Charlie Parker's Yardbird Review - a Beautiful, but Poignant Telling of the Jazzman’s Life

Charlie Parker only lived for 34 years, but in that short time he was a highly influential jazz figure, helped pioneer the genre of bebop, had a legendary New York Jazz club named for him and now has an Opera written about his life.

Presented by Lyric Unlimited, "Charlie Parker's Yardbird" performed at the Harris Theater was a beautiful, but poignant look at the jazzman’s life. 

Lawrence Bownlee as Charlie "Bird" Parker

The opera actually starts the moment Parker dies, when his ghost, not satisfied with his body of work, returns to his famous club, Birdland, to write a symphony that summarizes his entire musical career.  While reflecting on his life, he is visited by the many people: his former lovers, his best friend and his mother.  They take him back through his memories and moments in his life:  from his early career to his collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie to his incarceration for his rampart drug use.  One can see why Parker’s life was written into an opera:  it was complex, disordered, and tragic. 


The device of telling the story starting with his death and flashing back to important moments in his life was interesting and compelling; but more than that, the voices are what drove the action (this is an opera after all).  Lawrence Brownlee played Charlie Parker.  The tenor’s lively voice carried the entire show and nimbly reflected all the emotions involved:  the sadness of his death, the chaos of his drug addiction and the joy of his musical partnership (which included some singing in a bebop style).

Lawrence Brownlee & Will Liverman's performance included some singing in a bebop style


The other stand out performance was Parker’s mother Addie played by powerhouse vocalist, Angela Brown.  The soprano’s voice stopped the show with its beauty, power, and poignancy.  Brown’s voice was able to emote the sentiment of losing a child, which generated a wave of empathy in the audience.  It was a remarkably expressive performance.

Angela Brown’s voice stopped the show with its beauty, power, and poignancy

Although no jazz music was played during the opera, there were hints of jazz in the production.  There was stylized singing that resembled bebop with hints of trumpet and alto saxophone in the orchestration.  These borrowed jazz elements were used to create an atmosphere, but this was still very much an operatic musical production.

Being a modern opera (it debuted in 2015) Yardbird doesn’t have all the elements of a traditional opera.  This is not a triumphant hero’s journey (quite the opposite), it is set in the US, there was no elaborate sets or costuming. However, my absolute favorite part of this modern opera was hearing the word “dude” sung in a vibrato. 

One can see why Parker’s life was written into an opera: it was complex, disordered, and tragic

Through his interactions with his loved ones and colleagues, Parker overcomes all the things that held him back: his bad relationships, his personal loss, his drug addiction.  Ultimately Parker sings a touching song to the one thing in his life that he got right.  He sings a song to his saxophone and realizes that there is no need to stay on this earth to write some great masterpiece because his existing work is already considered legendary.  His redemption is his music.  


Go to the Lyric Opera Website for more information

Photos provided by the Lyric Opera

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