Renowned tenor returns to Seattle for comic opera

From The Seattle Times, October 22 2013

How do you follow the epic scale and drama of “The Ring”?

Seattle Opera’s answer: Lighten up. On the heels of its massive summer production of Wagner’s cycle, the company, celebrating its 50th anniversary, will take things in a breezier direction with a comic opera in the bel canto tradition. (“Bel canto” is Italian for “beautiful singing.”)

Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment,” first performed in Paris in 1840 and last staged by Seattle Opera in 1990, “is simply fun,” says general director Speight Jenkins.

“It’s a delightful comedy and involves a lot of wonderful singing with the right people, but it’s not anything you’re going to get serious about.”

In this staging, the story of an orphaned young woman, Marie — a tomboy who has grown up as the surrogate child of an entire military regiment — and her suitor, Tonio, will be set in 1940s France. The production comes from director Emilio Sagi and designer Julio Galán of Teatro Comunale di Bologna in Italy. Yves Abel conducts.

For Seattle Opera, “Daughter” is also a chance to bring back to the stage a couple of its own: soprano Sarah Coburn and tenor Lawrence Brownlee, stars whose careers launched in the organization’s Young Artists Program.

“I honestly don’t think there are two better artists in the world for the roles of Marie and Tonio,” says Jenkins. “Larry is one of the two or three top bel canto tenors in the world, and this is a role he’s done in many places. Sarah is as strong a lyric coloratura as exists.

“They’re a great combination.”

Brownlee and Coburn both won the Metropolitan Opera’s National Grand Finals in 2001. Brownlee, from Youngstown, Ohio, was already a Young Artist here; Coburn became one the following year. Together, they sang “La Cenerentola” in Seattle in 2002 and appeared in Seattle Opera’s 2011 “The Barber of Seville.”

The alternate “Daughter” cast features former Seattle Opera Young Artist Andrew Stenson as Tonio.

Brownlee was named the Seattle Opera’s 2008 Artist of the Year and won both the Marian Anderson and Richard Tucker awards in the same year (2006), an unprecedented achievement.

One of the most in-demand tenors in the world, Brownlee is a familiar presence at the Met (where he has sung opposite Renee Fleming). Following his Seattle engagement, he heads to his Los Angeles Opera debut for “The Magic Flute.”

Brownlee made Seattle Opera history in 2007 by singing a full-voiced F above high C (not falsetto) in Bellini’s “I puritani.”

“I consider Seattle Opera my artistic home,” says Brownlee. “These were people who invested in my talent and career, and gave me opportunities before they knew what would happen. That gave me the chance to travel the world singing opera.”

In some ways, the role of Tonio, with its two demanding arias — the first, “Ah! mes amis,” requiring nine high Cs in the space of a minute — has helped define Brownlee’s career.

“I won the Met auditions in part with ‘Ah! mes amis,’ ” he says. “That aria has been a vehicle for me to do some important things. But the other one, ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie,’ is more legato, more beautiful and more difficult. I think people will be surprised there is so much beauty in this opera outside those high Cs.”

Brownlee won success despite naysayers who told him that as a short-statured (he’s 5 feet 6 inches tall), African-American vocalist, he wouldn’t headline many operas. He says he has always concentrated instead on whatever task is at hand.

“I try to have a lunchbox, workmanlike approach,” he says. “I’ve tried to learn my craft in a way that I can always depend on what comes out.”

As a change of pace, Brownlee’s latest CD, “Spiritual Sketches,” a collection of songs of worship, is a musical memoir.

“I grew up in the church, and traditional Negro spirituals were a part of my upbringing,” he says. “I was influenced by so many different styles as a musician. These things all contributed to me as an artist.”

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