The impactful legacy of legendary bebop jazz saxophonist Charles “Bird” Parker Jr. (1920-1955) is the catalyst of the aptly titled opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” the Dayton Opera’s 2022-2023 season opener slated Oct. 7 and 9 at the Schuster Center.
Featuring music by Daniel Schnyder and a libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly, “Yardbird,” which had its world premiere in Philadelphia in June 2015, embraces the surreal in its storytelling. While Parker’s body lies unidentified in a New York City morgue, his ghost travels back to the famed NYC jazz club Birdland, where he struggles to complete his final masterpiece. The opera, which includes depictions of Parker’s tumultuous relationships, is described as “a powerful expedition into the mind, heart and personal purgatory of the jazz genius.”
“‘Yardbird’ is everything opera should be,” said Dayton Opera artistic director Kathleen Clawson. “It is brilliant storytelling through great music. As Parker’s spirit is between life and death, reminisces of people in his past – his mother, his wives, Dizzy Gillespie – bring him to the realization that his great work was the body of his work as the saxophonist that he was, and he can die knowing that. This is a powerful opera that speaks to the creative process and what it means to be human with all of our flaws.”
Inside the music
Guest conductor Clinton Smith, returning to Dayton once more to lead the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit, is supervising his third production of “Yardbird.” He’s excited to return to the material, particularly praising its variety.
“You’ll hear jazz, swing, bebop, ragtime, big band and even an authentic New Orleans funeral march,” said Smith. “There are so many different styles of music swirling around Charlie Parker’s lifetime that the composer built into the piece. There are some quotes of Parker’s music in it but there’s also a landscape of what music would have been in his ear at the time.”
Under the stage direction of Fenlon Lamb, the cast features tenor Martin Bakari as Charlie Parker, soprano Angela Brown as Addie Parker, soprano Lauren Nash Silberstein as Chan Parker, soprano Sarah Stembel as Doris Parker, mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams as Rebecca Parker, bass Sankara Harouna as Dizzy Gillespie, mezzo-soprano Naomi Brigell as Nica, and Du’Bois A’Keen as Dancer.
Praised by Opera News as a “vocally charismatic” performer with a “golden tenor,” Bakari, a Yellow Springs native, says he embraces the weight of Parker’s historical significance but is purposeful in his intent to deliver a performance uniquely his own.
“Portraying Charlie Parker is a really titanic feat because he’s somebody who is so revered and so beloved by so many, myself included, so there’s quite a lot of pressure,” said Bakari, a 2005 Yellow Springs High School graduate. “People not only see him as sort of a godlike figure in terms of what he was able to contribute to music, but there are also pictures and videos of him playing and speaking. So, there’s a certain obligation I have to be true to him, not only as a personality but a physicality, but also at the same time, it’s necessary for me to infuse enough of myself into it that it feels authentic to me so that it’s more than just an impersonation and the interpretation has depth and nuance.”
Bakari, whose previous credits include Count Almaviva in “The Barber of Seville” and Goro in “Madama Butterfly,” also acknowledges the role’s vocal demands.
“The music is extremely difficult,” he said. “Not only is the role of Charlie Parker a marathon – for about 90 to 100 minutes he basically never leaves the stage and basically never stops singing – the nature of the writing is very virtuosic and very high. It also requires a lot of agility.”
Due to the cast consisting of artists who are both newcomers and returnees to the piece, Smith says he’s able to keep rehearsals fresh through the simple joy of rediscovery.
“There’s always something new to discover,” he said. “We’re discovering new tempi, new moments, new intention and also dramatic discoveries. It’s a wonderful world of revisiting an old friend but discovering something new.”
Inside the movement
The aforementioned A’Keen, whose work encompasses film, TV and brand marketing, also serves as associate stage director and choreographer. In 2018 he made his opera debut as choreographer and guest artist of Arizona Opera’s production of “Yardbird.” He regards his movement as a reflection of jazz history.
“This is an opera about a jazz musician and there are riffs, there are moments, where we hear the jazz musically from the orchestral composition, but much of it is what we understand a Eurocentric operatic sound to be,” said A’Keen. “So, my objective was to try to find a physicality that pulls on jazz dance, jazz music and jazz tempo, particularly how to emphasize bebop within the body.”
Trained in classical ballet and contemporary dance, A’Keen particularly values the level of physicality in the production. He feels it aligns with the triple threat qualities reminiscent of “Porgy and Bess.”
“The staging for this piece is very physical in nature,” he said. “The full principal cast, including the actors playing Chan Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, are very physical in this work in ways we don’t normally see in certain kinds of operas with the exception of ‘Porgy and Bess,’ in which the dancers are the actors are the singers.”
Beyond the movement, A’Keen is motivated as associate stage director to explore Parker’s struggles as a Black artist in troublesome times.
“Charlie Parker, moving through the world during the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, was challenged by the tensions of being a Black man in majority white spaces that wanted his art but didn’t want him as a person,” he said. “Entering the back of restaurants and clubs, Parker had to entertain and be the genius but then be dehumanized by not sharing in the revenue he should’ve received for being such a prolific musician. We want to show the humanity, the complexity, of a genius.”
In her second season as artistic director, Clawson regards “Yardbird” as a fitting example of opera striving to be a vibrant melting pot of representation and universality.
“Opera is a living, breathing art form,” she said. “Opera is not a museum piece. We continue to tell new stories. My core belief is that every voice is important. Everybody’s story – young, old, every ethnicity – should be reflected and represented in opera. And as a corollary to that, the stage should look like the world. It’s important to me that people come to Dayton Opera and see somebody that looks like them on stage.”
HOW TO GO
What: “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”
When: Oct. 7 and 9; 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton
Tickets: Call 937-228-3630 or visit daytonperformingarts.org
FYI: Performed in English with English supertitles, the opera has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission. It is recommended for ages 12 and up with parental discretion and includes references to drug use.