Lawrence Brownlee is a 'normal guy' who sings Rossini like no other

John von Rhein

Lawrence Brownlee is many things: an international opera star, a serious hobbyist-photographer, an avid tennis and table tennis player, a fantasy football junkie. He is due to sing the national anthem for the Pittsburgh Steelers (he's a lifelong fan) in November when they play the Cleveland Browns.

He never travels without his white, size-10 dancing shoes, so that he can unwind with another of his passions, salsa dancing, at nightspots in cities where he happens to be performing. He did just that the other week when he cut loose on the dance floor at a Latin street festival at the Cubby Bear in Wrigleyville.

"It's about getting rid of tension, but, more than anything, I like this idea that I'm not put in a straitjacket by what I do," explains the American tenor, who will make his much-anticipated Lyric Opera debut as the princely hero Don Ramiro, opposite mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard's Angelina, in a new-to-Chicago production of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella"), opening Sunday at the Civic Opera House.

But the subject Brownlee feels most passionate about is being a role model for aspiring young African-American singers, just as his hero, American tenor George Shirley, was for an earlier generation of would-be opera and concert artists.

"I told Mr. Shirley, a great singer and great human being, how much I appreciate what he, and others before him, endured, so that people like myself can have the opportunities we have today," the outgoing Brownlee, who will turn 43 next month, said between rehearsals of "Cenerentola."

"I thanked him for kicking open the door, to which he very selflessly replied, 'Every person has to kick open the door for himself.' People tell me that the fact that I've been able to sing at practically all the world's most important theaters gives them hope. They can look at the body of work I've done and say, 'Yes, it's talent that made him a success, but it's also talent married to hard work.' "

The tenacity Brownlee has applied to a career that has taken him from singing in his parents' church choir in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, all the way through triumphs at Milan's La Scala (which gave him his breakthrough in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," in 2002) and the Metropolitan Opera, has earned him admiration throughout the classical world. Indeed, how he rose to become one of that world's top two Rossini tenors — Juan Diego Florez is the other — makes him a Cinderella story all by himself.

Brownlee found his way into bel canto more or less by accident, he admits.

The singer credits Fritz Robertson, his voice teacher during his undergraduate years at Indiana's Anderson University, for convincing him of his potential as a coloratura tenor – the ideal lighter, more agile voice needed to sing Rossini and other bel canto repertory. The young tenor continued to develop his technique during graduate studies at Indiana University in Bloomington before deciding to take the professional plunge as a Rossini specialist.

A 2001 win in the Metropolitan Opera's Grand National Auditions while he was a member of the Seattle Opera's Young Artist Program prompted La Scala to engage Brownlee for the second cast of its "Barber of Seville," in 2002; Florez headed the first. When the latter fell ill, Brownlee replaced him. He went on to sing two more Rossini productions at Italy's most prestigious theater, along the way picking up several major awards (including the Richard Tucker Foundation Career Grant, in 2003 and 2006) before his Met debut, in "Barber of Seville," in 2007.

Brownlee's been on a Rossini roll ever since, with detours into Mozart and some of opera's other lyric tenor parts. He also sings five or six recitals a season, which he finds a welcome change after an almost steady diet of opera. In June he got to branch out into contemporary opera, portraying bebop legend Charlie Parker in the world premiere of Daniel Schnyder's chamber opera "Yardbird" at Opera Philadelphia.

Mention of the Metropolitan Opera's recent decision to forgo the age-old practice of applying blackface makeup to the tenor singing the title role in Verdi's "Otello" leads Brownlee to reflect on racial identity and individual effort in the operatic arena.

"I'm so elated when I see a young singer of color up there on stage, but I don't want them to be hired just because they're black," he says. "I want to see them do well because they are talented, invested in their craft and touch people.

"But when I introduce myself to people I don't say, 'I'm a black artist.' I'm an artist. Period. I'm an Ohioan. I'm many things. Black shouldn't be the overwhelming thing people talk about. It's my job as an artist to make people forget (I'm African-American). We all have different backgrounds; that doesn't define us."

Brownlee appears perfectly happy to define himself as a contented family man. He and his wife, Kendra, are parents of Zoe, who's 3, and Caleb, a special needs child who just turned 5. The family makes its home in Atlanta. Both children attend preschool so aren't always available to catch dad's performances on the road. However, Kendra plans to attend her husband's opening "Cenerentola" performance Sunday — also to run in the Chicago Marathon.

"I like that I can walk down the street and no one knows who I am," the singer says, with an easy grin. "That happens a lot of times, and it's just fine with me. I like being just a normal guy, while still trying to do what I do at a high level."

Lyric Opera's production of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" opens at 2 p.m. and runs through Oct. 30 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $34-$239; 312-827-5600, www.lyricopera.org.

Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

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