What if you died, but before your life was over — in those scant moments between taking your last breath and someone discovering that you had taken the last breath — you could fulfill one last ambition?
That’s the premise of the jazz opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which Arizona Opera is bringing to the Temple of Music and Art for two performances this weekend.
Jazz saxophonist/composer Charlie Parker has just died and lies in purgatory in the Birdland club while the women in his tangled, drug- and alcohol-addled life, arm-wrestle over how to cope with the aftermath.
His ghost decides it’s now or never to finish one last big dream: Write his magnum opus for an orchestra of 40. As he frantically works, he is interrupted by the people in his life, including Dizzy Gillespie, showing him the good and bad of a life gone too young.
“This piece is incredible. It’s Charlie Parker! I’m so excited,” said tenor Joshua Stewart, who sings the role of Parker on Saturday, Nov. 17.
Stewart said the piece explores social issues that America is now grappling with, including racism and interracial dating/marriage, which was an issue in Parker’s lifetime in the 1920s and ’30s.
This is Stewart’s third time in the lead with the chamber opera, which debuted in Philadelphia in 2015 with Lawrence Brownlee in the lead. Composer Daniel Schnyder wrote the role for Brownlee, and Stewart was his backup for the Philadelphia premiere and the followup in Chicago.
“Every time I do it, I’m still just as excited as the first time I was asked,” said Stewart, who lives in Spain and is making his Arizona Opera debut.
In addition to Chicago and Philadelphia, Stewart has sung the piece in Atlanta and Madison, Wisconsin.
Stewart grew up in New Orleans, surrounded by jazz, and as a young man considered singing jazz as a career. But his voice teachers pushed him to classical music and opera.
“I fell in love with it,” he said.
Playing Charlie Parker marries his love of opera with his love of jazz.
“Because it is a jazzy opera, for me there are lots of opportunities to play around,” he said last week during a break in rehearsing for the Phoenix run of the production.
“The best thing about jazz is that improvisational feeling that we can always achieve through constantly being in the moment. You’re not thinking, ‘Oh the last time I did this so I have to do that again.’
“It’s all in the moment. Who am I right now in this moment?”
“Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” is 90 minutes long, and Stewart is on stage for all but three minutes of it.
“It’s really like a tour de force. It’s one of those things that once you start, you’re in it,” he explained. “For me ... it’s about connecting and making the audience feel.”
Stewart said he sometimes dives deep into the characters he portrays, but perhaps none as deeply as he does with Parker.
“For me, it becomes my reality for that 90 minutes and sometimes the day after or the day after that day,” he said.
“That’s the beauty, that’s what drew me to opera, that drama that takes you over.”
THE ARIZONA PRODUCTION
“The thing about this production that is unlike any of the others, we have a dancer in this piece. It’s incredible. It’s probably my favorite part of the process now is working with this dancer (Du’Bois A’Keen), who kind of embodies Charlie Parker’s music physically on the stage,” Stewart said. “He really brings a whole new flavor to this piece that it desperately needed. It’s remarkable what one person can do to change the entire dynamic. I can’t speak highly enough of his work. It inspires me to sing better.”
“Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” closes out Arizona Opera’s inaugural McDougall Arizona Opera Red Series of more contemporary, chamber operas.
“La Traviata” opens the Main Stage series of more traditional operas on Feb. 2 and 3 at Tucson Music Hall.