Opera Philadelphia brings 'Charlie Parker's Yardbird' to the Apollo Theater

Lawrence-Brownlee
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee will reprise his role as Charlie Parker in "Charlie Parker's Yardbird" at the Apollo Theater.

NEW YORK - The joint is jumping, but not necessarily in ways that originally made Ella Fitzgerald famous decades ago. Harlem's Apollo Theater remains a hub of African American musical culture - but the venue also strenuously adapts itself. There's digital foosball one week, with a giant playing table on the main floor - and then Opera Philadelphia arrives this Friday and Sunday for Charlie Parker's Yardbird, the Apollo's first foray into opera.

"Experimentation and emerging artists are part of our DNA," says Mikki Shepard, executive producer. "You say to yourself, 'How do you build on your legacy, whether it's with dance or theater - or opera?' . . .. And suddenly you have a broad palette of programming."

Even with formidable roadblocks along the way, Charlie Parker's Yardbird, with music by Daniel Schnyder and libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly, makes sense as the Apollo's first go at opera.

It won't be the last. Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo announced a three-project partnership Wednesday, continuing with the hip-hop opera We Shall Not Be Moved, directed by eminent choreographer Bill T. Jones (with composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph), and a yet-to-be-announced third project.

"It's a marriage that we didn't see coming," said Opera Philadelphia general director David Devan, "but sometimes they're the best ones because they're full of surprises."

"We could look at this opera as a one-time-only event, or we could say, 'What else is going on?' " says Shepard. "It's about voice, and that's what the Apollo is about."

That's why leading tenor Lawrence Brownlee compares walking onto the Apollo stage to his La Scala and Metropolitan Opera debuts: All have histories of great singing. But for all of its traditional Old World sumptuousness, the Apollo is where Brownlee talks about vocal idols such as Smokey Robinson rather than Luciano Pavarotti.

Devan loves the incongruity: "We like going places that others don't go. The relationship between the Apollo and Opera Philadelphia is unique. It allows us to make it our own, and stronger over time. It's not a competitive thing. It's in addition to what happens at 66th and Broadway [Lincoln Center]."

Having been shuttered a few times in its 82-year history (such as in the crime-ridden 1970s), the Apollo now thrives on bustling, congenial 125th Street - but as a nonprofit entity, somewhat similar to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. With 1,500 seats, the Apollo can't compete with Madison Square Garden any more than the Mann can compete with the South Philadelphia stadiums.

Often, the solution is niche presentations with a potentially wider mainstream appeal. Hip-hop talents who were launched at the Apollo have moved on, but the fusion of hip-hop and dance, a newer development, has found a home there.

The main roadblock between Charlie Parker's Yardbird and the Apollo was the collapse of the company originally supposed to do it. Opera Philadelphia successfully premiered it in June at the Perelman Theater. But the enterprising Gotham Chamber Opera - which had a history of using unconventional venues - was to present the opera at the Apollo. In September 2015, an unexpected financial crisis put Gotham out of business.

Devan had about 30 minutes of despair. Shepard had less. When Devan picked up the phone to call her, she was already dialing him. Miraculously, key parties were free in April, most significantly Brownlee, who was not part of the Gotham cast.

The big question was money. Having been at the Brooklyn Academy of Music during its spectacular emergence under Harvey Lichtenstein, Shepard has good fund-raising contacts in New York - but she discovered that foundations not normally interested in opera or the Apollo alone were excited by the combination, and they stepped up to the plate, Shepard said.

"Opera Philadelphia has a good reputation, the work itself got good reviews . . . and what gets really exciting is that Charlie Parker had a history at the Apollo," Shepherd said. "He did his first presentation of Charlie Parker with Strings at the Apollo in 1950. He had recorded it, but not performed it live. Now the album is a classic."

But the now-legendary saxophonist and bandleader was hardly an easy subject for an opera. He was said to have a gleeful sixth sense for when authorities were on the way to crack down on some of the jazz world's more nefarious activities. After years of drug problems and dealing with mental illness, Parker died in 1955 at 34 with unrealized ambitions. The opera's creators decided he would not be whitewashed, though Parker would not be seen using drugs on stage.

The opera is anchored in African American culture with librettist Wimberly, an accomplished poet and playwright. Swiss-born composer Schnyder, the driving force behind the project, has lived in Harlem for years and is steeped in American jazz. Questions about cultural ownership seem not to have arisen so far. The Apollo's priority has always been African American talent, but not exclusively, said Shepard. Benny Goodman played there, too.

Today, the theater hosts tour groups of all kinds - with such pride that security guards are amiably incredulous when you say you've never been there before. Devan admits he teared up when he first walked out of the subway and saw the towering Apollo Theater sign.

Might the classical-nerd complex keep opera types from feeling cool enough to be at the Apollo? At the end of his first rehearsal, Brownlee had to admit, "I don't have any swagger."

But maybe by the end of the week . . .

dstearms@phillynews.com