2015 at Opera Philadelphia (below is tenor Lawrence Brownlee, in a photo by Dominic Mercier, in the title role of Charlie Parker in the Philadelphia production) and was subsequently presented by the company at the Apollo Theater in New York City in April 2016. (You can hear an excerpt in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The New York Times praised it for its “pulsing, jazz-infused score,” while the Wall Street Journal said, “its rhythms snap and swing, its melodies – including real arias – seize the ear, its ensembles crackle with energy.”
Madison Opera will be only the second company to present this work, which is sung in English with projected text and runs 90 minutes without an intermission.
“I saw Charlie Parker’s Yardbird when it premiered in Philadelphia and instantly knew it would be a perfect opera for Madison,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “The very American story and the exciting jazz-inflected music fit perfectly into our ever-expanding range of repertoire.”
She adds, “It’s not a straightforward narrative of Parker’s life, but rather elements of his life as refracted through his memories and imagination, and particularly his relationships with the women in his life.”
Madison Opera’s cast includes both debuts and returning favorites, as well as a number of singers who created their roles in the world premiere.
Joshua Stewart (below), a young American tenor who has sung at La Scala, Bayerische Staatsoper, and Opera de Lausanne, debuts in the tour de force role of Charlie Parker.
Angela Brown (below) returns following her performance at Opera in the Park 2016 as Addie Parker, Charlie’s mother, a role she created in Philadelphia.
Will Liverman, who sang Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville here in 2015, sings jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, a role he created in Philadelphia.
Krysty Swann debuts as Rebecca Parker, Charlie’s first wife. Angela Mortellaro, who sang Galatea in Handel’s Acis and Galatea in 2013, returns as Doris Parker, Charlie’s third wife, a role she created in Philadelphia.
Rachel Sterrenberg debuts as Chan Parker, his final wife, a role she created in Philadelphia. Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, in whose hotel suite Parker died, is sung by Julie Miller in her Madison Opera debut.
Directing this production is Ron Daniels (below), who staged the world premiere and was the opera’s dramaturge, involved in the creation and workshop process.
John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) conducts, with members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the pit.
DeMain says: “I am so happy to be a part of Madison Opera’s Midwest premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. Parker was consumed with music, breathing it day and night. All of us who are passionate about performing and listening to music can identify with this phenomenal musician and will not want to miss this jazz-infused opera, the perfect expression of Parker’s range and depth as a musician.”
Composer Daniel Schnyder will attend the opening night performance and join Smith for the Pre-Opera Talk that evening at 7 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio.
In addition to the performances, Madison Opera and its community partners are hosting a series of related events, collectively known as “Extending the Stage,” which culminate in a concert of Charlie Parker’s music with composer Daniel Schnyder and the UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble.
These events include Opera Novice; community previews; Opera Up Close; discussions of the life and music of Charlie Parker (below); and presentations of rare jazz films.
All events are open to the public and the majority are free of charge.
RELATED EVENTS: EXTENDING THE STAGE
Opera Novice: Jazz Opera? Friday, Jan. 20 | 6-7 p.m. The Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, 335 W. Mifflin Street. FREE and open to the public
New to opera? Passionate about Puccini, but not sure about a jazz opera? Join General Director Kathryn Smith for a short, fun, and informative evening exploring the history of jazz and opera, including a live performance of an aria from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. With plenty of time to ask questions, it’s the perfect jump-start for the opera-curious.
Community Preview of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Tuesday, Jan. 24 | 7-8 p.m. Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 W. Main St. FREE and open to the public
Join a Madison Opera staff member for a multimedia look at Charlie Parker’s life, the history of the opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, and some insights into Madison Opera’s production.
Opera Up Close, Sunday, Feb. 5 | 1-3 p.m. The Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street. Admission: $20; free for full-season subscribers and full-time students with ID; $10 for two-show subscribers. Tickets available at the door.
Come even closer with a behind-the-scenes preview of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. A multimedia presentation on Charlie Parker and the history of this opera will be followed by a roundtable discussion with the leading artists of Madison Opera’s production. There is no better way to get “up close” to this acclaimed new opera.
A Charlie Parker Concert and Discussion with Daniel Schnyder and the Blue Note Ensemble Thursday, Feb. 9 | 7:30 p.m. Morphy Recital Hall, UW-Madison. FREE and open to the public
Composer Daniel Schnyder joins UW-Madison’s Blue Note Ensemble for an evening featuring music by Charlie Parker, with solos performed by both Schnyder and UW-Madison saxophone students. The evening includes an aria from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird and a discussion about Parker and the opera with Schnyder, UW-Madison Professor of Saxophone Les Thimmig, and General Director Kathryn Smith.
Pre-Opera Talks: Friday, Feb. 10 |7 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 12 | 1:30 p.m. Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center. FREE to ticket holders
Attend an entertaining introduction to Charlie Parker’s Yardbird one hour prior to curtain. On Friday night, composer Daniel Schnyder will join General Director Kathryn Smith to talk about the piece. Be sure to arrive early, as space is limited.
An Evening of Rare Jazz Films: Alicia Ashman Library. Friday, Feb. 3 | 7 p.m.; Goodman South Madison Library. Tuesday, April 11 | 6 p.m. FREE and open to the public (Below is footage of Charlie Parker playing and of people discussing the man and his artistic achievement.)
Jazz archivist Gary Alderman will present and explain films of the historically significant innovators of modern jazz, including the only two known existing videos with sound of Charlie Parker.
Among the other musicians shown will be those relevant to Parker’s music and career, including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
The Life and Music of Charlie Parker: DeForest Area Public Library: Monday, Feb. 13, 6:30 p.m.; Alicia Ashman Library: Friday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m.; Fitchburg Public Library: Sunday, Feb. 26, 2 p.m.; Oregon Public Library: Friday, March 10, 6:30 p.m. FREE and open to the public
UW-Madison Professor of Saxophone Les Thimmig (below) will talk about Charlie Parker’s life and music, as well as the history of bebop.
More information is available at www.madisonopera.org/education.