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BWW Interview: With CHARLIE PARKER'S YARDBIRD, Tenor Lawrence Brownlee Goes from Bel Canto to Bebop

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee as famed jazz saxophonist
Charlie ("Bird") Parker.
Photo: Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

You may have heard Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong or Sarah Vaughn singing scat--that improvisational jazz singing style that uses nonsense syllables, something akin to the florid cadenzas sometimes added to operatic arias--but they have nothing on opera's Lawrence Brownlee.

Tenor Brownlee, who's justly acclaimed for his high notes--forget about a high C; how about an F above that!?--just finished the New York premiere of the Daniel Schnyder opera CHARLIE PARKER'S YARDBIRD (Bridgette A. Wimberly, librettist), at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where famed jazz saxophonist Charlie ("Bird") Parker performed many times. Parker is a role that was written expressly for him and he first performed it at Opera Philadelphia nearly a year ago--but that doesn't mean it was without its challenges.

Head-to-head scatting

In one scene of this impressionistic work--as the musician tries to deal with unfinished business after his untimely death has left him, unidentified, in the morgue--Parker goes head-to-head scatting with another jazz great, Dizzy Gillespie (sung by baritone Will Liverman). Of course, in true operatic style, this scat session is not improvised at all, but written down on paper. Nevertheless, Brownlee wanted to get his style to appear authentic, even if he wasn't really improvising. "I get to scat several times in the opera and wanted to make sure it sounds realistic when I do it," says Brownlee. "I even sat down with Daniel [Schnyder] a few days before we opened in New York for him to help me develop my scat language further--because it is used to bring through the intensity, the tenderness, the importance of certain moments," he explains.

Scatting wasn't the only challenge for someone who is more at home with operas by Mozart and other staples of the world's great opera houses. "The structure of this music is not like Rossini, for example"--he sings a snippet of an aria from BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA--"that's a normal progression of the classical vocal line. In this"--he sings a snippet from YARDBIRD--"I have to find the blue notes, bending them in places where you feel the natural dissonance or harmony. Though the opera is not jazz, the music takes its cues from jazz-- including motifs that actually come from Parker's music--and resolves itself in the way that jazz does, which is different from the logical way that it's done in the classical writing style of Rossini or Donizetti."

More than a 19th-century-opera superstar

Composer Schnyder was familiar with Brownlee's voice before he set to work on the commission from Opera Philadelphia, first from YouTube videos and recordings, then from hearing Brownlee in performance. But Brownlee is more than a 19th-century-opera superstar: He brings an unusual array of skills to the party. "Well, this is definitely a different approach to singing from the usual thing I do," he says, "but the special thing I have that has been of great help is the variety of music styles I've worked in."

He continues," I grew up singing gospel, used to do musical theatre stuff, worked in an amusement park as a singer and dancer who did everything from '50s tunes to some Broadway pieces. I played the bass guitar in a cover band, directed a gospel choir at university. I've done lots of things, so I feel that music is music--while trying to be flexible and not be strictly defined by who I am usually as a singer.

Right for Rossini but not for YARDBIRD

"But, let's face it, I'm a bel canto singer; so I sometimes have to catch myself doing things that are right for singing Rossini but not necessarily right for YARDBIRD. For example, let's use the phrase 'what a night,' where I would usually clearly enunciate those final t's. As Charlie Parker, I would want it to be more fluid," he says, repeating the phrase with soft t's at the ends. "I need to find these things to make it work stylistically, so that people won't feel that I'm an imposter, an opera singer who just happens to be singing something else. I'm a performer who's trying to live in the style that I'm doing at this moment. Here, it's an opera but it's in the style of jazz."

As for making Charlie Parker come alive as a character on stage, Brownlee wasn't too worried about coming up with a strictly biographical equivalent of the jazz man. "After all," he says, "there aren't too many people still around who saw him perform live and remember him clearly." On the other hand, he did want to try to get to the essence of the man. "I had my antennas up and looked at some videos to show me his mannerisms, the way he smiled, the way he held himself, his carriage. (I'm pretty short and I think he was maybe five inches taller than me.) But I tried to pin down his personality--when he smiled in a certain way, it meant that he liked something, which helped me create my own character.

Thinking about his addictions--but not just

"I know that many people, including myself, think about him and bebop, but they also think about his addictions, that he was pretty heavily into drugs, alcohol," says Brownlee. "How to bring that part of his life to the stage without its becoming the overwhelming thing we remember about him. I think his life is perfect to be an opera story, with his struggles and conflict, his tumultuous childhood, wanting to think that his music--which was so brilliant--should give him a certain place in society. It shouldn't all be about his addictions," even though they played a role in his untimely death at 36.

Did he have more freedom in creating his character because the opera doesn't take a strictly biographical approach? Of course--after all, this isn't a 700-page biography. "Many people know the lasting spirit of the man and his impact, in a very close and connected way. Bringing such an iconic figure to life is definitely a challenge. Yes, our story skims the surface, but my approach this time has been to peel more layers and go deeper into the transitions of his life and the challenges of it. It has to be done in a very smart way, to bring validity. But, honestly, this is fiction, although pointing in the direction of who Parker was."

To work with a living composer

But it's not simply developing the dramatic character of Parker that Brownlee found so appealing. "The thing I really like about creating a role like this," says Brownlee, "is that I get to work with a living composer." It's been fun, he admits, having something that was written for him, but he also likes having some flexibility to change things, if needed. "For example, some things work in the context of the story but don't necessarily fit into the voice. Daniel has been very flexible saying 'whatever works for you,' telling me that we could find the way to make things right for me. He's been very open about doing that." Similarly, he recalls that librettist Wimberly was ready to change wording that might not have fit well vocally, like open vowels on high notes.

How much feedback did he give, regarding changes he needed in the score, I wondered? "Sometimes I would sing something that I changed because it worked better. I would sing it without his permission," says Brownlee frankly. "And he would say, 'That actually works' or he would say, 'Why don't you try this? If there's something that works, we'll find it.'" And, while this is not a jazz opera, it does reflect jazz, which is an improvisatory style, and Brownlee feels he needs to let his performance be slightly different from day to day. "It might be a rhythmic thing, a color thing , or whatever. It should not be the same every time, because I doubt you would ever hear a jazz musician play his solo exactly the same every time.

"It definitely challenges me"

"YARBIRD's not outside my comfort zone, but it definitely challenges me. When I go to the theatre to do DON PASQUALE, LA CENERENTOLA, DONNA DEL LAGO (which he did at the Met this season), I'm like, hey, this is what I do. But when I get to the theatre here," he explains, "it's like, I have to tap into something else. Dramatically, this is one of the most challenging things I've ever done and when I came back to do it in New York, I said, 'I want more--I know there's more there.' Finding some of the transitions from his happiness to sadness, to his frustration, those are some of the things I'm trying to develop outside of the vocal requirements that this role also demands."

Tenor Brownlee as Giacomo V in
Photo: Marty Sohl/ Metropolitan Opera

Despite the fact that the opera uses different musical language from the bel canto landmarks he mentioned, since the role was written for him specifically, I wondered whether it was easy for him to learn. He laughs. "No, it wasn't. I like to think I'm a pretty smart study--generally, I have enough theory and can plunk out my part on the piano. But I spent lots of time working on this with Lisa Keller, an opera coach and teacher from the faculties of Curtis Institute of Music and Opera Philadelphia. She lived with this piece and knew it well, and was able to help me nail down certain things--like the unique demands on the voice when it has to enter on a certain note," he explains. "She was able to talk to me from a theoretical standpoint and say, 'Okay, just remember you have to be a perfect fifth away from this note. And it comes two measures before, in the clarinet line.' Picking out those places was very helpful for me, though it took some time for it to stick," he admits. "But learning it the first time made it easier to come back to this time in New York."

Harder than Bellini

Was this role harder to learn it than, say, one in a Bellini opera? In a word, yes. "It took some time," he said honestly. "The interesting thing about Daniel [Schnyder], who is a jazz saxophonist as well as composer, is that he has very much a jazz mind," he continues. "We classical singers stay pretty much in a two octave range but if you think of jazz musicians--pianist, saxophonist, trumpeter--they use the extremes of the instrument, singing very very high and really really low (it can be over four octaves), really really fast, and very very slow --and everything in between.

"So Daniel's writing has been a great challenge for me--and one that I've enjoyed--trying to use my voice much more like that of a physical instrument," says the singer. "Trying to bring the different colors of my voice out has been fun for me--while the same can be true in classical opera, it happens in a different way here."

So many jazz elements

"Of course, anytime you learn something that's so difficult, there are challenges--in this because there are so many jazz elements--but if you take the time to learn something once, it's in there. Coming back to it a year later, getting ready for the New York performances, I spent a few weeks with it just recalling it. Being with my colleagues and the atmosphere of the music was great--Corrado Rovaris, our conductor (and Music Director of Opera Philadelphia), is so clear with giving cues and that's critical because of the piece's mixed meter."

"When I was younger, my teacher always told me that, to succeed, you have to have a cool head and a warm heart, not a hot head and a cool heart. I always try to think from an intelligent, cool-minded place in anything I do. That's another of the reasons that I like this role YARDBIRD so much: The way it's written, I can sing as efficiently as possible but not get so married to the technique that people can appreciate what I do beyond the technical level. Which, of course, is what people often like about bel canto: the vocal fireworks, the 'wow that's difficult and he can sing those notes fast.' But you also have to say something with it," he concludes, "and I always try marrying the two."


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