INTERVIEW: Lawrence Brownlee
McCaw Hall, Seattle
On Friday, April 29, one of the shining stars of the opera world will bring his outstanding artistry to the stage of McCaw Hall. Lawrence Brownlee is one of today’s leading bel canto singers. Having honed his craft in Seattle Opera’s Young Artist program, Brownlee has become a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro all Scala, and the Royal Opera House.
On his much-anticipated program Brownlee, accompanied by pianist Shelby Rhoades, will perform classic Italian art songs, operatic arias, spirituals and more. He is also delightful company and expressed himself as articulately when speaking as he does when singing.
ERICA MINER: Welcome back to Seattle! You recently knocked our collective socks off with your performance in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. What was your journey to the opera stage?
LAWRENCE BROWNLEE: It started in high school. I didn’t know much about classical music back then. I knew more about musical theatre, madrigal singing, jazz, typical show choir music—the music I knew from school. I grew up in the church, so I have a strong background in gospel music, not necessarily classical. I had a high school teacher who told me that the tone of my voice suited opera in classical music. Through his urging and support I was invited to take part in a program for gifted music students at the university in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. At the culmination of this ten-week intensive training, we had to give a recital. I was singing in the classical style for the first time. I got a standing ovation. It kind of shocked me. I wasn’t expecting that. I just thought the program was something fun to do in my last year of high school. A gentleman there approached my father and me: “Where are you from. Who are you?” he said. “I don’t know if you realize what type of amazing talent you have.” It was his suggesting—his “chorusing,” I like to say, for me to come there and study with him at Youngstown State University. His name was David Starkey. He had been a singer, a teacher, he did stuff in Europe and Germany, but not a big international career. He thought I had something special. It was there that I began the journey of classical music and opera, though I was singing more art songs then. He made me believe I had something special. I went to college thinking I would be a lawyer and taking music on the side. I entered a few competitions. Then my voice teacher after Mr. Starkey had me transfer to a school in Indiana. My teacher there had the same type of enthusiasm for my voice, that I had something really special. After winning a few competitions, I believed I had something and began to work on my instrument and craft. I was advancing, being singled out time and time again. So I thought, “Maybe there’s something here. Forget being a lawyer. If it doesn’t work out with the singing I can go back and try to be a lawyer later on. But I want to see where this leads me.” I had really good instruction, teachers, and opportunities. All that led to where I am today.
EM: You were right. You do have something special.
EM: Your recital here includes art songs, Mozart arias, Kurt Weill and spirituals. Can you give us some details?
LB: Happy to. I’ve done this concert, “Song of my Youth,” a few times. All these songs were important to me in the beginning of my career. For example, the very first classical piece I sang was Tu lo sai from the “24 Italian Songs and Arias.” The first French piece I ever sang, the first German piece, the first aria. All of these have meaning to me, things that got me excited, that I worked on my craft. They planted seeds for me to endeavor other things. I remember when I sang them as an 18-year-old, very bright-eyed and bushy tailed, very green unrefined singer. Coming back to these pieces more than 30 years later, I realize these are great gems of beauty that can be very expressive and meaningful for someone who’s 18 or 50, which I am going to be in November.
EM: You’re doing arias from Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, Street Scene.
LB: Yes. Tamino’s Dies Bildnis, my first opera role. Street Scene was the first aria I ever sang in English. I’m known for having a flexible voice, so I had to put something with movement on it. Il Mio Tesoro was one of the first I sang with movement. I’m singing “Sally Garden,” my first English piece. Après un Reve. Even before I tried to become an opera singer, in church and the tradition of gospel, I sang spirituals that are meaningful to me. This is full circle, all the things that contributed to my education as a singer are a part of this recital. That’s why this is called “Songs of my Youth”—returning to these pieces that got me on the road to where I am today.
EM: How wonderful. I’m so impressed with how articulate you are in expressing yourself verbally.
LB: [Laughs] That’s very kind.
EM: I thoroughly enjoyed your CD, Amici e Rivali, which I reviewed when it came out, one of over a dozen you’ve made. Do you have plans for another one soon?
LB: A couple of things are in the pipeline. I’m currently working on a project attached to a tour next spring, on African American composers, about the Harlem Renaissance. Several young, gifted composers already have agreed to be a part of this. I’m waiting on some of the last confirmations now. That album is planned. Erin Morley and I have been discussing doing a bel canto duet CD, similar to the one I did with Michael Spyres. Both of us are trying to juggle our schedules, pairing up with the orchestra and conductor. We’re very invested and eager to make that happen. A couple more opera recordings, something with Lisette Oropesa in a year or two. I’m looking forward to a few other projects on the horizon planning around my career and the others I’m collaborating with. While I’m in relatively good voice I hope to put them “down on wax,” as they used to say.
EM: Coincidentally, I just interviewed Erin a couple of weeks ago for her La Scala debut last week. She’s also a delight, so the two of you together—I can’t wait.
LB: [Laughs] We’re looking forward. We’ve never shared the stage before, but next spring we’ll do that new production of The Magic Flute at the Met. Tamino and Pamina.
EM: Heaven. This question is actually from my husband, who’s French and is a big fan of yours. He says, “You make everything you sing seem effortless. Is it as effortless as it sounds?”
LB: [Laughs] I’m definitely working at it. One of my early teachers—I’ve had a total of 4 major teachers over my 30+ years of studying—said singing should be an extension of speaking. Another one said, you need to make something difficult sound easy, to work to be the Master of it and never let it be the Master of you. They were looking to me to try and create that illusion, that it sounds effortless, like I just woke up and could sing it. My approach to doing anything is to find my own way to make that seem as if written for me. There is much work going on, but I have found myself working in the bel canto arena, and that gives me an understanding of the style, which makes everything appear easier. I’ve always had a very flexible voice, a very high tessitura that I maintain that was a part of my natural attributes from the vocal standpoint. I felt I’ve always been in the right place as far as what I was presenting in my stage career. On the subject of French, before we spoke I was in my studio with my piano, getting ready to go to Paris National Opera to do a French baroque piece, Platée by Rameau, which I’m completely out of water [Laughs]. It’s an entirely French cast, conductor, and stage director. That is going to be a real challenge for me. I speak a decent amount of French, but I think I’m going to make significant strides, because I’ll be forced to do so. I’m looking forward to it.
EM: Rameau in Paris. What could be better. New topic. You’re known for your activism for diversity in the industry, and for advocating for opera as an art form. Could you address that, and Cycles of My Being?
LB: Cycles of My Being ties into my being an advocate for the art form. A friend of mine, Jason Moran, the fantastic jazz pianist, and educator, and I were doing something for NPR, a field recording of the song, “There’s a man going around taking names.” The piece was featured in a movie by Ava DuVernay, Thirteen, about the 13th amendment. Jason and I were talking about using our art as a platform, how it gives us an opportunity to talk about things that are close to our heart. This was at a time where a lot of things were on the Internet, in the newspapers. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, all the stories we heard of police brutality, police aggression, constantly before our eyes. It meant something to us to use our art form to speak about that. I remember preparing a recital for the next season at Carnegie Hall. They approached me and said what would you like to do. I said I’d like to sing Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, and couple it with another song cycle. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do a song cycle that speaks to the experience of Black men in America. What we deal with, our reality, knowing that when I wake up in the morning my reality and potential are much different than someone who has blond hair and blue eyes. My skin, this house I walk around in, are going to be viewed in a certain way, people are going to assume certain things about me before I open my mouth to speak. These people don’t know who I am but limit what I can be. It would be great to talk about our existence in ways people can understand; I wanted to take my own experiences along with a young African American composer and librettist to come up with something that speaks to what it is to be a Black man.
Cycles of my Being has been very cathartic for me. I’ve taken it from Provo, Utah, 99.99% Caucasian, to New York City and Chicago, which are decidedly different from Utah. It's been such a wonderful experience for me. All of those places I’ve taken this, it’s been so positively received. Having this done by all Black men who can push the question, ask about hate. Why do you hate me—is it because you envy something about me? A lot of difficult things to listen to but that was by design. To do it in a way people would be uneasy but could listen and it would start some type of dialogue within them, to begin to think of things in a different way. Eventually being anti-racist, a supporter of equality. Cycles was a passion project of love, one I will be happy to take around.
Tying into the other part of the question. In my life, in my experiences, I am an activist outspoken for diversity and initiative. Even when I was in high school, my choir was very diverse. Our (female) teacher talked about brotherhood, love for mankind. That’s in my DNA. Even in my family. I’m one of 6 kids. Being a part of a bigger group, a larger ecosystem, a fraternity. It’s built in that we should be outgoing, to give a hand to help others. All the things I’ve done in my life, my career, have led up to that. I take it as a responsibility that I’m meant to do, to reach out to and help others. To be a spokesperson is very close to my heart that I hope to be doing as long as I can.
EM: I applaud your passion. I saw some episodes of your Facebook Live series The Sitdown with LB. What were some of your most memorable moments?
LB: I had so much fun in that series talking to so many of my friends and colleagues. People that I admired as a young singer. Obviously George Shirley, a person who was so important for me as a young singer of color, a tenor specifically. He’s been a friend and mentor. To see him at 87 years old, sharp as a tack, and to recount his experiences, some of the difficulties in his career, his love and passion for being a teacher, an educator. That was meaningful for so many people. Talking to Simon Estes was a lot of fun, similar to Mr. Shirley. Martina Arroyo, Vinson Cole. Even some of the younger singers. Will Liverman is a good friend. Pretty Yende, Angel Blue. Talking to all these people about their careers, their struggles—by design about being an African American singer. It wasn’t just about African American, it was their passions, hobbies. Denyce Graves talked about cooking. Later she told me she created a spinoff cooking show during the pandemic when we were all at home and had the opportunity to be in one place, to create and develop. I haven’t done any series in about 6 months, but a lot of people have told me they’d like to see more episodes so more will be coming soon. It’s fun to engage, to be the interviewer sometimes instead of the interviewee [Laughs].
EM: Those are names of people I adore, and one of those names is Larry Brownlee. I feel so blessed to be able to talk to you and have enjoyed it thoroughly.
LB: It’s been so nice speaking with you. And thank you for those nice things you’ve said. We are interviewed often, but this has been an especially pleasant one, and I appreciate your part in it. It’s been very delightful. Thank you so much.
EM: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you, Larry, for spending time with me. I look forward to seeing you onstage!
For details on Lawrence Brownlee in Concert, go to: https://www.seattleopera.org/on-stage/lawrence-brownlee-concert/
Photo credits: Shervin Lainez
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]