Black Men Storm the Gates of Classical Opera

LAWRENCE BROWNLEE, ISSACHAH SAVAGE AND JAMAICA’S RORY FRANKSON FOLLOW THE LEAD OF LEONTYNE PRICE, BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS IN OPERA
 

Black female opera singers have long been some of the most respected within the classical world—ask anyone to list the top 10 opera singers of all time and the list will invariably include several singers of color. Leontyne Price. Marian Anderson. Martina Arroyo. Grace Bumbry. Shirley Verrett. These are just a few who’ve been celebrated throughout the world for their operatic genius.

Now it seems that it’s young Black men who are leaving their indelible mark in the world of classical music and opera. And their mark is by no means negligible.

Enter Lawrence Brownlee, Issachah Savage and Rory Frankson.

Lawrence Brownlee (42) is one of the most sought after lyric tenors in the bel canto repertoire. The veteran of this group, he began his career in 2002, proceeding directly to one of the top three opera houses in the world, La Scala Milan, to sing in a leading role—a feat typically unheard of in the world of opera. That role, which has become his signature character, was Count Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Brownlee’s career has seen him sing in virtually all of the world’s top opera houses.

Issachah Savage (36) was the winner of the 2014 Seattle International Wagner Competition, earning a trifecta of awards including the main, audience and orchestra favorite prizes. He was also bestowed special honor by Seattle Opera’s general director Speight Jenkins (renowned for awarding special opportunities to Black male singers), who invited Savage to sing alongside opera greats including Clifton Forbis, Stephanie Blythe and Greer Grimsley at his retirement gala.

Rory Frankson (34) is a Jamaican baritone who has yet to make it on the main stage, but whose spark, personality and voice has everyone who hears him cheering him on. Frankson currently sings his way through the Caribbean at the various Sandals resorts, bringing his brand of classical music into the hotels and throughout the islands. He’s sold over 2,000 copies of his first album, You Are the One, which for an indie artist with no airplay or publicity is no small feat.

The interesting thing is that all three singers entered the classical realm quite by chance.

EBONY: Tell us about how you got into the world of opera.  

Lawrence Brownlee: I’m from Youngstown, Ohio, and was raised in church, so music has always been a part of my life. In junior high, I was singled out as a candidate for a program for gifted music students. Back then I played trumpet, bass guitar, drums and a bit of piano, so I had a bunch of instruments behind me, but I chose to use my voice.

THE OVERRIDING THING THAT THEY COME BACK WITH SHOULD NEVER BE SIMPLY THAT THE MAIN CHARACTER WAS SUNG BY A BLACK GUY. WHAT YOU REALLY WANT THEM TO LEAVE WITH IS A LASTING MEMORY OF THE CHARACTER YOU PORTRAYED ON STAGE.

Through this program, I got to take a few voice lessons in classical training at our local university. At the end of the program, we had to give a recital. I went on stage young and naïve. Really I was mocking what I thought an opera singer sounded like—honestly, I was joking. By the end though, the audience response was noticeably different from those that had been heard prior to my performance.

A voice coach by the name of David Starkey Sr. approached me after the show and said that he wanted to train me as an opera singer. I was like, “What? I don’t want to do opera.” But he said I had a gift that not many had. When I found out more about it, I liked it and decided to study it in earnest. I was 18 at the time.

Issachah Savage: Growing up in north Philadelphia, I never once heard opera at home. I attended a creative arts high school, where a wonderful choral director named David King was the first person to launch me into the world of opera. The first time he heard me sing, he asked me to meet him after school one day. He was this big, imposing figure to everyone at the time, and when he said to do something, you did it. When I met him, he instructed me to press play on a recorder and to listen.

I heard this voice, and I had no idea who it was or what was being sung, so I was like, “What in the world?” It was Swedish tenor Jussi Björling singing the climactic phrase from Verdi’s “Requiem.” As it finished, King instructed me to sing what I had just heard. I turned my back to him, to hide my embarrassment, and I just did it. When I faced him again, I saw a tear on his face, and he asked, “Do you see what I mean?” and in my head I’m like, “No, I do not see.” He told me I have the type of voice that people will be moved by, and that was that. It started me along that path.

Rory Frankson: When I was 9, my mother sent me to music school to learn piano. While there, the teacher started focusing instead on the voices of some of her students. I started singing and had a really good treble male voice. You know, all little boys have these high little voices. But puberty started, my voice started breaking, and no one would take me on until my voice settled. I stopped singing altogether and focused on academics.

For five years, with no vocal guidance, I felt like I didn’t know how to sing. In my head, I heard my treble voice, but when I opened my mouth the sound coming out was totally different. I went to a ceremony early on in college and heard voices that I thought were awesome. Having missed the auditions, I went to the first rehearsals anyway and sat with the tenors. The voice coach was Noel Dexter, a renowned Caribbean musicologist. I went to him at the end of the session and asked if I could stay.

I’ll never forget: he looked at me and said I had a very interesting voice, and then asked me to sing something for him. He could hear that there was a history of training, and decided to take me under his wing. He offered me free classical voice lessons from that point forward, and he completely shaped my voice into what it is now.

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In the past, it’s been difficult for Black tenors to be cast in large productions. The tenor is always the love interest and will most often be singing opposite a heroine who is not Black, which has not always been positively received by classical music audiences. Consequently, many Black opera singers get overlooked for these plum roles.

It’s no small feat then, that Lawrence Brownlee has been able to transcend this longstanding barrier.

“In my 14 years in this business, I have been cast opposite only two females of color,” Brownlee says, “and I’ve played a lot of roles. As a tenor, singing opposite someone who isn’t also Black, I feel it’s my responsibility, my job, to make the audience see only the human connection between the characters. The overriding thing that they come back with should never be simply that the main character was sung by a Black guy. What you really want them to leave with is a lasting memory of the character you portrayed on stage.”

 

* * *

Issachah Savage, also a tenor, is quickly becoming known in opera circles as the Wagnerian. Black men are rarely seen in the repertoire he sings; in fact, it’s quite rare to find someone truly built to sing Wagner at all. Savage clearly is.

Sometimes, when an opportunity presents itself for a singer to jump in for someone else, it becomes a catalyst to make a name for themselves. Most recently, Savage was Clifton Forbis’s understudy in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Twice in that run, he was able to take the stage as Siegmund when Forbis fell ill. The second time, the singer had less than an hour to prepare. Both times, he sang to standing ovations.

“2014 was a tour de force for me,” says Savage. “I had so much happening but I didn’t understand the magnitude of it. I’m just a singer, and I just want to sing. Last year I had a huge success in Seattle, but to me it was anyone’s guess who would have won that competition. When I sat backstage and listened to everybody, I was like, ‘Oh God just help me to do well.’ Everyone was so fabulous, I just had to fit in wherever I could get in. But I went out there and it felt like home to me, and every time I step on stage, it still does.”

* * *

Rory Frankson is no Brownlee or Savage, but that’s to be expected. With no opera houses and very few stages for classical singers in Jamaica (or the Caribbean as a whole), he has to make the best of the hand he was dealt. He has, however, had the honor of singing for the Queen during her visit to the West Indies, and he has also sung for many heads of state. His largest opportunity thus far was an invitation to sing at a tribute function for Harry Belafonte in Toronto, where he was able to sing with a live orchestra for the first time in his career.

“I was reading Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist when I decided give up a secure career and income in business for the arts,” he says. “The fundamental aspect of the story says that if you go after your life’s desire, the world will conspire in your favor, and that helped alleviate my fears.

“The most challenging aspect of being a classical singer in Jamaica is trying to gain the respect of mainstream media,” Frankson continues. “Reggae and dancehall are such dominant aspects of our culture, so they garner all the attention. It’s so hard to attract the promoters and media, and to get them to understand that a market exists not just for reggae, but even for a fusion between reggae and classical music. For me though, every challenge is just something to be overcome, and I will overcome.”

Lawrence Brownlee looks forward to visiting 50 countries before he turns 50. Issachah Savage is excited about his debut stint at the Metropolitan Opera. (He’s been portraying Don Riccardo, squire to Plácido Domingo, in Verdi’s Ernani since March 20.) Rory Frankson is currently working on his second album, a dedication to Broadway. He’s also making arrangements for a major concert with some mainstream artists to be held in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

 

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