Speed Read: A Rare Bird

The opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird is headed our way. A stellar cast will explore the jazz icon’s life and the loved ones who influenced his music on the historic Madam Walker Theatre stage—but in only one performance on March 16.

INDIANAPOLIS OPERA WANTS TO GET YOU UP TO SPEED ON PARKER. Five panel discussions are planned from February 15 through March 1. “These will be sort of informational performances,” says Shederick Whipple, Indianapolis Opera community outreach director, “not just about Charlie Parker but also about Indiana Avenue and jazz history.” Contact Indianapolis Opera at 317-236-2099 for the latest information about these events. They’ll offer a solid grounding in his work—unlike the opera itself.

OF THE 20 MUSICAL NUMBERS IN THE 90-MINUTE SHOW, ZERO ARE CHARLIE PARKER COMPOSITIONS. The production, composed by Swiss American composer Daniel Schnyder with the libretto by late playwright Bridgette A. Wimberly, is a fictionalized account of the artist’s struggle to write a final masterpiece while trapped in a sort of purgatory represented by Birdland, his New York City jazz club. The music is primarily devoted to the various inspirations (including his mother and his wives) and trials (racial inequality, his heroin addiction) that shaped his character. Yardbird isn’t so much a salute to jazz music as it is an operatic exploration of a jazz artist’s life and influences.

THAT’S PROBABLY JUST AS WELL. “You can’t ask an opera singer to sing jazz,” David Starkey, Indianapolis Opera general director and Yardbird producer, insists. “That’s one of the very few things that they really can’t do. Most classically trained singers can sing musical theater, art songs, country-western, even some pop. But jazz is unique because it’s far more instrumental in its construction.” Add to this the fact that Parker wasn’t a vocalist but a saxophonist.

BOOKING MADAM WALKER THEATRE WAS A LONG PROCESS, AND IT CAN ONLY ACCOMMODATE ONE PERFORMANCE. Indianapolis Opera describes the process started in 2019 as “not necessarily a smooth one.” Everything from an extensive remodeling of the theater to the pandemic gummed up the works. The time needed for staging Yardbird didn’t help. “[The theater is] used to bringing in projects that are one-day affairs,” Starkey says. “But we need multiple days, and that’s much more of a challenge for them to schedule.” Landing the storied stage for even just one performance was well worth the trouble, though.

THE VENUE GIVES YARDBIRD A SPECIAL HISTORICAL RESONANCE. It turns out Parker was something of a regular at Walker Theatre. He and Dizzy Gillespie fine-tuned their jazz shows there before taking them to Chicago. “This is the only venue and street where this opera has been produced that has an association with Parker himself,” Starkey says. “It’s unique to Indianapolis.”

IT’LL BE THE CABARET VERSION. The show’s staging was reorganized “to get the opera into nontraditional venues,” Starkey explains. Yardbird was first performed by Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera in full-scale opera houses. However, New York City’s Apollo Theater hosted the third production when an opera house fell through. The musicians performed onstage instead of being hidden away in a classic orchestra pit—a move that seemed more in keeping with the jazz club setting where much of the show takes place. “Walker doesn’t have an orchestra pit either, so the orchestra will become part of the set,” Starkey adds.

Photography by Tony Valainis
Renowned opera singer Angela Brown reprises the role of Addie Parker, Charlie Parker’s mother.

THE SHOW’S FEMALE LEAD IS AN INDY NATIVE. The role of Charlie Parker’s mother, Addie Parker, was literally written for Angela Brown, one of the leading voices of today’s opera scene. “Angela’s reprising the role of Addie Parker in her hometown,” Starkey notes. “And she’s been my artistic collaborator from day one.”

THANKS TO ANGELA BROWN, THE INDIANAPOLIS OPERA HAS ASSEMBLED THE MOST EXPERIENCED CAST OF ANY YARDBIRD PRODUCTION. Internationally famous tenor Martin Bakari is assuming the lead role, baritone Jorell Williams plays Dizzy Gillespie, and Clinton Smith, who originated the show’s “cabaret version,” conducts. “We have been able to assemble a world-renowned cast that’s on par with any other production that’s ever been done,” Starkey says. “That’s a testament to Angela Brown’s influence.”

IT WASN’T CHEAP. “It’s going to cost more than $100,000 to put this project together,” says Starkey. “It could even hit $200,000 after we add in marketing, staff, and outreach events.”

YOU MAY WANT TO GRAB TICKETS NOW. The theater only seats about 800 people, so visit indyopera.org tout de suite. Tickets run $39 to $92.