Chatting With the Women of YARDBIRD
Rachel Sterrenberg, Chrystal Williams, and Angela Mortellaro all play the wives of the same man in Opera Philadelphia’s upcoming production of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, and before you think that the opera’s drama stems from these three women tearing each other apart on stage over their husband’s infidelities, you ought to do some research on the real Charlie Parker. At least, that’s what these talented singers did before rehearsal.
The opera tells the story of Parker, a celebrated jazz prodigy, who was tortured by his own genius, in a sense. He took a number of wives and lovers, all of whom seemed to provide him with the inspiration that he needed … at the moment.
It all became very clear to Philadelphia soprano Sterrenberg, a Curtis grad and Opera Philly emerging artist, while she was watching a BBC documentary on the late jazz musician who is the subject of the opera. “There was something that really stuck with me. [Parker] had really specific times in his life, or stages, and through those stages, he needed something different,” she says. “There were different wives, different women, that he needed in these different parts of his life.”
Williams, the mezzo-soprano who plays Parker’s first wife in the production and a graduate of Philly’s Academy of Vocal Arts, agrees. “It’s the mark of an artist. He needed a muse to a certain degree. Everyone was attracted to him.”
And although these singers pay homage to Parker and the three women whom they portray, there’s a challenging line when one is playing a character who was a “real-life person,” not a work of fiction. It’s one thing to create Brünnhilde, but another thing to take on a living, breathing human being. How do they manage that?
“It’s a fantastical setting, and not biographical per se,” says Mortellaro, who is performing in her third opera with the company after stints in Silent Night and Nabucco. “The librettist built a type of persona through our music with specific scenes. It helped quite a bit, and we bring a certain amount of respect to the story. There’s books and videos about Parker, and it’s really nice to tap into those, but the opera’s focus is really on Charlie and his journey.”
It’s not the only challenge that the production faces: It’s a world premiere of a new work. Philly audiences will be the first to experience Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, one in the line of many new operas that the company has taken stake in over the last several seasons. It’s a risk for just about everyone involved, but one that is necessary, according to the three artists.
“New work is really important,” says Williams. “There’s an evolution, and just like people, art is growing and changing. It’s what is being produced. … This show is unique because of the influence of jazz. It makes it a lot more approachable to people. It’s like a jazz club, and everyone is welcome.”
Mortellaro, who was a young artist at Minnesota Opera, has been featured in a plethora of new work before and is inspired by how the art form can produce so many different styles.
“There’s a breakdown of the rules of what opera is,” she says. “This is something new to be offered, and it’s changing our expectation of opera.”
“Rules are being broken here,” adds Sterrenberg, who referenced Opera Philadelphia’s upcoming production of Cold Mountain next season. “And it’s exciting to break the rules.”
Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD runs June 5 through June 14. For tickets and more information, click here.