Charlie Parker, the ghost in limbo in Birdland

Daniel Schnyder, music
Bridgette A. Wimberly, libreto
World Premiere:
Philadelphia Opera. Perelman Theater. Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
Friday, June 12, 2015, 8:00 pm

What really happened in those days when Charles YardbirdParker, known as Birdwas dead in the suite of his millionaire patron, friend and supporter, Nica? She took two days to report his death to the authorities and to Bird´s family, and this ended in her disinheritance, divorce, and the loss of the custody of her childrenbut we are not talking only about her, but the grand and tortured life of Charlie Parker, famous Afro-American sax player who made a revolution in jazz music with trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie 

The opera takes place in a dark jazz club named for Bird.  Set in the 1950´s, much of the story reflects his most famous days in the 40’s. Black, white and red are the predominant colors of the stage set and costumes. Giant capital letters with the name of the club form the backdrop. They form the word BIRDLAND in black and sometimes project giant photos of jazz musicians from the 30-50s. 

On each side of the stage, there are cages with birds.  Otherwise the set is comprised simply of bistro tables and chairs as if in the jazz club.

The life of Charlie Parker is the search for freedom through music and relationships with the women who loved him. 

His wish in the opening is to leave his home in Kansas City where he first lived with his mother and then with his wife and baby. But while he looks for freedom, his relations with women, his mother, wives and lovers are shown to have been complicated and often unhappy. Racism in America is an important theme, and the color of the skin creates difficulties — his own mother accuses him of cheating on his wife “with white women”, and he puts him at risk of being lynched or murdered in Kansas.

Bird, looking for freedom, prays to God but doubts his existence because he allows so much suffering of black people.

Charlie Parker arrives in New York where he maintains several relationships which do not satisfy him, except the one with Dizzy Gillespie. The duet between Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie is the happiest time of the opera when they sing the duet “Revolution of sound and music, Bee-Bop”.

But as a result of much alcohol, overindulgence and the heroin as the horse to which Charlie Parker is hitched, finally, he is trapped by this slavery. Despite being advised by his friend “No more riding that far horse”, he manifests “I do what I want”.

Parker´s daughter with Chan died and he suffered a breakdown and is arrested and taken to the psychiatric hospital Camarillo in California. A dreamlike instrumental sequence featuring the flute soloist contrasts with the orchestra´s staccato accompaniment while zombie actors stand on chairs and remain immovable with their eyes lost in the distance.

After Bird is released, he comes back to New York and sings a love aria to his instrument, the sax, because it provides him the freedom he needs and allows him to express himself: “I choose you, my horn”. In that moment, the cages ascend and Bird´s own cadaver is rolled onto the stage.

The music of Schnyder draws on the style of American musical theater over an operatic base, and includes singing in solos and duets, through quartets and quintets, with arias and instrumental interludes.

The music features a number of rhythms in three and in four often with syncopation. I heard references to bebop, tango, the Charleston and the twist, also spirituals and fanfares, as well as arias sometimes in the form of verse and chorus as in American jazz, often with ascending and descending chromatic scales with tremolo. The orchestration is in the style of chamber music. Many times, like in a jazz band, the flute would have the lead. It represents the singing of the birds, or, indirectly, the character of Charlie Parker. Sometimes the playing is legato, and other times in the form of call and response. There were frequent melodic passages written to sound improvised at high speeds reminiscent of the style of bebop. The piano and drumset appear frequently as accompanists. Conductor Corrado Rovaris was clear in his direction of the small orchestra through many tempo changes.

The production design by Riccardo Hernández is effective. The production incorporates audio special effects and light projections by Scott Zielinski.

The opera features five soloists. Lawrence Brownlee, in the character of Charlie Parker, shows a nice and penetrating voice. However, the part requires a large range, and might benefit from a more dramatic voice. Brownlee demonstrates a good coloratura with good intonation and diction. Angela Brown, as Bird’s mother Addie, has a beautiful and powerful voice and sometimes a controlled vibrato with fine, powerfully penetrating high notes.  Tamara Mumford as Nica has a full and strong voice with a lustrous color. Angela Mortellaro singing Doris Parker delights us with a beautiful voice and excellent intonation. Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan,in some of her high notes, has a little too much vibrato. Chrystal Williams playing Bird’s first wife, has a wonderful voice and demonstrates excellent acting with a very good stage expression.  When the three widows sing their trio “My heart is broken / we love you forever” the vibrato and conflicting tone colors of the voices of Addie and Rebecca somewhat diminish the number. Will Liverman appears with a wonderful baritone voice, in tune, powerful and soft, as Dizzie Gillespie.

Finally, as the opera closes, the scenery ascends magically from the stage while Charlie Parker pronounces the words “This bird is free” then sings ascending scales on a ghostly “oo” reflected by the flutes of the orchestra, finishing with a stunning jazz-like cadenza.

To know more about Ana María Ruimonte Díaz de Lewine, go to

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *