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Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD Is Not Your Father’s Opera

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee (at left) sings the role of Charlie Parker in Opera Philadelphia's CHARLIE PARKER'S YARDBIRD, June 5 to 14 at the Perelman Theater.

Opera Philadelphia's production of Charlie Parker's YARDBIRD tells the compelling story of a legendary jazz icon in a way that's meant to broaden and diversify opera’s audience. The role of saxophonist Charlie Parker was composed by Daniel Schnyder with tenor Lawrence Brownlee in mind.

Opera Philadelphia presented the world premiere of YARDBIRD in Philadelphia in June 2015; in April 2016, the company presented its chamber opera at The Apollo Theater in New York. Brownlee sang the lead role again. It was the first time the Apollo, known for it's rich jazz past, ever opened its doors to opera.  Parker had a deep history with the Apollo and performed there many times.

WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston spoke with Brownlee in Philadelphia in the spring of 2015 before the world premiere. 

Radio script:

Meridee Duddleston: With his body laying unclaimed in a New York City morgue, the saxophonist who conceived the bebop sound and changed jazz forever, returns in spirit to express himself one last time. The opera Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD is a shimmering glimpse of a legend’s story. 

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee plays the complex and gifted Parker - nicknamed "Yardbird" or "Bird" -  as he returns to the New York City jazz club named in his honor.

Lawrence Brownlee:  It’s interesting because this is supposed to be when his life ends.  And it’s the moment that his life ends and his ghost-like figure is coming back into the place that he knew so well – Birdland. 

MD: Composer Daniel Schnyder composed the opera with Brownlee in mind. He’s a tenor, who has a wealth of experience singing the classics of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. 

LB:  But this – when Opera Philadelphia came to talk to me about doing this piece, I was definitely onboard. 

MD:  And that means getting artistically close to Parker’s external and internal demons, his upbringing in Kansas City, Missouri, the women in his life, his partnership with Dizzy Gillespie, his incessant restlessness.

LB: He never seemed to have the time to sit down and write what he wanted to, and I think it was something that was important to him to get the music that was inside of him out. We as artists, sometimes we think ‘Okay, I have to do this. I have to give birth to this idea.'  Or something like that. So I think it’s something he really struggled with. 

MD: Unfulfilled dreams gnawed at Parker, who died at age 34 in 1955. But the energy of his bebop lives on like a flock set free.