Opera Review: Madison Opera memorializes jazz legend

Opera Review: Madison Opera memorializes jazz legend
James Gill
Angela Brown as Addie Parker, Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie; Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan Parker; Angela Mortellaro as Doris Parker; Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker; Krysty Swannas Rebecca Parker

The annual midwinter performance of Madison Opera’s subscription season often has empty seats.

The opera uses the midwinter effort to experiment with new offerings, little-known operas and … well, you don’t often find Puccini in February.

Not so this weekend. The Friday night performance of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” was sold out, truly sold out. A half-hour before curtain it was 96 percent sold out and the remaining few tickets were gone before Conductor John DeMain strode to the podium.

Charlie Parker was a legendary jazz saxophone player who died at age 34 in 1955 of pneumonia exacerbated by drug abuse, alcoholism and heart disease.

His nickname was “Yardbird,” hence the title. The opera, which premiered in Philadelphia 2015, was composed by Daniel Schnyder, who was at Friday’s performance, with a libretto by Bridgette Wimberly.

So, it is a new opera. It is not a jazz opera – we never hear Parker play and the score, while lively, isn’t jazz and most certainly isn’t improvised, a hallmark of Parker’s music. The lyrics, as I said, are not Puccini. Modern opera tends to eschew the soothing tones of bel canto favorites in favor of what I consider to be kind of a harsh, but difficult, renditions of beautiful music.

And the audience loved it, loved every minute of it, gave the cast an unusually long standing ovation.

To me, “Yardbird” had a couple of ups and a couple of downs.

The staging was wonderful. The opera opens with a sparse set featuring a corpse on a gurney, covered with a tarp. You pretty much know the corpse must be Parker.

Parker, himself, then shows up with a sax and starts singing that he is back at the Birdland night club (where he has been periodically banned) and wants to work on some unfinished music before disappearing into the after life.

He is then visited by his mother, former wives and lovers, friend Dizzy Gillespie, and Baroness Pannonica de Koensigwarter, a rather odd jazz patron in whose apartment Parker died.

Oh, and Moose, Parker’s drug dealer, who is bound to a wheel chair and who periodically rolls silently onto the set, presumably to sell the musician drugs.

It is kind of a cool way to introduce the audience to a lot of people who knew Parker over a long time, all while using one set.

Parker was also confined to a mental hospital and the scene that recalls that hospitalization is particularly memorable: Parker and a number of other inmates are placed in straight jackets and stand on elevated platforms not much bigger than their feet. After a few minutes the audience begins to wonder whether one of them might fall off the platform.

The cast delivered a strong performance. I’d say Angela Brown, who sang the roll of Charlie’s mother (and who also sang in Opera in the Park last summer) was particularly good, as was Julie Miler, who sang the role of the baroness.

Parker’s role was sung by Joshua Stewart, who also took a difficult role and made it real.

So, where’s the downside?

Well, there really isn’t any jazz in the opera. I’m sure there’s a reason for that, especially since Schnyder is a jazz composer (or, I suppose, there is jazz in the opera and I just didn’t get it, a very real possibility).

But, more than that, there isn’t any particularly good reason for us to care about the title character. The opera offers no evidence that Parker particularly cared about those women who loved him. It doesn’t convince us that some great good might have happened should Parker have lived.

Instead, we find the story of a very talented person whose gifts are cut short because of drug addiction. And that’s a tragedy, of course. But it’s no more a tragedy than the story of a very talented person whose gifts are cut short because of cancer or who dies in an airplane crash.

Which goes back to the lack of Parker’s music in the opera. One reason why the “Buddy Holly Story” is a great play and a great movie is that it keeps reminding us of Holly’s great hits and how much we miss them.

But, as I said, the Friday audience absolutely loved this performance, so you might want to take my tut tuts with a grain of salt.

“Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” will be performed again Sunday at 2:30 in the Overture Center ‘s Capitol Theater.