Lawrence Brownlee as Almaviva in Barber, one of his signature roles; photo by Ken Howard
The marvelously gifted tenor Lawrence Brownlee makes his Los Angeles Opera debut as Tamino this coming weekend in the Barrie Kosky production of The Magic Flute. Here’s a profile I recently wrote about Larry for Seattle Opera, where he appeared last month as Tonio in The Daughter of the Regiment:
Nowadays no American tenor is more in demand than Lawrence Brownlee when it comes to the bel canto repertoire. And it’s easy to imagine the impression Brownlee’s voice—with its signature combination of sweetness, warmth, and flexibility—would have made on Gaetano Donizetti, or any of the bel canto composers. With their elegant melodies and deeply felt emotions, they were writing, it seems, specifically to Brownlee’s strengths, and he has proved that he has the versatility to excel in the distinctive styles developed by each member of bel canto’s famous triumvirate: Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini.
“People always tell me I sound like an old-school singer,” Brownlee remarks, “but that’s not something I consciously try to do. That’s just the way my voice is made and constructed, so it naturally fits this repertoire…. I think of myself simply as a bel canto tenor.”
Larry offstage; photo by Derek Blanks
The star tenor is speaking by phone from a hotel room in Berlin during a rare day off in late summer, before heading to Palermo to sing Rossini. His next stop: Seattle, to sing Tonio in The Daughter of the Regiment. Anyone who meets Larry Brownlee in person can attest to the down-to-earth, uncontrived modesty that likewise comes naturally to this son of the rustbelt city of Youngstown, Ohio.
While Brownlee’s international reputation is particularly associated with his interpretations of Rossini, Seattle audiences have had the opportunity to hear and see him put his stamp on major roles by Bellini and Donizetti as well.
Brownlee made his mainstage debut at Seattle Opera in 2002 in the opera buffa Don Pasquale as Ernesto, singing another of Donizetti’s lovestruck comic heroes. And his uncompromising rendition of the high-wire vocal line assigned to the male protagonist Arturo in Bellini’s I puritani in 2007—including a full-on F above high C, not falsetto—now belongs to company legend. This coming spring Brownlee will sing the role at the Met for the first time.
“You can’t even find that on records!” says General Director Speight Jenkins, whose capacious memory-archive of a lifetime of performances can rekindle the live excitement of those Bellini nights apparently at will.
Yet what’s really impressive here—as in Brownlee’s taking on the notorious “Everest” of nine high C’s his character Tonio must sing early on in The Daughter of the Regiment—isn’t just the technical ability to produce these notes with such reliable accuracy. That’s simply the starting point. The accuracy is one thing, Jenkins points out, “but rarely do you hear the beauty of those upper tones.”
“To be able to sing Tonio’s nine high C’s always amazes people, but that’s what the voice Donizetti was writing for is supposed to do,” explains the tenor, director, and teacher Peter Kazaras, who shares the stage with Brownlee in Daughter playing the haughty Duchess of Krackenthorp in drag in Seattle Opera’s production. “The reason people were so awed when Pavarotti did it [in his career-defining performance at the Met in 1972] is that he was a lyric tenor, not the light, leggiero tenor these roles were conceived for. There are a few people who can sing this kind of repertoire, but what sets Larry apart is that he sings it and the voice is actually beautiful.”
Brownlee as Tonio in the Met’s Daughter of the Regiment; photo by Ken Howard
Jenkins, renowned for his ability to recognize the potential in young singers with startling accuracy, remembers the thrilling experience of hearing Brownlee in a rehearsal room back in his days in the company’s Young Artists Program, which he joined in 2000. It became immediately clear to Jenkins that the tenor (at the time only in his late 20s) could have a major international career.
“So many things happened for me as a result of going to Seattle early on,” Brownlee says. “I do consider Seattle my home away from home. Speight opened up a lot of doors for me and really invested in my career. Seattle Opera has given me a chance to do such a range of roles, from traditional productions to modern things like [Daniel Catán’s] Florencia en el Amazonas.”
Brownlee with Renée Fleming in Rossini’s Armida at the Met; photo by Ken Howard
To this day, Brownlee—himself a very young-looking 40—thinks of Seattle Opera as a place that attracts a vibrant young audience. When he was here, he became especially attuned to the presence of a young audience the company fosters through its BRAVO! Club and innovative social media networks. “I’ve gotten a chance to interact with them quite a bit, and many of those people I still keep in touch with via Facebook. They knew me before I started to do other high-profile things like singing opposite Renée Fleming [in Rossini’s Armida at the Met] and they really care about me.”
The Seattle production of Daughter presents the opportunity for a family reunion of sorts. Peter Kazaras had directed Brownlee in the 2011 The Barber of Seville, and Sarah Coburn, as Marie in Daughter, once again plays the object of Brownlee’s determined love. The two also appeared together in the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program’s La Cenerentola in 2002 and in the 2011 Barber, with Brownlee singing his signature role as Rossini’s Count Almaviva.
“I feel honored and blessed each time I have the opportunity to sing with Larry,” says Coburn. “I have also come to consider him a good friend and mentor. He has given me fantastic advice many times and has the added perspective of work-family balance. He understands the challenges of family life, especially in light of constant travel.”
Brownless and Coburn as Tonio and Marie in Daughter at Seattle Opera; photo by Elise Bakketun
As a husband and father of two small children (Zoe and Caleb), Brownlee says family life “keeps me grounded. I love my job and am grateful to have the chance to perform, but my family makes me realize that it’s not all about that—everything else is relative.”
“This isn’t an easy business—I don’t know how people did it before Skype. My wife, Kendra, and I spend hours together with our Skype turned on, just to be able to share in the unsaid things of daily life.” Brownlee registers his excitement about being able to have the whole family in Seattle for Daughter, along with an extended circle of relatives.
Brownlee, who grew up with six siblings in a tight-knit working-class family, doesn’t hesitate to single out the central role they play in his life. He loves to quote pieces of homespun wisdom from his father, a retired GM auto factory worker and army veteran: “Like him, I’m a ‘glass half-full’ guy, and I’ve learned from him to worry about the things you can control: things like my weight, or how musical and expressive I can be as a performer.”
Brownlee in Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri at the Opéra de Paris
Brownlee’s positive attitude helped him bypass what he was told by some would pose serious stumbling blocks. Though no longer so blatantly tainted by racism as it once was, the mostly-white opera world can still throw up less explicit barriers to African-American performers. Brownlee, who appears incapable of harboring grudges, refuses to dwell on the fact that he was told by some that his ethnicity would keep him from being cast in leading roles. Concerns were similarly expressed that the tenor’s stature—at 5 feet six inches—would inevitably hamper his career, no matter how extraordinary were the gifts he had to offer as a performer.
Thankfully, Brownlee refused to listen to any nay-saying. Seattle provided his first platform, and it was from this region that he was selected one of the winners—along with Sarah Coburn—of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Only a year later, when he made his professional stage debut, he was invited to perform at La Scala, and his career kept accelerating, with major European bookings filling out more and more of his calendar.
Brownlee prefers to focus on his gratitude to all those who have inspired him on his path: from courageous pioneers like the tenor George Shirley, who paved the way for Brownlee’s generation —and whom Brownlee reveres as one of his mentors—to the colleagues he regularly refers to as if they’re all part of an extended family.
Here in Seattle, Maestro Yves Abel is also pleased about this chance to reunite with Brownlee, whom he has conducted in Europe and at the Met’s well-known current production of Daughter (relocated to World War One). “Larry is a superlative artist, extremely musical and sensitive, with an innate and varied sense of style, excellent language skills, and a doll to get along with.”
Certainly Brownlee left indelible memories of his last venture in Seattle. Along with the ravishing vocalism of that Barber production, it amply demonstrated the tenor’s considerable comic talents—his turn as Rosina’s music teacher incognito ranks as the most hilarious I’ve yet seen—and his capacity to bring out a character’s essence.
“When I was directing him as Almaviva,” says Kazaras, “I was developing a carefully choreographed language all the way through the piece for each character, and I knew I could get Larry to use his talent as an accomplished salsa dancer.” Playing on one of the Italian phrases for his type of voice (tenore di grazie), Kazaras continues, “With Larry, the watch word is graceful. He is graceful in his singing, in his stage presence, and in his life.”
But Tonio in Daughter—a role Brownlee has performed at the Met, and in Cincinnati and Hamburg—is a different kind of person from Count Almaviva. How does Brownlee strive to make such a simple comic character come to life onstage? “The most important thing is to make him come across as sincere and heartfelt. Of course, everyone thinks of the high C’s in ‘Ah, mes amis!’ when he’s on top of the world. But you have to be able to show his real pain and disappointment as well.”
“A lot of people may not realize the more difficult aria is actually the second one—‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’—where Tonio tells the Marquise what Marie means to him. You really have to think about musicality and phrasing here and make sure not to blow it all on the first aria. I hope it will be so beautiful that people will almost forget ‘Ah, mes amis!’—but I don’t want them quite to forget it completely!”
Brownlee and Joyce Castle (Marquise) in Daughter at Seattle Opera; photo by Elise Bakketu
Inevitably, Brownlee’s approach to these roles is compared to that of his almost-exact contemporary, the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. (On YouTube you can easily find a video juxtaposing clips of Brownlee, Flórez, Pavarotti, and Alfredo Kraus singing Tonio, while heated discussions over their relative merits transpire on numerous blogs and listservs.) But when he mentions Flórez, it’s impossible to imagine one of the old-fashioned singer rivalries playing out. “Juan Diego is a friend. I also think he’s a great artist, and we have mutual respect for what each other does.”
Later this season Brownlee will be back in Europe to sing Donizetti at the Vienna Staatsoper (Nemorino in L’elisir) and Rossini in Munich (for Il turco and Cenerentola). His newest recording, Spiritual Sketches, meanwhile represents an entirely different direction that he hopes to pursue further. A set of ten arrangements of traditional spirituals for voice and piano by one of Brownlee’s friends, this latest release reveals what will sound like a whole new dimension to the tenor’s art to those who know him as a bel canto expert. Yet here Brownlee looks back affectionately to his musical beginnings, recalling his boyhood singing in the church gospel choir with his family.
On the heels of his Seattle engagement, Brownlee will be making both his role and company debuts as Prince Tamino at Los Angeles Opera in the Suzanne Andrade-Barrie Kosky production of The Magic Flute, described by The Guardian as “a perfect mixture of … silent films, the cabaret of the Weimar Republic, David Lynch, and the brothers Grimm.”
“It’s my first professional role in German,” says Brownlee, “and I also hope I have some more Mozart in my future. It’s nice to do that in addition to the Italian bel canto. The goal is to continue to grow as an artist. Hopefully I’m still at the beginning of my journey and will try to keep getting better and enjoy the ride.”
(C) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.
Filed under: artist profile, bel canto, opera, Seattle Opera