Opera singer Brownlee wows world audiences with his voice

By Genea L. Webb

Lawrence Brownlee is a regular guy who is a lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan and can talk about normal things like raising his two children and spending quality time with his family.

“I was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and I tell people all the time that Youngstown is really like a suburb of Pittsburgh and some of the most rabid and die-hard fans of the Steelers that you’ve ever met live there. I fall into that category and I will never be a fan of another team,” Brownlee said with his infectious laugh.

But when the operatic tenor opens his mouth to sing, it is evident that he is anything but ordinary.

He is the most in-demand American tenor in the world in the bel canto repertoire. He routinely evokes praise for his ability to hit high tessituras and his elegant phrasing. Brownlee has been featured in almost every major theater in the world. He has per­formed “La Cenerentola” (Rossell­ini’s Cinderella), in Phila­delphia, Houston, Milan and the Metropolitan Opera; “L’Italiana in Algeri” (The Italian Girl in Algers) in Milan, Houston, Seattle and Dresden; “Mose in Egitto” in Rome; “II turco in Italia” where he portrayed Narcisco in Toulouse and Berlin. He also performed in the world premiere of Lorin Maazel’s “1984” at London’s Covent Garden.

Brownlee performed alongside the Pittsburgh opera as Tonio in Donizetti’s romantic comedy, “The Daughter of the Regiment.” The show ran at the Benedum Center from May 2-10.

“My dad said a few years back that there are a lot of people around here that want to see you do what you do, so if you come some place close people would love that,” said the Atlanta resident. “The show went well. It was a lot of fun. The crowd was quite nice. The conductor there (Anthony Walker) is a good friend of mine and the girl who sang the soprano part (Lisette Oropesa) is a good friend of mine also so coming back there was like meeting with old friends.”

On the orchestral front, Brownlee, who earned his undergraduate degree from Anderson University and his graduate degree from Indiana University, has been heard in Handel’s “Messiah” in Detroit, Baltimore, San Francisco, Houston and Indianapolis; Bach’s “Magnificat” in Cincinnati; and “Carmina Burana” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Brownlee takes all of his accomplishments in stride.

“I enjoy doing what I do. I feel like I’m incredibly lucky to do what I do and being able to go around the world and sing in these theaters and I’m glad that some people find joy from it,” Brownlee said. “Any time people take interest in my story and my life I really appreciate it.”

Brownlee always had an inclination for music and theater. He cut his musical teeth playing various instruments like drums, bass guitar and a little piano, and performing in church. His first performances were at an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, singing pop and show tunes. While in graduate school, he studied under soprano Costanza Cuccaro, David Starkey and Fritz Robertson.

He made his professional stage debut as Almaviva in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” with the Virginia Opera. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2007 in its production of “Il Barbiere di Sivglia” in 2007. The role has become one of his most famous. In 2010, he performed at a concert with mezzo- soprano Denyce Graves in the Supreme Court building for the Supreme Court Justices.

Brownlee has numerous awards and accolades to his credit. Those honors include The Richard Tucker Award and the Marian Anderson Award, both in 2006; the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Alter Award for Artistic Excellence in 2007 and the Seattle Opera’s Artist of the Year, in 2008, for his performance as Arturo in Bellini’s “I Puritani.”

His first album, “Virtuoso Rossini Arias,” was recorded with Constantine Oberlian and the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra on the Delos label. It gives opera lovers a mix of rarely heard Rossini songs along with some of the composers’ favorite works.

Brownlee’s next endeavor, “Spiritual Sketches,” was a throwback to his church days. He collaborated with arranger Damien Sneed to create a compilation of traditional spirituals. “The Heart That Flutters” included songs by Rossini, Duparc and American contemporary composer Ben Moore. His record, “Lawrence Brownlee: Songs” found him singing arias from such composers as Franz Schubert, Giuseppe Verdi and of course, Rossini.

In addition to his solo efforts, Brownlee has been featured on a number of albums including “Orff: Carmina Burana,” “Rossini: Stabat Mater” and “Colbran, the Muse.”

Currently, Brownlee is playing the iconic singer Charlie Parker in “Yardbird.” A role created especially for him and his golden voice. The show also stars mezzo-soprano Angela Brown as Parker’s mother, Addie.

“Angela is great,” Brownlee said. “We’ve known each other for 20 years we went to graduate school together. This is like a reunion for us. It’s nice to perform with someone that I care about.”

Set in the iconic New York club, Birdland, “Yardbird” tells the story of Parker finally realizing his dream of writing music for an orchestra of 40 or more musicians. It is in Birdland, the club named for him, that Parker is able to complete his final masterpiece.

“I bow to Charlie Parker’s excellence,” Brownlee said. “When you think of Jazz or Bebop you think of Charlie Parker. I am not an aficionado, but I realized that he overcame a lot of obstacles and hardships to create great music.”

The sold-out show premiered at Opera Philadelphia June 5-14 to rave reviews. The show will be shown at the Apollo Theater and in Montreal next year. Brownlee said six or seven other opera houses have expressed an interest in having the 90-minute, intermissionless piece.

“Unfortunately, Pittsburgh is not on the list right now, but hopefully it will be,” Brownlee said.