“Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” is an opera infused with jazz references. In other words, a perfect vehicle for tenor Joshua Stewart.
Stewart, who grew up singing jazz before he discovered operatic music, performs the title role in Madison Opera’s upcoming production of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.” First staged in 2015, the 90-minute opera marks its Midwest premiere with performances Friday, Feb. 10, and Sunday, Feb. 12, in Capitol Theater.
The opera starts at the death of 1940s jazz great Charlie Parker, and weaves back and forth through time to look at his relationships, motivations and struggles. Madison Opera general director Kathryn Smith said she “instantly knew it would be a perfect opera for Madison” when she first saw the piece.
The saxophonist Parker also was a fitting subject for Daniel Schnyder, who composed the music. A renowned Swiss composer and sax player with feet in both the contemporary music and jazz worlds, Schnyder will be in Madison Thursday for a special concert and discussion of Charlie Parker’s music.
Parker, who died at age 34 in 1955, led a troubled personal life, marked by heroin addiction. But he remains one of the most important developers of bebop and a towering figure in jazz history.
“I think Charlie Parker is one of the greatest musicians of all time. He changed music totally,” Stewart said. “But also there’s the element of the time, which is also common now, sadly, of drug abuse. This (opera) is interesting because it’s about Charlie Parker, but it’s Charlie Parker the person.”
“Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” “is not a documentary,” said director Ron Daniels, who also served as the dramaturg for the opera and has been its only director. The libretto is by Bridgette A. Wimberly.
“It’s — what would you call it? — a meditation on his life. Although one thinks of a meditation as kind of passive,” Daniels said. “And the piece is not. It’s vibrant, and full of life.”
The story is set in “limbo,” he explained.
“Charles has died, and his body has been taken to the morgue, where it’s lying with a ‘John Doe’ tag tied to his foot. The concept is essentially that, while his identity wasn’t discovered for something like 48 hours as he lay there, his spirit wanders and is about to accomplish something that he wanted to do in his life, and that was to write an orchestral masterpiece.”
As Parker begins writing, he re-encounters the women in his life, including his three wives, his mother and the baroness in whose apartment he died.
“And also he encounters Dizzy Gillespie,” Daniels said. “Each of these women brings a series of themes about his identity, who is he and what does he believe in and where does his genius actually lie. And how this genius — and he really was an American genius — also had such a fraught, tempestuous personal life.”
The cast of the Madison Opera production of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” includes Angela Brown as Addie Parker, Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie, Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan Parker, Julie Miller as Baroness Nica, Angela Mortellaro as Doris Parker and Krysty Swann as Rebecca Parker. Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain will conduct.
Composer Schnyder wrote the role of Parker (whose nickname was Yardbird, or Bird) in a range that is exceedingly challenging for a tenor, Stewart said.
“It’s like the Olympics, I’d imagine,” he said. “It has the entire tenor range, and more. The role, I’d say, is written for at least two different people. If I saw it, I would think, ‘This part is written for this type of voice.’ That’s what makes it so difficult.”
Stewart was the understudy for the role of Parker for acclaimed bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee when “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” was first staged by Philadelphia Opera, then in New York’s Apollo Theater. Stewart will continue in the title role as the opera moves from Madison to Chicago, where the Lyric Opera will present it at the Harris Theater in March.
Stewart started his singing career in, aptly, jazz. He grew up in New Orleans, singing professionally starting at about age 5, he said. He cut his first jazz CD at age 12.
Stewart describes his mother as a singer, dancer, actress, artist and author. She’s also a friend of one of the most famous names in jazz today, Wynton Marsalis, who gave young Stewart trumpet lessons.
Stewart’s jazz mentors told him to study classical vocal technique “in order to sing jazz forever,” the singer recalled. At about age 14, he saw a performance of Richard Strauss’ opera “Salome” on DVD, “and it blew my mind. At the time I thought opera was pretty predictable, not so dramatic. But Strauss is anything but predictable,” he said.
“Coming from a jazz background, the harmonies were really intense, and so was the story. To see the decapitation of St. John the Baptist as a boy — I was like, ‘Whoa, what? This is opera?’”
Stewart, a huge fan of Leonard Bernstein and that composer’s use of jazz in classical music, said that “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” also combines opera and jazz references “in a very respectful way.”
“It’s legit, as you’d say,” Stewart said. “For my jazz friends to hear it, I think they would also love the piece, because of these samples (from Charlie Parker’s music) that are inserted” into the contemporary operatic score.
“It seems (that people think) there’s a clash between jazz and classical music, but it’s really the same,” he said. “They’re cousins. Or brothers. It’s the same family — it’s all music. Different accents, but it’s all the same language. It touches you in a very visceral way.”