Spotlight on: CHARLIE PARKER'S YARDBIRD

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

At Seattle Opera February & March 2020

Music by Daniel Schnyder
Libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly

The Story

Long Story Short

A ghost discovers that music never dies.

Who’s Who?

Charlie Parker is the legendary jazz saxophonist whose musical innovations helped lead the creation of modern jazz.

Addie Parker is Charlie’s domineering mother.

Dizzy Gillespie, a virtuosic jazz trumpeter, is Charlie’s musical partner and friend. They are credited with launching the Bebop Era.

Chan Parker is Charlie’s common-law wife and the mother of Pree Parker, their daughter who died at the age of two.

Doris Parker is Charlie’s third wife.

Rebecca Parker is Charlie’s teenage sweetheart and his first wife.

Baroness Nica is Charlie’s friend and patron.

Charlie Parker's Yardbird 101 Podcast

Where’d They Get This Story?

Charlie Parker became a legendary figure even while he was alive (1920—1955). Fictional riffs on his life, in addition to this opera, include the 1988 movie Bird, starring Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker and directed by Clint Eastwood, and the modern dance piece For Bird – With Love by Alvin Ailey. Librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly, an award-winning poet and playwright, consulted countless printed articles, radio interviews, and biographies as she created scenes in this dramatic interpretation of Parker’s life.

Arguably one of the greatest saxophonist of all time, Charlie Parker changed the face of jazz during his lifetime. Along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and others, Parker practically invented modern jazz or Bebop. Bebop (or Bop) is characterized by its fast tempos and improvisation. Among Parker’s most recognized tunes—all jazz standards today—are “Ko Ko,” “Ornithology,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” and “Billie’s Bounce.” Until his death, Parker often expressed his enthusiasm for Western classical music, especially Modernist composers like Stravinsky, Hindemith, Schonberg, and Bartok. And on numerous occasions Parker indicated plans to study composition in Paris.

Where, When, & Why Was this Opera Written?

Corrado Rovaris, Music Director of Opera Philadelphia, asked Swiss-born composer (and jazz saxophonist) Daniel Schnyder to compose an opera for the famous bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee. When he heard this amazing virtuoso, Schnyder, who is known for works which mix classical and jazz, immediately thought of Charlie Parker. Fans of jazz will find his opera particularly compelling; the opera’s Charlie Parker uses his voice the way the real Charlie Parker used his saxophone, virtuosically exploring all the possibilities of the instrument. Schnyder encourages tenors portraying Parker to tailor the music to their strengths.

Wimberly’s ghost-story opera fictionalizes the period between Parker’s death and the official identification of his body. His ghost enters Birdland, the famed night-club named in his honor, to create a new masterpiece. But he is interrupted, by his mother, Nica, his wives, and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Charlie Parker was 34 when he died in 1955. On his way to a gig in Boston, the saxophonist visited his friend and jazz patron Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, who was living at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City at the time. Parker was already near death, suffering from years of drug and alcohol additions, a bad heart, cirrhosis, and depression. For the next few days, with the help of her physician, Nica tried to nurse Parker back to health. Parker died on March 5 while watching television. The facts about his untimely death created a media scandal: Why didn’t Nica immediately notify authorities about Parker’s death? And why was the body misidentified and unclaimed in the morgue for several days?

Why Charlie Parker?

Notes from Former General Director Aidan Lang

“This opera showcases that this art form can come in many, many guises. The region has a big jazz community; why not sing an opera about this great jazz icon. The success of a new opera is always rewarding, because it shows that new stories are needed to grow the art form. Commissioned by Opera Philadelphia, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird has been produced by Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Atlanta Opera, English National Opera, Arizona Opera, and the famed Apollo Theatre in New York City."

Listen to the Music

Recommended Recordings

Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis recommends these Charlie Parker recordings:

Textbook Genius: “Embraceable You,”
Dial Records, 1947

Classic Bebop: “Ornithology,”
Columbia Records, 1950

Bebop Partners (Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie): “Shaw ’Nuff,” Guild Records/Musicraft, 1945

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