Nicknamed "Bird" because of his airborne sense of freedom, jazz icon Charlie Parker will have his alto saxophone replaced by the tenor voice of Lawrence Brownlee in the opera Yardbird - being developed by Opera Philadelphia for a June 2015 premiere at the Kimmel Center.
The project is to be announced Thursday at the National Opera Center in New York, partly to accommodate Brownlee's performance schedule in that city, where he sings regularly at the Metropolitan Opera. Also, the opera's Swiss-born composer, Daniel Schnyder, is based in New York, as is Gotham Chamber Opera, the development partner in an arrangement similar to the partnership that produced Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters. This time, though, roles will be reversed: The Philadelphia company will give the premiere, and thus, lead the opera's initial development. Though Opera Philadelphia has co-commissioned numerous new operas, Yardbird is the company's first world premiere in three decades.
"We know how to deal with that," said music director Corrado Rovaris. "We have the organization now. It's stronger." Three other companies have expressed interest in coproducing.
The opera has been in the talking stages for three years, starting when Rovaris encountered a concert of Schnyder's music in Lausanne, Switzerland. "Usually with composers who cross over, you have someone who is strong on the jazz side or very strong on the classical side," Rovaris said. "But Daniel has a strong classical background, yet can do jazz improvisation. I thought that was unique."
Opera Philadelphia had been keen to create an opera for Brownlee, one of the top American bel-canto tenors. After one of his performances, Schnyder felt he had heard Parker's sax in Brownlee's voice. Poet/playwright Bridgette A. Wimberly, whom Schnyder met through her drummer brother when they collaborated in a piece titled Sundiata Keita, was his choice as librettist. Her eight plays have been produced all over the United States.
Her already-workshopped Yardbird libretto tells Parker's story as a flashback, starting at the moment of his death in 1955 at age 34 from the accumulated effects of heroin abuse.
One of Parker's central regrets, especially as portrayed in the opera, was never having pursued non-improvisational composition. In real life, he was fascinated with Igor Stravinsky and envisioned a jazz/classical fusion - one step in that direction being his famous Charlie Parker With Strings album made in 1949 - that other musicians pursued in the decades after his death.
Elsewhere in the opera, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the women in Parker's life play major roles, especially his mother, who will be portrayed by soprano Angela Brown, a frequent Philadelphia visitor. Though some of Parker's signature music will be woven into the score ("Now's the Time," "Ornithology"), saxophones will not be heard, in favor of Brownlee's coloratura tenor.
"You cannot get too close to [Parker's music] because then you start to miss the man," composer Schnyder wrote in an e-mail. "I'm very happy that there is no sax in the orchestra, and I'm sure nobody wants to do that job [for fear of unfavorable comparison]."
"This isn't like a biopic," said David Devan, Opera Philadelphia's general director. "It's more about his relationship to music-making . . . what he wanted to leave behind . . . what he didn't get a chance to do because he died so young.
"Portraying any icon is loaded with risks," Devan added. "If anything, our biggest concern is making sure we're dealing . . . with the facts of the story in an honest way."
Parker's drug use will figure into the opera, though how much is unclear. Rovaris said the issue will be "looming in the background" but not portrayed graphically.
For Schnyder, having a female African American librettist (in Wimberly) was a key element: "A lot of the libretto is conceived from . . . the experience of a single African American woman raising a son. The danger with a jazz opera about someone like Charlie Parker or Miles Davis is that it becomes a macho thing, a men-only thing."
Born in 1961, Schnyder has an extensive catalog of works, including his Symphony No. 4 for the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich and The Tempest for the Bern Opera. His Trombone Concerto was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2002. The new Yardbird opera is consciously fashioned as a chamber work for Opera Philadelphia's Aurora Series at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.