Thursday, January 16, 2020

An Interview with Composer Daniel Schnyder

Why write an opera about Charlie Parker and bebop?
Opera Philadelphia commissioned me to write a new work for tenor Lawrence Brownlee. I saw him in recital at Lincoln Center and the idea to write an opera about the life of Charlie Parker came to me. In the opera, the virtuosity of the vocals reflects on the intricate work of the saxophone virtuoso. Telling this story in an opera was a beautiful challenge and something new for me.

Tell us about the music—is it a jazz opera, classical, or a mixture? What exactly connects classical music and opera to Charlie Parker?
I wouldn’t say it’s a jazz opera. The music is written for a classical orchestra; there are no improvisations. But it definitely has many jazz elements. The score bridges the world of classical music and jazz. Charlie Parker dreamed of studying with the French composer Edgard Varèse and other greats. His favorite composer was Bartók. Parker often inserted quotes from classical pieces into his improvisations. However, he never had the opportunity to write an orchestral piece, although it was something he wanted to do.

American composer and conductor Gunther Schuller told me that he and Bird would hang out in Nica’s apartment; Parker wanted to take lessons with him to learn how to write down the music he was hearing in his head. Hence, this opera is a dream. After he passed away, Parker comes back as a ghost to write down the orchestral music he hears in his head. That is the beginning of the opera.

From your point of view, what’s the difficulty in writing an opera like this one?
The challenge was bridging two worlds—jazz and classical. In the process, I found that it’s actually one world—the world of music. In the ears of Bird, all was one magical world of beautiful sounds. I wanted to recreate some of Charlie Parker’s holistic approach to music in this opera.

Did it help that you’re saxophonist?
Yes, definitely. I can relate to the music of Charlie Parker and I know the idiom. Without being familiar with the jazz idiom, it would have been impossible to write this opera. I’m blessed to have a background as a jazz musician.

Is it true that parts of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue are in the composition?
Yes, a small part is influenced by Miles’s famous album. I just felt it fits in there perfectly. Listeners will also hear a small quote of Parker’s famous composition “Ornithology,” a tune Miles recorded and played with Parker for years. This opera is not a historical opera reconstructing the age of bebop. The opera reflects on American music, jazz in particular, not in a pure historical context but in a universal way.

Can we hear other great musicians Parker worked with in the opera?
Many giants of jazz are present inside the fabric of the opera. You will hear their voices in very small quotes that illustrate the music. It is not only jazz compositions that show up in the texture of the opera, you can also hear Beethoven (Eroica) and Stravinsky (Firebird) in little quotes that relate to the libretto.

Why focus on the women in Charlie Parker’s life to tell his story?
Well, we have John “Dizzy” Gillespie. Charlie Parker’s most important musician friend. They created bebop together. There aren’t many musicians on stage. The problem with an opera about jazz is the fact that almost all jazz musicians at the time were male. Opera needs a balance of female and male voices. It would be boring to see a bunch of jazz musicians on stage singing about music. Bridgette Wimberly, the librettist, came up with a structure that tells part of Parker’s story through the eyes of some of the women in his life.

What do you hope audiences will discover from this opera?
That Charlie Parker changed American music and became one of its greatest influences. His story is important. His life reveals a lot about 20th century American history and the development of music during this time. Bird lives! He is with us today. His art lives on not only in his own work, but also in the work of artists that followed him.

Seattle Opera’s Charlie Parker's Yardbird plays February 22–March 7 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets and info: