Opera And Jazz Mingle In 'Charlie Parker's Yardbird' : Deceptive Cadence The show explores the life of the jazz saxophonist, with Lawrence Brownlee in the title role. It opens this weekend at the Apollo Theater in New York — a stage where Parker played.
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Opera And Jazz Mingle In 'Charlie Parker's Yardbird'

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Opera And Jazz Mingle In 'Charlie Parker's Yardbird'

Opera And Jazz Mingle In 'Charlie Parker's Yardbird'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The famed Apollo Theater in Harlem isn't where people go to hear opera. This weekend, that changes. "Charlie Parker's Yardbird" will get its New York premiere there. It's an opera about the jazz saxophonist on the very stage where Parker played in his lifetime. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Swiss-born composer Daniel Schnyder is keenly aware of the skepticism. But as a jazz saxophone player himself who's also classically trained, he wants to combine his two favorite kinds of music.

DANIEL SCHNYDER: These two things are far apart from each other, and a lot of people think that that doesn't work together. But that's not true. It's actually a big chance to create something new.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CHARLIE PARKER'S YARDBIRD")

LAWRENCE BROWNLEE: (Singing, unintelligible) Birdland, Birdland, Birdland.

LUNDEN: Schnyder was commissioned by Opera Philadelphia to compose a work for tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a rising star in the opera world who's made his reputation singing in the 19th century bel canto style.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CHARLIE PARKER'S YARDBIRD")

BROWNLEE: (Singing, unintelligible).

SCHNYDER: Bel Canto is a kind of virtuoso art form where you have to sing very fast and very high and you have to have a very flexible voice. And then we had a meeting and I met Larry and that just came to my mind, you know, that he would be the perfect Charlie Parker.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER SONG, "ORNITHOLOGY")

LUNDEN: Lawrence Brownlee leapt at the chance to portray the influential jazz musician, one of the founders of bebop, who died at the age of 34 after a lifelong battle with substance abuse. Brownlee says he had to learn how to use his voice like a jazz instrument.

BROWNLEE: With jazz musicians, they use the extremes of the instrument from very high to very low, fast, loud, soft and to really explore every possible color of an instrument. And so for me in this process with Charlie Parker, it was about exploring those things. I have to sing really high, really low, as loud as my loud - my version of loud - and soft and all the things in between.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CHARLIE PARKER'S YARDBIRD")

BROWNLEE: (Singing, unintelligible).

LUNDEN: And he has to scat sing. Composer Daniel Schnyder's music for "Yardbird" is not only jazz inflected, he's taken bits of Charlie Parker's own music and embedded it in the score.

SCHNYDER: When he says now's the time to write the piece, (scatting) then, actually, I'm using a part of the composition "Now's The Time." That's something that he wrote.

(SOUNDBTE OF CHARLIE PARKER SONG, "NOW'S THE TIME")

LUNDEN: The libretto for the opera is by Bridgette Wimberly, a Harlem-based poet and playwright. She's created something of a fantasia on Charlie Parker's life. "Yardbird" takes place in the three days between Charlie Parker's death and the discovery of his body, which the morgue mislabeled. In Wimberly's libretto, Parker is in a kind of limbo attempting to write a new piece of music and come to terms with his tragically short life.

BRIDGETTE WIMBERLY: He revisits a lot of places in the opera in search of himself. And ideally, at the end, he finds himself at peace.

LUNDEN: The opera looks at Parker's relationship with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie as well as his relationships with many of the women in his life - his mother, his patroness, his four wives, says Lawrence Brownlee.

BROWNLEE: The opera is about him touching back into these specific moments that led him into different directions. You know, he ended up in California in the insane asylum. Are you going to get all of Charlie Parker's life, per se, in 90 minutes? No, but we're going to touch on the major parts of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CHARLIE PARKER'S YARDBIRD")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing, unintelligible).

BROWNLEE: (Singing) What you asking?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing, unintelligible).

BROWNLEE: (Singing) What you asking?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Is it true?

LUNDEN: "Yardbird" premiered in Philadelphia last June to rave reviews from both classical and jazz critics. Now it's being brought to the Apollo Theater in Harlem where Charlie Parker performed. Librettist Bridget Wimberly says she couldn't be more excited.

WIMBERLY: His spirit is here. So this opera being on this stage, he's going to be all over the joint.

LUNDEN: Once the Harlem run is over, Charlie Parker's "Yardbird" will move to Chicago and other cities. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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