A tenor looks beyond opera and explores being a black man in America
Lawrence Brownlee is among the most celebrated bel canto tenors alive. He regularly sings at the major opera companies around the world, and at 46, he’s at the peak of his career. Where do you go from there?
In Brownlee’s case, you commission new work exploring, in song, the experience of being a black man in America.
Brownlee is front and center in Washington this month. On Friday, he takes the tenor lead in Washington Concert Opera’s production of Rossini’s “Zelmira,” one of the less-performed serious operas by a composer best remembered for his comic romps. On Thursday, he appears in recital with Vocal Arts DC at the Kennedy Center. Washington has long been a kind of artistic home for Brownlee, going back to multiple appearances at Vocal Arts and the Washington National Opera, the Virginia Opera and even as a young artist at Wolf Trap in 2001. (He was going to return to Wolf Trap in the summer of 2002 but was invited to make his La Scala debut then.) Read more >
"Lawrence Brownlee strode onto the stage brimming with confidence for Ilo’s entrance aria, “Terra amica.” The American tenor delivered this extraordinary firebolt piece, which he revived in his Vocal Arts DC recital in 2016, with show-stopping authority. High notes rang with authority, including an endlessly sustained final note, and the complex runs and arpeggios crackled with verve in the concluding cabaletta. Although Brownlee was in excellent voice throughout, in both ensembles and arias, this piece was a tour de force."
"The tenor Lawrence Brownlee also made a stunning vocal contribution to the evening, first with a velvety, caressing version of “Un’ aura amorosa” from Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, followed by a delightful, joyous rendition of Donizetti’s “Ah mes amis…” from La fille du regiment. Never have all those high C’s been dispatched more effortlessly or beautifully.”
"Brownlee, in his role as the love-sick Nadir, was earnest and convincing, and his silky, gorgeous timbre in the the pianissimo sections “Oh divine ecstasy!” was among the vocal highlights of the night."
"Brownlee was able to give the character a flawless voice and a natural likeability. One of the foremost bel canto tenors on the scene today, his vibrant tone matched the youthful passion of his character."
“It was one of those special nights you hope every concert will be, where everything just clicks…Lawrence Brownlee gave a performance that left no doubt as to why he’s one of the best tenors in the world.”
”Do I believe in fate? I do. I think you can take advantage of fate with hard work; I don’t think that fate without preparation works,” says Lawrence Brownlee, one of the most in-demand male voices in opera. A practical statement, to be sure, but Brownlee soon revealed he was skeptical about the start of his own journey.
The famous opera podiatrists applaud American Lawrence Brownlee for his honeyed, shimmering belcanto tones , which will be heard for the first time in the Concertgebouw next Wednesday. But those notes, he says, only embody one side of his soul. The black tenor puts his fame and also votes for the Black Lives Matter movement. As artistic advisor to the opera in Philadelphia, he was a driving force behind the emergence of two modern-classical pieces that reflect the raw black reality in America: the opera Yardbird , about saxophonist Charlie Parker, and the song series Cycles of My Being , about the murder of a black man in a police cell.”
"As a teenager addicted to his phone, Lawrence Brownlee is remarkably natural in the role of Ernesto. One will never sufficiently underline the elegance of this singer, too rare on Parisian stages. All is fluid, linked, clear and direct, with beautiful colors that aptly translate the emotions of adolescence."
"A true revelation in this Don Pasquale, Lawrence Brownlee enchants us throughout the opera and even in a teenager's sweatshirt and cap he moves us with "Povero Ernesto!" as well as the distant "Com'e gentil a Notte," sung backstage."
“Lawrence Brownlee is an Ernesto with clear high notes, exalted in a full voice and soft in a mixed voice. The timbre is rich and warm, notably in the medium and the neat legato. When low, the timbre is full-bodied and pleasant. His light vibrato maintains a contained and regular rhythm. His phrasing most often shows his courage, but he's able to become delicate in his duo with Nadine Sierra.”
“His artistic presentation, emotional face and unbeatable charm complemented the beautiful tone and amazing range of his voice. Brownlee impressed the audience with his long, high notes, especially at the triumphal ending of the aria. What a great high C!”
“The warmth and vibrancy of his voice fit the needs of the music exquisitely [in the Dichterliebe]…in [Cycles] the singer absolutely commanded the stage and sounded gorgeous even in the most dissonant sections.”
“A new Brownlee emerged as he sung these songs. A brilliant edge was added to the lovely lyricism of the voice we have come to know. Anguish, desperation, and sadness are all painted in his darker tones, often richly textured in the lower registers.”
Internationally acclaimed bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee discusses his Black Lives Matter-inspired song cycle called Cycles of My Being. Brownlee collaborated with two other black artists, composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes to create the piece.
When tenor Lawrence Brownlee--he of the sweet, cultured tones and ringing high Cs-Ds, and higher--was first asked to put a recital together by Carnegie Hall, he was pretty certain of the centerpiece: Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love)," the elegant 19th century song cycle about rapture, disillusionment and regret.
"Indeed, there may be no better or more agile bel canto tenor on the scene today than Brownlee...the singer commands a stellar technique and honeyed tone that makes his high notes ring with characteristic warmth."
“The cycle’s six songs, which run about 35 minutes altogether, are arranged in three elaborately matched concentric pairs, whose traversal feels like a descent into a maelstrom followed by the emergence out the other side….Brownlee was an ideal interpreter of this music, his bright and unclouded vocal tone allowing access to both the intimacy and public force of the writing.”
The experiences of black men in America today are making their way onto the classical concert stage, thanks to internationally acclaimed tenor Lawrence Brownlee. Brownlee enlisted the help of two other prominent African-American artists, composer Tyshawn Sorey and poetTerrance Hayes.
The three hope that the work, called Cycles of My Being, will open some eyes. Brownlee is touring the song cycle across the U.S. in the coming weeks, including a performance at New York's Carnegie Hall.
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.