Friday, February 14, 2020

A Bird’s Life

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird is an opera told in 21 scenes, told from the story of the women in his life. Here are some of the events in his life that are helpful to know before heading into the opera.


1920, Kansas City

Charlie Parker is born on August 29. He teaches himself to play saxophone. Listening from nightclub backdoors and alleys, he hears musicians performing the music he will later master.


1936, rural Missouri

A serious accident fractures Charlie’s spine and breaks three ribs. Bedridden for three months, he is prescribed heroin and is soon addicted. For the rest of his life, Parker struggles with narcotics and alcohol addiction.

Monday, February 10, 2020

5 Reasons to see Charlie Parker’s Yardbird

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2017 © Todd Rosenberg

1. Clocking in at just 90 minutes, this short opera pairs well with nice dinner and a stop at a swanky cocktail bar for a chic night out.

2. The score blends bebop, jazz, and American classical music, perfect for musical historians or anyone who wants to know more about this jazz great. You might recognize the influences of bebop and classical artists throughout. Plus, join on Friday or Saturday night, grab a drink and stay late for a live jazz combo performing the music of Charlie Parker in the lobby.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Quick History Lesson: Charlie Parker and Jazz 101


A few pieces of Charlie Parker and jazz history that you might want to acquaint yourself with before attending Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.

Charlie Parker as a teenager. Photographer unknown. Frank Driggs Collection, Jazz at Lincoln Center.

It takes a lot of work to make it sound effortless. After facing rejection for the first time as a teenager, Charlie Parker resolved to practice incessantly until he could play any other musician under the table. Parker would later reminisce: “I put quite a bit of study into the horn. …In fact, the neighbors threatened to ask my mother to move once when I was living out west. They said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least from eleven to fifteen hours a day. I did that over a period of three to four years.”

Monday, February 3, 2020

Q&A with Freddie Ballentine and Chrystal E. Williams

Mezzo Chrystal E. Williams and tenor Freddie Ballentine attended the same performing arts high school in Virginia. Their paths have crossed a few times since graduating from Governor’s School for the Arts. They celebrate years of friendship and have a school reunion here in Seattle while performing in our production of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.

How well did you know each other at the Governor’s School?

Chrystal E. Williams: I was a senior.

Freddie Ballentine: I was a little freshman boy soprano. We didn’t actually have much of a chance to get to know each other in school because of the age difference. But it was a very small performing arts school, so we still knew each other a lot better than we knew most of our normal school classmates. Chrystal was more of a mentor to me. I remember a summer boot camp we had together. She was introduced as our section leader. I was immediately intimidated because Chrystal was a serious and smart woman even then. I was a clumsily little chubby boy. She sat next to me during our rehearsal of Saint-Saëns Christmas Oratorio. She had to teach me how to follow along in the music. She was so focused and capable. I remember thinking that there was no way I deserved to be at this school if people like her were there.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Listen now: On race, Beyoncé, and bringing new people to the opera house

Seattle Opera Director of Programs and Partnerships recently sat down with Seattle Opera Scholar in Residence, Naomi André for a podcast covering topics ranging from Beyoncé to opera in South Africa. Listen in to hear about Dr. André’s thoughts on how the opera industry can push beyond what we're currently doing to be more inclusive of our society today while also holding up and honoring these traditional works. She talks about loving opera from a young age and how she considers the artform after a career understanding more about its relationship to race and gender.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Listen now: Charlie Parker's Yardbird podcast

Left: The real jazz legend Charlie Parker, one of the most popular performing artists in music following World War II. Right: Joshua Stewart, one of the Charlie Parkers who stars in S

A new opera that combines jazz and classical music? Seattle Opera Dramaturg Jonathan Dean describes Charlie Parker’s Yardbird as a piece about "music, creativity, race and racism ... life, death, and freedom." In this opera, which had its premiere in 2015, a flexible operatic tenor uses his voice much like the real Parker used his alto-saxophone. Listen to the Seattle Opera podcast, hosted by Dean, to learn more about how the opera references the Black American art of jazz, and specifically, bepop.

"This opera explores the life of the one and only Charlie Parker, the saxophone player known as 'Yardbird,' and also, just 'Bird.' Now, it isn't a documentary or a biography. Opera is life distilled, concentrated, boiled down. Here, we have an artist's rendering of the essence of Charlie Parker's experience. This opera explores Parker's response to mid-century racism—he was the type of person who was forever pushing back on boundaries—and he pioneered bebop, a new kind of sound for the beat generation, before he died only 34-years-old from a combination of factors exacerbated by his addictions to heroin and alcohol. When he died, there was a long delay before the body was taken to the morgue and identified. That delay gave librettist Bridgette Wimberly the idea of setting this opera in a kind of purgatory just after Charlie's death, but before plans were made for his funeral. Charlie Parker finds himself in a limbo, where he considers the meaning of his life. Although he aspires to sum everything up in one valedictory composition, in the end, he realizes that his music, which was life and his soul, lives on. The bird flies free."—Seattle Opera Dramaturg Jonathan Dean

For more, tune in to the Seattle Opera podcast episode: Charlie Parker's Yardbird 101.

The Seattle Opera Podcast is for everyone. Are you an opera newbie (or maybe need a refresher)? Check out the SO’s opera 101 lessons. These short and entertaining overviews of the SO’s operas are a great place to start. Already an opera fan? Check out episodes that take a deeper dive into the operas. This podcast is a co-production of Seattle Opera and KING FM. Subscribe on iTunes


Charlie Parker's Yardbird plays Feb. 22–March 7, 2020 at McCaw Hall.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Madison Opera, 2017 © James Gill

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Music of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird

Opera isn’t a musical style; it’s what you get when you multiply music by drama, or drama by music. (Which partner dominates? The tug-of-war between the words and the notes has been going back and forth for 400+ years.) Opera can feature lots of different musical styles, genres, and languages.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Saxophonist James Carter Talks About Charlie “Yardbird” Parker

Photo credit © Vincent Soyez

“You have to be totally comfortable wherever,” Jazz saxophonist James Carter says. “I feel that music equals life, that’s the way my teacher always taught me. You just can’t go through life and experience it fully with a set of blinders on. I think there’s tremendous beauty in cross-pollinations of music and influences.”

Before his performance in Seattle last fall, Carter spent a few minutes to talk with Seattle Opera. His conversation touched on Charlie Parker’s musical influence, his discovery of tenor Enrico Caruso, and his reasoning for playing classical, Latin and other music genres as well as other topics.

Carter has won Down Beat magazine’s Critics and Readers Choice award for baritone saxophone several years in a row. His discography includes more than 15 albums, among them Chasing the Gypsy (2000) featuring his cousin jazz violinist Regina Carter; Caribbean Rhapsody (2011), a collaboration with contemporary classical composer Robert Sierra; and Live From Newport (2019), a release steeped in the styles of famed guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Praise for Eugene Onegin

Act III of Eugene Onegin. Photo by Philip Newton.

“Esteemed for its gorgeous score, potent emotion and compelling arias, the work receives a sumptuous, expertly performed Seattle Opera production.” —Crosscut

“The production looked spectacular. The scenic, lighting, and costume designers had everything on the stage looking as perfect as can be. The country setting to start the first act was immediately evident with the three dimensional trees, extended background, and building decorations.” —Eclectic Arts

Bird Lives: A letter from the librettist

Dear Charlie Parker,

Getting to know and writing a libretto about you was quite the challenge. One that I had to “conquer” before music could be scored to a story creating an opera about you. Indeed, I had to find you in that haystack of myth, truth, and folklore. The young man growing up in segregated Kansas City, MO in the twenties and thirties before making New York City your home and birthing the jazz revolution, bebop. Daniel Schnyder, the composer, wanted the story to show your dream of creating a large-scale orchestral composition. This was something we understood you wanted to do while you were alive.

But stories about you also ignited old stories told by my grandmother, recounting over and over how you were responsible for my uncle’s drug addiction and ultimate death. Marcus, my mother’s twin brother, was a jazz musician who idolized you so much he not only played the alto saxophone, he also copied your heroin use. Heroin was supposed to free your mind, allowing music to take you places that freed your inhibition. Fourteen years your junior, my uncle Marcus also shared a birthday with you, August 29. I hear the two of you hung out and jammed together when you came to Cleveland, OH. Marcus, only in his late teens then, like many musicians, thought your extraordinary musical skills were enhanced by heroin. But for my uncle, the music, the drugs, and his obsession with you ultimately led to prison and an early death. To my grandmother, you were the devil incarnate who made her life hell.