Opera Philadelphia is clearly doing something right with its American Repertoire Program. Begun in 2012 with co-productions like Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters (which I found brilliant), and Kevin Puts' Silent Night (2012 Pulitzer Prize winner), the program has earned Opera Philadelphia great praise for helping keep new opera alive. An Opera News quote in the program states the company is “one of the leading instigators of new work in the country”. Judging by the scarcity of empty seats on Sunday for the second performance of Daniel Schnyder's Charlie Parker's Yardbird, I'd say that must be true. This is the second “new” opera I've seen this season in Philadelphia, and Opera Philadelphia's first world première since 1976. It has completely sold out.

Lawrence Brownlee (Charlie Parker) © Dominic M. Mercier
Lawrence Brownlee (Charlie Parker)
© Dominic M. Mercier

Charlie Parker's life and death were the stuff of kitchen-sink dramas – and opera plots: Verismo with heroin. He died in the hotel suite of his friend and benefactor the Baroness Pannonica (“Nica”) de Koenigswarter, and the scandal followed her the rest of her life. There was delay and confusion in removing his body to the morgue. Nica couldn't find Parker's common-law wife, Chan. Parker's other wives made difficulties over the body and the estate. Nica herself was evicted from her segregated hotel, divorced by her husband, and lost custody of her children. In the opera's story (libretto by recognized poet and playwright Bridgette A. Wimberly), during those hours and days before his body is claimed, Parker returns to Birdland, the club named in his honor, and tries to complete the large-scale composition that had long been his ambition. In typical opera fashion, he is visited by Nica, his mother, and three of his wives in this stylized Limbo. 

Lawrence Brownlee, internationally renowned bel canto tenor, was a passionate and beautifully sung Charlie Parker. Composer Daniel Schnyder's music spanned various styles, including Parker's own jazz and bebop, and Mr Brownlee was at home with them all. He sounded particularly glorious in the soaring phrases of some of his solo passages. Also at home with the different styles was equally famed soprano Angela Brown, who sang Parker's mother Addie with passion and commitment and a fierce protectiveness. The chemistry the two had onstage was clear. Both were a treat for the ear and the eye.

Lawrence Brownlee (Charlie Parker) and Angela Brown (Addie Parker) © Dominic M. Mercier
Lawrence Brownlee (Charlie Parker) and Angela Brown (Addie Parker)
© Dominic M. Mercier

All of the cast were fine singers. Tamara Mumford, who sang Nica, sounded beautiful, of course, but also very capably showed Nica's conflicting emotions effectively – loyalty and concern for her friend contrasted with concern over the circumstances of Parker's death. This was 1955 in the US, after all. Parker's three wives were sung Rachel Sterrenberg (Chan, his last wife and mother of two of his children), Angela Mortellaro (Doris, to whom he was married less than a year), and Chrystal Williams (Rebecca, Parker's first wife and mother of his first child). All of these young women were equal to the challenge, both vocally and dramatically. Will Liverman gave a fine performance as Dizzie Gillespie, Parker's friend and collaborator.

Visually, this show had many stunning elements. The Birdland of set designer Riccardo Hernandez featured illuminated, six-foot tall cutouts of letters spelling out "Birdland", each letter decorated with a huge cutout picture of a jazz great like Billie Holiday or Miles Davis. I don't know if this was lighting designer Scott Zielinski's intention, but I was delighted to see, reflected in one of the letters, Opera Philadelphia Music Director Corrado Rovaris in action, conducting the fine chamber orchestra that accompanied the singers on stage. (I'm sure not every seat in the theater was so fortunate.) And who could resist the stunning period costumes of Emily Rebholz and the wig and make-up design of David Zimmerman? All the cast wore very somber tones, with the sole exception of Nica, the Baroness, who wore red.

Lawrence Brownlee (Charlie), Rachel Sterrenberg (Chan Parker) and Will Liverman (Dizzy Gillespie) © Dominic M. Mercier
Lawrence Brownlee (Charlie), Rachel Sterrenberg (Chan Parker) and Will Liverman (Dizzy Gillespie)
© Dominic M. Mercier

My favorite parts of Daniel Schnyder's score were those that incorporated Charlie Parker's bebop and other jazz styles. Bridgette A. Wimberly's libretto skillfully wove together many scenes from Parker's life, so that the audience knew in no uncertain terms how he had reached his unfortunate end. The powerful ensemble finale is followed by a coda sung by Parker alone, quoting “I know why the caged bird sings”, the last stanza from Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem Sympathy.

I'd recommend seeing this opera if there were any tickets to be had, but there are none! We'll all have to wait until it is performed again by co-commissioning company Gotham Chamber Opera.