An Opera Star’s Song Cycle Conjures a Black Man’s Life in America
Seth Colter Walls
When Carnegie Hall came calling in 2016, asking the tenor Lawrence Brownlee to plan a recital, he knew he wanted to include a classic German song cycle. Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” was high on his list. But what to perform alongside it?
That year, Mr. Brownlee, an international star in the bel canto operatic repertory, sang an arrangement of the African-American spiritual “There’s a Man Going ‘Round Taking Names” with the jazz pianist Jason Moran. Conceived as an artistic statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the performance lingered in Mr. Brownlee’s mind, and helped him answer the question of what he should sing at Carnegie.
“Why don’t I think about doing some type of song cycle, detailing our own perspective of what it is to be a black man in America?” he recently recalled asking himself.
The result is “Cycles of My Being,” a 40-minute work in six parts by the composer Tyshawn Sorey and the poet Terrance Hayes. Or, more precisely, a pair of works. The first version — scored for cello, violin, clarinet and piano, in addition to voice — will have its premiere on Tuesday at the Kimmel Center under the auspices of Opera Philadelphia, where Mr. Brownlee is an artistic adviser. A slightly shorter arrangement for piano and tenor will then travel to Chicago (as part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lyric Unlimited series) before arriving at Carnegie in April for that pairing with Schumann.
“We talk about hope, we talk about hate,” Mr. Brownlee said of the piece. “We talk about consciousness. We talk about religion.”
Andrew Ousley, a publicist who helped bring Mr. Brownlee and Mr. Moran together for their performance, had the original suggestion that the tenor look up Mr. Sorey, a multi-instrumentalist whose complex, contemplative works are inspired by both modernist chamber music and avant-garde improvisation.
“He does a lot of jazz,” Mr. Brownlee said Mr. Ousley told him. “But he also wrote some songs about Josephine Baker. This would be a great challenge for you, and him.”
Mr. Brownlee listened to that Baker cycle — which Zachary Woolfe called “one of the most important works of art yet to emerge from the era of Black Lives Matter” in The New York Times — and other Sorey works on YouTube, and became convinced he had found a musical partner. For texts, they turned to Terrance Hayes, whose poetry has considered issues of race and masculinity.
The lyrics Mr. Hayes wrote are varied. Some stanzas relay deeply personal conceptual ideas, in list-poem format. Other sections offer pointed political questions for the nation, and lines addressed directly to those who hate. The sometimes searing, occasionally abstract words prompted Mr. Sorey to venture into his full storehouse of stylistic effects, and he has responded with a score that teems with vivid contrasts. (“It’s a jump, isn’t it?” Mr. Brownlee said, in an understatement, comparing the new score with the Bellini and Rossini he is known for.)
But Mr. Sorey has created more than a showcase for virtuoso complexity. The lyrics’ attention to cyclical processes is dramatized, early on, by the music’s shift through harmonic intervals. And Mr. Sorey can paint moods as effectively as Mr. Hayes does. Describing the second movement in a recent interview, Mr. Sorey said, “You have these sort-of tonal sections; some stuff is really pretty. There’s a lot of patterns.”
But during the third movement, he added with a soft laugh, “it definitely takes a turn.” This metrically tricky, powerhouse section contains some booming, sustained piano chords. It also requires the vocalist to move quickly between dynamics, including some unusually loud ones.
The volatile music suggests the unpredictable ways racial prejudice manifests itself in daily life. “Every day that my feet hit the floor, I have to know that I’m going to encounter some of these small minuscule, minute things,” Mr. Brownlee said. “And the decisions you make in an instant can change the course of your life.”
The music of “Cycles of My Being” reflects both the changeability and the gravity of that life, and puts an emphasis on empathy, even from the musicians. Mr. Sorey asks all the players to read from the full score, instead of from individual parts.
“I want them to see the actual lyrics,” he said. “I want all of the players to have a total experience of what it means to sing the music. Imagining themselves as the vocalist, and them singing the music. That’s how I like to try to frame it.”
Though Mr. Brownlee spoke with clear pride about a song cycle entirely created by black men, he also said he wanted the work to reach out to many different communities and audiences.
“The song cycle is meant to do good,” he said. He also wants listeners less familiar with some of the work’s themes to leave thinking: “O.K., that was some tough information we got, but I understand. It wasn’t just, like, someone shaking their fist at me, so I walked away angry.”
It is a statement that is, above all, personal. “Opera singers spend their whole life occupying other characters,” said David Devan, the general director of Opera Philadelphia. “A song cycle allows them to perform and try material that is about them.”