Keeping the winter alive

Yardbird, Onegin and Portland jazz festival stir up the Northwest

In a 1954 radio interview, jazz saxophonist and bebop shaper Charlie Parker said that he wanted to play music that was “clean, precise, something that was beautiful, has a story to tell.” He insisted humbly that “my prime interest is in learning to play music. I never want to lose my horn.” Parker said that around the time he played Seattle’s Civic Auditorium, now McCaw Hall. That was one year before he died at 34 in New York City.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, the five-year-old 90-minute opera playing at Seattle Opera’s McCaw Hall through March 7, is more about Parker’s life than about his music. A saxophone appears only in the second act—through the radio. (An alto flute and regular flute are part of the orchestration, primarily to represent birds.) The opera is symphonic, in European style, rather than written or improvised as jazz in the American idiom, but several jazz jewels glitter throughout, including bits of Parker’s “Ornithology” and some first-act scatting. There are moments of Stravinsky and Beethoven, whose music Parker admired. The tenor, Joshua Stewart, who sang Parker’s part on Feb. 22, stands in for Charlie Parker’s tunefully relentless tenor saxophone. Stewart alternated performances with Frederick Ballantine as Parker for the run of the show.

Seattle Opera staged the new opera 'Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.' Photo by Sunny Martini.
Tenor Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker in Seattle Opera’s production of ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.’ Photo by Sunny Martini.

Stewart’s voice lacked the heft and honey tones of tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s, a regular at SO and the inspiration for Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder to write the piece for Opera Philadelphia, which commissioned it with Brownlee as Parker. But SO’s Stewart had a huge role to sing, and like Charlie’s saxophone, he sang soulfully. Schnyder, a jazz and classical musician as well as composer, said in a SO podcast that he didn’t want any musician tasked with playing the saxophone—in part as a tribute to Parker, and in part as an impossible job for any musician other than Parker. So no sax–at least, not the kind with reeds (several prop saxes decorated the stage).

The story begins and ends in the morgue, where Parker languished for days because no one was able to identify him. Though only 34, his body was so ravaged by addiction and illness that he was taken for a man in his 60s. Drunk and drugged, worsened by such medical complications as pneumonia, he passed away in the whites-only hotel suite of his glamorous jazz patroness, Baroness Pannonica (Nica) de Koenigswarter, part of the Rothschild family (sung by mezzo Audrey Babcock). Aside from heroin and booze, Parker and his fellow mid-century musicians battled racism.

Seattle Opera staged the new opera 'Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.' Photo by Sunny Martini.
Joshua Stewart as Charlie and Jennifer Cross as Doris in ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.’ Photo by Sunny Martini.

Parker spends the opera in a kind of purgatory between the afterlife and Birdland (the famous jazz club, named for him and brought to life in the opera by cafe tables and posters of mid-century jazz greats), coming to terms with the women in his life who loved him but came in second to his music. He had four “wives,” none of whom he officially divorced. Three are characters in the opera, plus patroness Nica. The others were soprano Jennifer Cross as religious Doris, who helped Parker crawl out from under mental illness during a 1947 stint at Camarillo State Hospital in California (eerily staged in the the opera with mental patients who seem to be floating); soprano Shelley Traverse as free-spirited Chan; and mezzo Chrystal E. Williams as first wife Rebecca, who knew “this land ain’t no place for a black man child who gots dreams,” as she sings with Addie, Parker’s doting anxiety-ridden single mother (soprano Angela Brown). He could not have survived without these women, but he knew he failed them all.

The opera also touches on his relationship with bebop and with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (baritone Jorell Williams). The opera is not exactly a series of flashbacks; it is more a vehicle showing how the musician–a musical perfectionist yet a troubled husband, son, father and human being–makes peace with himself. Bridgette Wimberly’s poetic libretto (her musician uncle was a Charlie Parker devotee who overdosed on heroin) reflects her lifelong mission to learn about the brilliant beleaguered musician. Wimberly is a poet and playwright, and this was her first libretto; when Schnyder received her 80-page first draft, he told her it would make a four-hour Wagnerian opera. Together, composer and librettist cut the text–then argued, cut it more, and reshaped it. The final result is witness to Parker’s fluent musical life and troubled tragic personal life.

Seattle Opera staged the new opera 'Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.' Photo by Philip Newton.
Jorell Wiliams as Dizzy Gillepsie plays off Charlie Parker in ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.’ Photo by Philip Newton.

Kelly Kuo, the conductor from Hermiston, Ore., had a stressful job keeping the orchestra in synch with the musicians, partly due to the score’s uneven and sometimes eccentric rhythms. But he did it. He had to bridge the worlds of classical music and jazz, as the opera does—and which Parker hoped to do. Part of the opera’s hook is Parker’s obsessive desire to write a huge orchestral piece. He never got beyond putting down 32 bars. It haunts him throughout the opera.

Yardbird is sung in English, but it has supra titles, just in case. Even Bird fans will learn a lot about Parker, and the poetry of the music and of the libretto are well worth experiencing.

Seattle Opera staged the new opera 'Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.' Photo by Philip Newton.
“Birdland,” the metaphysical setting of ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.’ Photo by Philip Newton.

Parker and Pushkin

Seattle Opera does a fairly balanced job of alternating lovely old operas with spare new ones, as it did this winter with January’s Eugene Onegin and February’s Yardbird. New general director Christina Scheppelmann did not curate the 2019-2020 season; her first is coming up later this year. 

On the chestnut side, in January, SO staged the three-act three-plus-hour setting of Alexander Pushkin’s 19th-century classic poem, Eugene Onegin, which premiered in 1879 in Moscow. SO’s production told the Russian tale lushly, with Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s sweeping romantic score and libretto intensely played, with Isabella Bywater’s richly textured blood-red and sapphire-blue costumes, and with moody lighting by Robert Wierzel.

And it was sung in Russian—a language we don’t hear much onstage around here. It gave opera-goers a chance to hear contralto Meredith Arwady as the servant Filipevna. Contraltos are as rare as Russian-sung operas in these parts, so it was a treat. Maestro Aleksandar Markovic worked with singers “to ensure their Russian was properly pronounced and idiomatic, in terms of where the stress would fall, how the character would color each word,” said SO dramaturg Jonathan Dean. Misha Myznikov, who performed two smaller roles as Zaretsky and A Captain, served as a language coach, too. Beats me if all was properly pronounced but the lyric opera was sung beautifully.

Seattle Opera's production of 'Eugene Onegin.' Photo by Sunny Martini.
Marina Costas-Jackson, as Tatyana, sings for 13 minutes in the letter scene of Seattle Opera’s production of ‘Eugene Onegin.’ Photo by Sunny Martini.

The opera’s most astounding aspect was the length of its arias. In the second scene of the first act, Tatyana (soprano Marina Costa-Jackson who shared the role with Marjukka Tepponen) has fallen for the callous Onegin (baritone Michael Adams who alternated with John Moore). She pours out her heart in a letter to him, singing for 13 minutes straight. In the second act, poet Lensky (tenor Colin Ainsworth), the lover of Tatyana’s sister Olga, sings for more than six minutes about his poetry, love life, and dread of death, before dueling with Onegin, to whom he loses and then dies. Singers must be in top shape to perform these mini-operas, and these handsome vocalists were up to the task.

As with any good story, the plot turns, and Tatanya moves on and marries a prince. Onegin sees her again and realizes he has blown his chance — but he tries for a comeback. She rejects him. Onegin and the opera end with regrets and despair. Tatanya is the heroine, even if the opera and the Pushkin poem are named for the miserable man. It’s not exactly a tragedy. Onegin deserves the despair—and he does survive, even if his manhood and hopes are crushed.

Seattle Opera's production of 'Eugene Onegin.' Photo by Sunny Martini.
Marjukkah Tepponen as Tatanya rejects John Moore as Onegin. Photo by Sunny Martini.

Scheppelmann’s first curated season

In Seattle Opera general director Scheppelmann’s first season as curator (2020-21), we’ll see Donizetti’s Elixir of Love (yawn) and the premiere of Flight, a contemporary opera set in an airport terminal, starring Korean Canadian countertenor David DQ Lee. Don Giovanni, Pagliacci & Cavalleria rusticana and Tosca fill out the chestnut schedule. Canadian stage director Brenna Corner and conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, the 33-year-old symphonic director of the Chicago Opera Theater, will lead the Giovanni production, so expect a different DG.

PDX Jazz Festival–growing younger?

About half of the Biamp PDX Jazz Festival’s 28 shows sold out during its run from Feb. 19 through March 1. It was a good year, said general director Chris Doss, who added that this season has brought “amazing diversity among the audience, particularly much stronger attendance from younger patrons and guests attending the festival for the first time ever.” It’s about time. For too long, loyal grey-haired patrons have supported the 12-day festival.

About 80 percent to 90 percent of tickets sold out with such acts as Omar Sosa, Thundercat, Kenny Barron, locals Devin Phillips and Chris Brown, Brandford Marsalis and Tuck & Patti among the most popular. The festival has its finger on the set of developing artists so keep an ear out for singer Kandace Springs, Portland vocalist Jimmie Herrod, drummer Kassa Overall, vocalist/guitarist Ron Artis II and drummer Jonathan Barber. I’d add to that list Yilian Canizares (Omar Sosa’s Cuban violinist-vocalist side star); ethereal singer/songwriter Kat Edmonson and her Old Church opener, versatile vocalist Haile Loren from Eugene, Ore. Portland’s Blue Cranes deserved their spot with 82-year-old saxophonist Archie Schepp in the festival’s first week, and longtime Portland singer Rebecca Kilgore was honored as the 2020 Portland Jazz Master.

To further incorporate the community, the Jazz in the Schools poster contest was judged by a number of area people and included winners Leo Domingo of Ventura Park Elementary, Taylor Huntington of Evergreen Middle School, and Charlotte Deibele of Franklin High School. 

So just saying, the dead of winter has been fully alive.

Leo Domingo - Ventura Park Elementary School
Leo Domingo – Ventura Park Elementary School
Taylor Huntington - Evergreen Middle School
Taylor Huntington – Evergreen Middle School
Charlotte Deibele - Franklin High School
Charlotte Deibele – Franklin High School

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published photographer and poet, and on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.

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