Lawrence Brownlee—On ‘Carmina Burana’, with the SFSymphony—Tuesday, July 30th

From The Examiner, August 20 2013

CARMINA BURANA pushed composer Carl Orff into immortality. The Wheel of Fortune had turned in his favor, so much that even Carl suggested the Delete button be pushed on all his previous work. After an experience of Carmina Burana, who would care? As Fate would have it, the very sensuous composition proved to be universally attractive, a machine with amazing endurance. This Tuesday night at 7:30, Edwin Outwater conducts the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in this wildly passionate work which features soprano Nikki Einfeld, tenor Lawrence Brownlee, baritone Hugh Russell, and the Pacific Boychoir. A companion piece, Fierabrass by Juan J. Colomer features members of the SF Symphony’s equally fiery brass section.

Lawrence Brownlee will sing one of the cantata’s most familiar movements, The Roasted Swan. Every tenor of every stripe understands the challenges of this number—with its three short verses, each one demanding a climactic High D, that is, after he’s been sitting calmly in front of an audience for over a half-hour. Mr. Brownlee’s penchant for the high notes of The Roasted Swan have gained him universal appeal and have passed the endurance test with audiences at Carnegie Hall, at La Scala, in Moscow, with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, on tour with the Boston Symphony, at Germany’s Rheingau Festival, and on a highly acclaimed recording from EMI Classics conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

“Some people might describe The Roasted Swan as short and sweet,” said Mr. Brownlee during our recent conversation. “It is short and high! It doesn’t last very long, but it’s an important contribution to Carmina Burana. I’ve been doing The Roasted Swan since my college days. It’s something that sits well in my voice. Knowing the work for so long now, I could sing along with it in my seat on stage. It takes forty minutes before they get to my part and I start out on High A! The range of the piece is not that much, but I go to the High D three times. I just hum along until then to keep my voice warmed up. I know the audience can’t hear me. To just jump in on High A, without any vocalizing before it, is not the easiest thing to do. But I’ve gotten used to the routine.”

How does The Roasted Swan fit in with the complete work? For one staged version, opera director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle envisioned an orgy of a banquet scene. The song is in Latin and begins with the skewered bird crying out, “Once I lived on lakes, once I looked beautiful, when I was a swan.” In spite of the circumstances—Fate having turned against the magnificent bird—the song has a driving, erotic energy. Brownlee got a few tips from conductor and composer Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos who had worked with Carl Orff.

“He talked about how the subject matter of Carmina Burana seems to go all over the place. Of course, I’m talking about being roasted on a stick! How my contribution fits in psychologically, I’m not totally sure. As I’m performing it, I think about the ‘woe is me’ situation and how unfortunate it is that I’m being spun on a roasting stick while all this other stuff is going on as well. It’s interesting that the shortest piece has this freakishly high tenor solo—and that’s all he sings. What do you think?”

“Certainly there have been times when it felt like I was on a spit myself,” I responded. “Skewered and roasted. So, symbolically, it’s more than just whatever big bird is being served-up for supper. It’s about greed and gluttony. And other qualities, such as the elements of grace and beauty that are going up in smoke as well. Graphically, politically, we might observe that they—whoever ‘They’ might be—are out to destroy you/the swan and will set your ass on fire. And the swan’s wailing—which sails up to High D—is pure angst and has to come up from the singer’s toenails.”

“Exactly!” said Larry. “That’s a great way of putting it. The High D is a wail, it does reach from the lower depths to communicate such anguish and pain. It must convey, ‘This is not the place to be in!’ It’s that fine line where you don’t want the note to sound painful, but all the High Ds need to be effective, full and beautiful. Sometimes a countertenor will sing the role. It has a completely different effect. But for me, something is added when you have a full voice that is reaching for the heights. The effect is more real to me.”

I asked Larry to describe his vocal category, technically speaking—his vocal “fach”. Where does it place him in the Classical repertoire?

“I have been called a Rossini tenor. I consider myself a high Bel Canto tenor. I may be blessed with the ability to sing some notes that are a bit higher or lower than other tenors who sing the same repertoire. I’m not a full lyric tenor. Some say I’m a lirico-leggiero, which is a light lyric tenor—again, a high Bel Canto tenor. It is said that your career finds you—based on your gifts, your talents. I actually wanted to be a lawyer. I didn’t necessarily want to be an opera singer. When I did get into classical music, I wanted to be / I wished I could sing Puccini and Verdi, the heavier stuff. But my teachers told me I didn’t have the right type of voice for that repertoire. So, I was relegated to the realms of the high Bel Canto stuff and found my home in it. There I discovered this vast amount of material that was appropriate to my voice. Here is what I can do, so do it.”

When asked about their vocal type and career aspirations, the vast majority of operatic tenors are quick to point out that they are not “Rossini tenors”—not the variety who demonstrate a roller coaster ride of fast-turning scales, those added coloratura embellishments or “fioritura” which separate a Radames in Verdi’s Aïda from Mozart’s Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni.

“What you find happiness in,” he said, “you should pursue. If you allow yourself to find joy in those things, you might say, ‘This is never what thought I was going to do. But it’s something I feel have a great passion for.’ There are some things I enjoy immensely that have come to me late in my life. For example, I’m a very serious hobbyist photographer. I never studied photography and all I had was a point-and-shoot camera. But it was one of those things that started tugging at me when my kids were born. Now I’m always walking around with my camera. With my singing career— I gave myself the opportunity. I let myself be open to the possibility. Then I found so many things in it that I love. I tell kids to be involved, to do something they like. If you don’t like it that much, you won’t give it your all. I found what I should be doing in life. It’s not about the accolades. People say things to me like, ‘You moved me with your performance’. I don’t get up on stage to move someone. I want to be true to the music, to make it honest, to show that I’ve invested a lot to be there. With that attitude, I hope my performance rings true. A lot of performers talk about getting nervous. People come to the theater to be entertained. I have a lunch box / hard hat mentality. I go to work to do my job. It’s not something I conjure up. My job comes with a lot of hard work and preparation. If someone is touched by something I do, it’s because I’ve put a lot of work into it. This is natural for me. It’s normal. I get on stage and I enjoy it.”

Larry’s hard hat illustration works for me. As I have listened to the handsome tenor’s recordings and watched the videos, I’m astonished by his unstoppable energy that simply drives the material down the track until the final chord.

“My dream has always been to sing Rodolfo in La Bohème. It’s a great role—young, energetic, a character who has a lot of hope, who lives on hope. A starving artist who could whore himself out to do something else. He could go be a plumber! But, in his aria, Che gelida manina, Rodolfo talks about having riches in the skies and the stars—that’s what inspires him. Now that I’ve just turned forty, people are asking me about the future. I’m looking for things to take a chance on, something that is a stretch. Bohème hasn’t come up yet, but I could definitely do Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi right now. There are some titles being mentioned to me which I had not thought about. And when asked about what I would like to do—there are a number of Rossini operas that would be right for my voice which haven’t been done, such as Ermione and Zelmira. I also want to do more Donizetti, Bellini and Mozart. I will be at Seattle Opera in October doing La Fille du Regiment and at Los Angeles Opera during November and December singing my first Tamino in The Magic Flute. So, that’s me stepping out—a little bit.”

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