For tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a journey from church to bel canto acclaim

David Weininger

On paper, the duo program that tenor Lawrence Brownlee and bass Eric Owens bring to Jordan Hall on April 7 is a fairly typical affair: some operatic highlights from each man’s repertoire in the first half, and a selection of traditional spirituals, popular songs, and gospel numbers in the second.

A curious thing about the program, though, is that, read the right way, it neatly outlines the improbable journey by which Brownlee, an African-American who grew up in a blue-collar family in Youngstown, Ohio, has become one of the most admired bel canto singers of his day.

That journey begins in church, with the gospel songs that close out the concert. It was in the church choir that Brownlee’s father directed, and where his mother was a soloist, that he got his start singing. His talent was apparent early on, and he would later credit the astonishing flexibility of his voice, so crucial in bel canto, to the gospel “riffs or runs” he heard and practiced from an early age.

The popular American songs that precede them — he will sing “Lulu’s Back in Town,” made famous by Fats Waller, as well as duets with Owens — are a reminder of the show chorus that he joined in high school, an experience that allowed him the opportunity to visit and perform in Berlin at 15. “This was an explosion in my mind,” he said in a recent phone interview before a concert in Chapel Hill, N.C. “I thought, this was what music can do.”

S

till, a career as any kind of musician — let alone an opera singer — did not occur to Brownlee until he was in college, when he won a National Association of Teachers of Singing competition with his rendition of Puccini’s “Che gelida manina.” After the performance, a woman mysteriously approached him and told him that, while he had tremendous natural talent, Puccini was all wrong for his voice. He needed something lighter.

So his teacher assigned him “Ecco, ridente in cielo,” a bel canto mainstay from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” At his next lesson, “I began to sing it,” Brownlee recalled during the interview, “and I remember singing the first couple of phrases, and [my teacher] noticed I had a certain ease and ability with the coloratura. He told me to do it again. So I did it again. And he said, ‘This is your voice. This is what you were born to sing.’ ”

Since winning the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Grand Finals in 2001, singing Rossini and Donizetti, Brownlee has become one of the most sought-after tenors in this repertoire. Which brings us to the first half of the Celebrity Series of Boston program, where he will sing “Ah! mes amis,” from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment,” whose famous nine high C’s he sings not only with accuracy and power but with remarkable sweetness as well.

As for the concert’s African-American spirituals, they are a reminder of his 2013 album, “Spiritual Sketches.” They also offer a fuller glimpse of him as a person. At an NPR Tiny Desk concert that year, Brownlee said that he associated the song “All Night, All Day,” with its image of an angel watching over humanity, with his son Caleb, who had recently been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

While a good deal of this outstanding singer’s career is present here, a more recent aspect of it compels mention: The song cycle “Cycles of My Being,” a joint project by composer Tyshawn Sorey, poet Terrance Hayes, and Brownlee that premiered last month. It arose from a commission for a Carnegie Hall concert, which Brownlee decided to use to create a piece that would give voice to what he called “the experience of being a black man” in today’s America.

Part of the inspiration came from seeing the deaths of black men that have roiled the country and given birth to Black Lives Matter — Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin. But it also came from Brownlee’s own experience. The time he sang at a gala concert for high-priced donors in St. Louis and, 10 minutes later, was mistaken for the valet. The time at a Seattle opera house where an usher demanded to know why he was in the building before a concert, and relented only when Brownlee showed her a poster in the lobby with his picture on it.

“I tell people all the time, I think I’m incredibly fortunate,” he said. “I’ve seen 46 countries. I’ve met presidents. I’ve performed on the great stages of the world. But the fact [is] that if I’m walking out of a department store and the beeper goes off that someone has stolen something, and someone with blond hair and blue eyes is walking out of there at the same time, 99.9 percent of the people are going to assume that it’s me. Just based on the skin that I have. That’s just a very real thing.”

So he joined forces with Sorey, whom he sought out for his music’s “complex rhythmic ideas,” and Hayes, of whom he remarked, “his wordplay is such that sometimes you’ve been hit and you don’t even know what you’ve been hit by. We could all bring our collective experiences together.

“Why not be in a position of strength?” he added “By that I mean, to take hold of the conversation and say: I want to talk about something that is very bothersome to me. And to be able to do something to give voice to something that should be talked about.”

 

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