Landing ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ a major coup for Madison Opera

Jazz great's tragic life remarkably staged
Landing ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ a major coup for Madison Opera
Photo by James Gill
Joshua Stewart plays the title role in "Charlie Parker's Yardbird."

Knowing the backstory of how “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” came to Madison makes the impressive production all the more remarkable. That’s what I took away from the Friday, Feb. 10, staging of Daniel Schnyder’s work, by Madison Opera in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center for the Arts.

Ours was only the second opera company to stage the work since its 2015 premiere at Opera Philadelphia. Credit for that goes to general director Kathryn Smith. She attended that first performance in Philly and, halfway through, knew she wanted to bring it to Madison.

Smith not only beat Lyric Opera of Chicago to the punch (the production heads there after Sunday’s 2:30 p.m. matinee), but managed to secure four of the seven principal singers, the director and the lighting designer. It is this early recognition of artistic acumen that has marked Smith’s tenure here and blessed local opera lovers.

In “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” Swiss-born composer Daniel Schnyder–already well established in both the jazz and classical worlds–and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly tell the story of one of the most famous figures in jazz, a man who by some accounts virtually invented be-bop. Schnyder does it by incorporating be-bop riffs here and there. For her part, Wimberly sets us on a nonlinear, intentionally dreamy/nightmarish journey on the occasion of Parker’s death, March 12, 1955. Battling heroin addiction, alcoholism and a heart condition, Parker was only 34 when he died.

After his body lay in a morgue unclaimed for two days, we see the spirit of Parker return to the iconic jazz club Birdlan. He then has a series of encounters with his benefactor, Baroness “Nica” de Koenigswater, in whose room at the segregated Stanhope Hotel he died. Parker also sees three of his four wives, his mother and Dizzy Gillespie.

The role of Parker is brought to life by Joshua Stewart, who was the understudy for the world premiere production of “Yardbird.” He possesses a wonderfully lithe and attractive tenor instrument. One just wishes he hadn’t been drowned out by the ensemble during the opening number. (At least that’s how I perceived it from Row C in the balcony of the Capitol Theater.) But Stewart’s interactions with the various key characters in his Parker’s life were always compelling, and he held the stage for nearly the entire 100 minutes of the work, presented without intermission.

Every singer in the production is strong. Among them, Will Liverman as Gillespie–who was here in “Barber of Seville” a few seasons ago, but was also in “Yardbird’s” premiere performances. Wimberly gives him one of the best lines: “You are the other half of my heartbeat.”

Just as riveting are Angela Brown as Parker’s mother, Addie; Krysty Swann as Rebecca Parker, his first wife; and Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan, Parker’s last partner.

The scenes and costumes used here were constructed by Opera Philadelphia. The stage is dominated most of the night by large letters that spell “Birdland,” accompanied by a photo of a jazz great. With that staging also came Ron Daniels, the original director, who makes great use of the characters’ movements.

The most powerful visual scene is the one that moves out of the club to the Camarillo State Mental Hospital, where Parker stayed for seven months in 1946 following an episode of public nudity and setting fire to a hotel room. Here we see Parker and other inmates in strait jackets, hearing voices until Parker is finally rescued by his then wife Doris, played convincingly by Angela Mortellaro.

As is often the case at Madison Opera performances, the singers have to be great not to be overshadowed by the pit musicians and maestro John DeMain. He deftly led a group of 15 players through a score that sounded as familiar to them as “La Boheme.” During the curtain calls the applause swelled for DeMain. At one point he mimed flute-playing, to ensure that Stephanie Jutt received due credit for her wonderful traversal of a major exposed passage.

If you can get a ticket for Sunday’s matinee, grab it. It might not be the perfect Valentine’s date, but you will experience a work that will nourish you far longer than empty calories.

Greg Hettmansberger reviews opera and classical music for Madison Magazine.