The cast of 'Charlie Parker's Yardbird' at Seattle Opera. Photo by Sunny Martini.

Seattle Opera’s ‘Yardbird’ Tells a Story, But a Tired One

What’s billed as the story of a jazz great taking care of unfinished business after his untimely death, winds up a tale of addiction to drugs and White women. It runs through March 7. 

 

The premise of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird — an opera by Daniel Schnyder (music) and Bridgette A. Wimberly (libretto), on now at Seattle Opera — is an interesting one.

What would you do if the undone haunted you after death? What if you could come back and finish your masterwork?

In a day when there are so many distractions, and so little seems done, it’s a concept that feels instantly relatable. Add the untimely death of an early jazz virtuoso, and following that story’s protagonist after death is all the more compelling.

Unfortunately, the work quickly abandons the most interesting points of the concept — namely, the music, and the haunting of the undone masterpiece — and replaces it with the perennial fodder for the fallen celebrity: drugs and bad relationships.

Regrettably, I hated just about everything about this show, from the score to the script to the production.

To this story, the score doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t shed light on the gifts of Charlie Parker the musician, nor on the time. All were entirely forgettable; parts sounded like cheesy old movie scores; and the instrumental performance managed simultaneously to be both underwhelming and to drown out the singers.

The script was borderline offensive in its surfacey portrayal. After the show, I don’t know anything new about the musician’s works or his process, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to. All I know is this was a man who was raised by Black women and gave rise to Black children, but saved his true love for White women and heroin. His music, it appeared, fell somewhere in between. This story leaves too much unmined, too content to stop at addiction and tragedy.

As for Seattle Opera’s production of it, it had a great many letdowns as well.

I know the Opera and McCaw Hall can produce a stunning, dramatic set. This wasn’t it. Paired against that of Eugene Onegin (see NWT’s review here), which beautifully conveyed a mood and stole the viewer away into the land of the production, this gave us dreary thrift store cafe tables and a block-letter backdrop. Why? Was the Birdland club not deserving of its own feeling? Was there a reason it had to share the set with a morgue?

I understand that opera singers don’t always need to be mic’d. But if the stage needs to be mic’d because you can barely hear anyone, someone should notice that. And this stage needs to be mic’d. You can barely hear the singers. That’s a problem.

An acclaimed soprano is on stage in Angela Brown. Yet you can barely hear her at several points; her costumes aren’t doing anyone any favors; and, in that light, it looked like someone had painted her face two completely different hues. (What happened? Take care of your performers!) 

Okay.

Let me talk about the things I did like. I like the portraits in those giant block BIRDLAND letters, I just wish they spent less time on stage. I like the use of actors in the background. I like the dance interlude (of about five minutes), choreographed by Donald Byrd, which Spectrum’s Mikhail Calliste performed beautifully and which was perhaps the most introspective aspect of the whole 90-minute show. I love the vocals of Chrystal E. Williams (as Rebecca, Parker’s first wife) and Jennifer Cross (as Doris, Parker’s second wife), and would happily listen to them again in any other setting.

I’d love to see an opera on the creative process of Black musicians and their setting. This wasn’t it.

Worst of all, it’s not at all clear, at least from their stage product, that the writers took the time to know the musician, and his dreams for himself and his craft. What shows through instead is a distractable man, a life of bad decisionmaking, and a musician whose most potent passions were everywhere but in his music.

 

The verdict: Disappointingly, not recommended.


Charlie Parker’s Yardbird (Seattle Opera) runs through 3/7 at McCaw Hall, at the Seattle Center. Ticket prices vary; showtimes and info here.  Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available by most of them. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: several discount options available, both in advance and same-day; see info here.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.