Although the European premiere of this opera about the eponymous jazz composer and saxophonist, which was originally commissioned by Opera Philadelphia, is taking place at the Hackney Empire, it represents a collaboration between that venue and English National Opera. ENO has suggested that Daniel Schnyder’s creation is predominantly an opera with jazz influences rather than a jazz opera, although this has not stopped the term ‘be-bopera’ being used to describe it. It constitutes an analysis of Charlie Parker’s life told from the perspective of the moment after which he has just died in 1955. ‘Waking up’ in Birdland, the iconic New York City jazz club, in a place between life and death Parker resolves to write his symphonic masterpiece as a way of making sense of, or fulfilling, his time on earth.
Over the following ninety minutes different periods, and aspects, of his life are explored. These include his childhood, various loves, addictions and music as through a series of scenes he encounters his mother, his wives and fellow musician Dizzy Gillespie. In this way the story of his life is told broadly chronologically, although each scene also tends to focus on a theme such as addiction or oppression. In this way, the term ‘bird’ takes on multiple meanings as it refers to everything from his nickname to race relations as he frequently feels caged as a result of his skin colour.
The difficulty is that in exploring so many facets of his life, we are provided with such a plethora of information that it becomes difficult to make sense of, or feel much for, the man behind it all. As a result, because we see how he neglected wives and children and yet fail to connect with anything within him that, on its own terms at least, would justify him doing so, he is left seeming like an entirely selfish and unsympathetic individual.
There are plenty of ‘tortured geniuses’ with undesirable traits, and the purpose of a piece such as this should be to penetrate the person’s mind so deeply that we understand and forgive their human failings. Charlie Parker’s Yardbird does not really enable us to do this because, while it introduces many important themes surrounding his life, it still feels as if these are simply explained to us so that we fail to connect with the essence or soul of the man.
Parker finally realizes that his life’s work was his saxophone playing and this releases him from his ‘limbo’, enabling him to go towards the light. In this way, he concludes that there is no need for him to write his musical masterpiece. Since, however, we have not got sufficiently inside the character, and are thus inclined to take his poor treatment of others at its face value by simply seeing him as an egoist, the ending in which he is released feels arbitrary and hardly justified by what we have seen.
Musically the evening, which sees Clark Rundell conduct the ENO Orchestra, is successful with Schnyder’s score including elements of blues, bebop and other jazz styles alongside all of its dissonances and ‘classical’ sounds. Bridgette A. Wimberly’s libretto is good, if not quite outstanding, while the cast is strong with Angela Brown as Charlie’s mother Addie and Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie standing out in particular.
The evening, however, belongs to Lawrence Brownlee in the title role. In the score Parker’s vocal lines are quite unrelenting and so they do not allow Brownlee’s tenor to be shown at its absolute best, but this is still a world class, and never less than captivating, performance. While, however, the opera generally works well musically, its impact is somewhat marred by an approach that provides us with too much information on the themes that characterised the life of Charlie Parker, and not enough on the true essence of the individual who lay at the heart of it all.