JAN 6, 2018
Babbling brooks, young love, broken hearts: standard topics for classical song cycles from Schubert onward, and for most opera singers a key part of their concert hall careers. Not for the 45-year-old US tenor Lawrence Brownlee, one of the world’s leading bel canto stars. He has never yet sung any of these standard repertoire works. He wanted material he could relate to. US urban not European pastoral, a reek of the blues, a snarl of reality. Why not the story of a black man murdered in police custody?
Since nothing touching on such a subject existed, Brownlee and Opera Philadelphia, where he is an artistic adviser, set about commissioning a new work. He will premiere Cycles of My Being, composed by the eclectic pianist-percussionist Tyshawn Sorey, with a libretto by the award-wining poet Terrance Hayes, next month in Philadelphia, with further performances at Lyric Opera, Chicago, and Carnegie Hall, New York.
“The idea started with the injustices we see on a daily basis,” Brownlee says when we meet in London early on a Sunday morning just before Christmas. “We’ve summed it up as being about ‘black male subjectivity’.” Meaning? “Exactly that. What it means to be an African American man living in America today. It seems every week or month a black man is being murdered by police for something insignificant. Driving without a tail light could turn into a situation where someone loses their life just for being black.”
Driving without a tail light could turn into a situation where someone loses their life just for being black
Brownlee is about to catch a plane to Zurich to squeeze in a few days’ work before going home to his young family in Florida. He’s on the road up to nine months a year. The night before, he sang the last performance in another Rossini opera, Semiramide, at Covent Garden, playing opposite the superstar mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato.
In the small but prominent role of the Indian king, encased head to toe in silver sequins, Brownlee detonated showers of trills and glittering high notes to match. He was singled out for unanimous critical praise. His pinpoint accuracy and – not a given for his high tenor voice type – tonal warmth has established his career.
Today he’s in jeans, trainers and American football sweatshirt, a touch heavy-eyed and keen for coffee. “You see me now. I look just like any regular black guy. No one knows that I’m educated, have travelled to 45 countries and speak four languages [Italian, French, German and English], that I’ve met kings and queens and the American president – the former one. I would not care to meet the present one. And, yes, I wear a Rolex!”
His laugh breaks the quiet of the hotel lounge. Many an opera star’s career is measured by an elite Swiss watch on their wrist. If his words look boastful on paper, he speaks them with an engaging self-deprecation and much chuckling. He is, too, absolutely serious.
“I’m not saying any of this makes me better. I’m just talking about equality, assumption, stereotype, the way we are perceived. Our story is about walking down the street and a white person comes towards us clutching their purse thinking we’re going to rob them of their $20 or do something violent. Sometimes –” he grabs his wrist with its precious timepiece – “I worry I should be the nervous one.”
Born in Ohio, the fourth of six children “with three very sharp big sisters”, Brownlee first planned to be a lawyer, but shifted direction in his late teens. His father worked in the motor industry and used his entrepreneurial skills to give his large family a good education.
“He was of the opinion that every son should do better than their father. Born in Georgia in 1945, he grew up under the shadow of slavery and segregation laws. He knew his place in society. I always felt the weight of all the things he couldn’t do, and the freedoms I have in comparison.”
The family was musical. His early singing experience came from church and the gospel tradition, as well as musicals. Faith was central to the Brownlees’ life. “Singing was always part of dealing with hardship, a sense of, ‘Lord, let me make it to the end of the day.’” That faith has stayed with him. “Yes, I do pray, ‘Lord, let me make it to the end of the performance!’”
As one of the artistic advisers at Philadelphia, his task is specifically to help bring diversity to opera. As well as showing that “people like me” can appear on stage in starring roles, his ambition is to increase the ethnic and social range of the audience too. The song cycle is part of that drive. Demonstrating formidable physical and vocal versatility, he also sang the role of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in Yardbird, another Philadelphia commission, which had its successful UK premiere at Hackney Empire last summer. Given the sudden escalation of his career, no one was surprised when Brownlee was named male singer of the year in the International Opera awards 2017.
Brownlee is equable towards racial attitudes in opera, insisting that old prejudices are changing, if slowly, and that the best singer should always be given the role, even in the case of Verdi’s Otello (not suited to Brownlee’s voice, though he hopes one day he might tackle the higher-lying Rossini version). From international stars such as Leontyne Price and Grace Bumbry to Jessye Norman and Willard White, Brownlee has had role models to follow, though he has encountered more subtle forms of resistance.
“You can’t blind-cast with opera. No one has ever turned me down for a part and said ‘Because he’s black’ or even ‘Because he’s small and black!’ but there’s a code I’ve come to understand – ‘We have a different idea for the role’ is a common one. Change is slow, across the classical world – even in orchestras which have ‘blind’ casting, behind screens. The New York Met orchestra still only has maybe five players of colour out of 60 or more musicians. It’ll take time.”
The issue of sexual harassment, he agrees, is equally or perhaps more urgent. He’s worked regularly at the Met, where its conductor and former music director James Levine has been suspended following sexual abuse accusations. “Has he contributed to the world of music? Yes, without question. More than that I can’t say – I’ve never worked directly with him,” he says. “All this with Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and so on has heightened our awareness. It’s not an accident it’s all coming out now. There have been uneasy situations across the industry for a long time.”
Brownlee pauses, choosing his words with care, then adds: “It’s widely known that many performers have ‘handlers’ who make sure they don’t stray off the path. Some performers, it’s known, because of past accusations, cannot be left alone with women, are only allowed male dressers, male makeup artists. It’s almost a given …”
Power games within the industry are exacerbated by the circumstances of a top musician’s working life. “Being away for weeks or months at a time is hard. It can be lonely. You’re in hotels. You meet someone you like one day. The next you’re gone. It’s hard to form or maintain relationships.” His own solution is to get out as much as he can, give masterclasses, explore whichever city he is in, dance salsa, join a gym. “While I’ve been in London I’ve found a boxing club. And before the last Semiramide performance yesterday I had a fast game of ping pong!”
I will keep on singing until I can no longer do so
He met his wife, Kendra, in 2008, via online dating. “I filled in the forms, pages and pages of them, on a plane, totally jet-lagged. Next day, half asleep, I got a message from her! She knew what my life was like. We established a relationship knowing that.” They have two children: Caleb, seven, and Zoe, six. His son is autistic and Brownlee campaigns on behalf of people living with autism. As we discuss the additional pressure this creates, especially for his wife when he’s away, he checks a new message on his phone.
“My wife’s sent me a nice picture of Zoe in school with a message: ‘I wonder if you can pick out our daughter very quickly?’” He passes the phone over. It’s immediately obvious what his wife means. “She is the only person of colour in her class,” he says. “Doors close on us. Sometimes she comes home sad.” All the Swiss watches in the world cannot solve that. Brownlee is on his own lifelong mission. Cycles of My Being is a start.
“And I will keep on singing until I can no longer do so,” he sums up, before zipping up against the wind, “any regular black guy”, in his own words, and rushing off to catch the train to the airport.
• The world premiere of Cycles of My Being is at the Perelman theatre, Philadelphia, on 20 February.