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A Conversation with Tenor Lawrence Brownlee

Updated: Jan 20


Lawrence Brownlee is a world-renowned operatic tenor, specializing in the Italian bel canto repertoire. He has performed to great acclaim in numerous major theaters around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro alla Scala, and Royal Opera House – Covent Garden. He earned a Master of Music degree from Indiana University, and, in 2001, was awarded a Grand Prize in the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. In 2017, he was named “Male Singer of the Year” at the International Opera Awards and, in 2021, he won the Opera News Award.


Having always been a fan of Brownlee’s, I reached out to his agency earlier this year to ask for an interview. He happily accepted, and, on March 11, I had the privilege of sitting down with him to discuss his life and career.

 

Interview by Alkis Karmpaliotis, Student at Fieldston High School

March 11, 2023


Alkis Karmpaliotis: Tell me about your journey to the opera stage. What sparked your interest in music and theater?


Lawrence Brownlee: Well, it started when I sang in a church choir as a kid. My father directed the choir, my mother sang solos. I’m one of six kids so we were always involved in music, and we had a great deal of appreciation for it in the house. Then, when I got into high school and joined the choir there, one of my teachers said “there’s something about your voice that lends itself to classical music, so you should definitely do this.” At that time, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do — I thought about maybe going to law school, that’s where my interest was — but he said “you need to see if there’s a place for you in music.” I had another teacher in my senior year of high school — I did some lessons with him — who told me that I didn’t need to go to law school, and that I had to go to music school and try to become an opera singer. So, that was the beginning of a journey; I fell in love with it. Before then, I didn’t really know what opera was about; I thought, just like everyone else, that opera was just a lot of fat people singing in a foreign language and breaking glass. [Laughs]. But then, I got to understand that it’s really so much more than that, and I grew to love opera, as I love it today. It’s not only my job; it’s my passion.


AK: In 2001, you won the Grand Prize at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. What was that like for you and how did it help kickstart your career?


LB: It was such an important part of my career. Any American opera singer knows that if you win the Met, it gives you automatic publicity. People see you and want to know, “who is this person?” You can be seen and viewed and heard on a really wide scale, so that was an important boost, as people got to know who I was as a singer. Lawrence Brownlee had arrived. That opened so many doors for me; people were interested to know who I was, what my voice was like, and all these other things. That’s how winning in 2001 jump started my career and put me in front of so many important people in the industry.


AK: Do you remember, by any chance, what you sang at the Auditions?


LB: Yes, I sang two pieces, one by Rossini and one by Donizetti. The Rossini piece was “Languir per una bella” from L’italiana in Algeri — the Italian girl in Algiers; I also sang “Ah, mes amis,” the one with the nine high C’s, from La Fille du Regiment — the Daughter of the Regiment — by Donizetti. Those were the pieces that allowed me to win the competition, and they have been very important in my career to date.


AK: Throughout your career, you’ve consistently been one of the best bel canto tenors in the world. What goes into singing music by composers such as Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini?


LB: First, you have to have the natural ability to sing in this high tessitura, with a high position in the vocal line. You have to have a flexible voice and sing with elegance and grace. For me, it’s all about having that natural ability, but also working to build on my technique and understand the languages I sing — French, Italian, German. I’ve also worked on my comedic acting, which helps as well, as many of these bel canto roles are comedic. All of this contributes to me being able to stay in that realm of being one of the most important singers in opera. Once you get the opportunity to do something and do it well, people will want to hear you. I remember getting, in 2001, my first contract to sing one of these roles at Milan’s La Scala in Italy. That’s pretty much the height of the operatic world, so if you can have success at that house, other important houses across the world will be interested in having you.


AK: I recently wrote an article for my website, AppreciateOpera.org, entitled Black Voices in Opera, in which I highlighted the work of African-American artists and outlined some of their experiences in a field that often lacks racial diversity. What does it mean to you to be an African-American man in the opera industry? How do you use your voice and music to convey a message about your identity?


LB: I have used my voice to make change. The reason my voice resonates in that way is because I have been successful, so, because people know my work first, because of my caché, because of my reputation, people are willing to hear what I have to say when I speak out on racial issues. I’m a very proud Black man, I’m very proud of my heritage. I try to let my work do the talking, and be an effective communicative singer — someone who has something to say and stands up for other people. I’m fighting for other people, I’m fighting for myself, and I’m fighting for the younger generation. Some African-Americans before me opened the doors for me, so it is my responsibility to continue to fight so that there won’t be any inequity in our business. A lot of the people who have the opportunity to make change, such as directors and conductors, are colleagues of mine, so I can hold their feet to the fire and say, “look, you need to make this change.” People are listening to me because of my reputation.


AK: You mentioned that there have been some past African-American singers or musicians that have laid the groundwork for the change you’ve made in the industry. Who are some of your inspirations, not only in social justice, but in music?


LB: There are so many wonderful musicians that are not necessarily just classical. For example, I’m a big fan of Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, as well as George Shirley, who’s an operatic singer, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo Simon Estes. All these people, they endured some more difficult times so I could have the opportunities I’ve had and not have as many difficulties as they did. I honor them, they mean a lot to me, and they were very important to all of us in the music industry. Because of what they did and what they went through, I am fortunate to not have so many problems today.


AK: On that topic… This month, you are premiering a new song cycle, Rising, which sets texts written during the Harlem Renaissance to music. Throughout March, you are scheduled to perform the program alongside pianist Kevin J. Miller across the United States. Tell me about the program and the tour.


LB: I’m looking forward to Rising. Rising grew out of the pandemic when we were all sitting at home. It was an opportunity for me to empower some young African-American composers. I am someone who does a lot of song recitals, and I usually present a lot of Strauss, Duparc, Poulenc, and Mozart, so, since I’m getting the chance to sing at Carnegie and Wigmore and all these other places, I thought it would be great to give a voice to all these young African-American composers and have their works premiered. I commissioned all of these works, with the words all being by writers and poets of the Harlem Renaissance — people that I grew up reading, like Langston Hughes, W.E. du Bois, James Baldwin, so many other wonderful writers. It seemed like a perfect marriage, giving these people something to write about, something they could use to inspire their musical voice. That’s how Rising came to be. So, when I first talked to my agent, I said, “I want to do a tour of this and I want to use my friend Kevin Miller, who’s also an African-American pianist.” We thought that it would have a great deal of impact. So what am I looking forward to? I’m looking forward to showing off the wonderful writing styles of these composers, but also the wealth of poetry and beautiful storytelling of some of these great poets of the Harlem Renaissance, even some that are less well-known. I think it’ll be a great opportunity to inspire young African-American singers; but not only them, as the music of African-American composers is not only meant for African-Americans. The goal is just to expose, expose, and expose, and hopefully open up the hearts and minds of the people that come to see Rising.



AK: I’m very much looking forward to Rising next Thursday at Carnegie Hall. After the tour, you will conclude your season at the Metropolitan Opera in June, where you will sing Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.


LB: I’m excited because the absolute first role that I ever sang in opera was Tamino from The Magic Flute. When I was 19 years old and didn’t know what an opera singer was, someone called me a “Tamino”, and I said “what is a Tamino?” [Laughs]. She said, “you’ve been cast in the opera” so I said, “what? I guess I’m a Tamino!” But, coming full circle, coming to the Met, having been there several times, and getting the chance to go back, is great. I haven’t been to the Met since 2015, which is a long, long time, so to be able to take on that role, to sing with several friends, to make a return after eight years, means a lot to me. The fact that the people at that house respect me and want to have me back means a lot, so I’m excited to show the growth that I’ve had as a singer since I was there in 2015.


AK: Interesting. How does singing Mozart differ from singing bel canto?


LB: Mozart’s a bit different. The writing style has a different approach. It’s a little bit lower, less florid, less melismatic, less flexible. But I’m excited to sing in German, which I appreciate a great deal. It’ll be a challenge for me, but one that I am looking forward to embracing, so I cannot wait to hit that stage.


AK: On a more personal note, many readers are curious about the lifestyle that comes with being a musician. How do you balance the work and travel that come with your profession with your hobbies and social life?


LB: Well, it’s not easy. I have two kids and a wife, so juggling family life and trying to give them the care and the maintenance they need is very important for me as well. I tell them that I want to make the most of the time we have together. My daughter, the other day, told me, “dad, you’re gone a lot,” and I said, “I know, I’m sorry.” [Laughs]. The beautiful thing now is that she’s getting older and she has the international travel bug, so she’ll want to travel with me to all these places. As I do less and less in the future, we’ll have more time together — but you have to balance it. That’s the real hard part, being away from your family. But, being on the road, I always try to enjoy some of the hobbies that I have. I love to play tennis, I love to play table tennis, photography, salsa dancing, cycling. These are things that I love to do as much as I can, so I can have a happy life outside of my career, because it’s not only just about the career — you have to be a whole person, you have to have a happy life. Trying to find that balance, trying to find that happiness in the midst of all you have to do as an artist. It’s been 25 years that I’ve been doing this, so I’ve gotten better at it, and I continue to learn. But I enjoy my career a great deal.


AK: As a side note, your website mentioned that one of those hobbies is that you’re a big Celtics fan, which stood out to me because I’m a huge Celtics fan myself!


LB: I have been since the old days! [Laughs]. You’re only 16 years old, but I’ve been watching since the days of some of the greatest Celtics of all time. Larry Bird, of course, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson. I remember the Dee Brown years, I remember Joseph Forte, I remember Len Bias. I’m a big, big Celtics fan, so, hopefully Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and all these guys can pull it together and we’ll see if we can make any noise in the playoffs.


AK: Hopefully. Last year’s finals really stung! [Laughs]. Circling back to music, one of the primary purposes of my website is to make opera and classical music more accessible to young people. What are some tips or suggestions you have that might encourage kids to give such music a chance?


LB: I think just showing them that they can identify with the stories. If you think about The Marriage of Figaro, they can identify with that story. You have the Count, who tries to have his way with a younger girl, Susanna, and he tries to use his wit to do that. Any child can understand funny stories like this. It’s the same thing they might see in a movie, but this is different because it's living, breathing theater in the opera house that’s accompanied by music. So, how do you make opera more accessible to kids? Give them a good introduction and explanation and then allow the music to do it itself. If you’re going to the opera, if you’re going to The Magic Flute, tell them the story of The Magic Flute before they get there. If, beforehand, you can give them a good introduction, take the time to cultivate their knowledge of the art form itself. I think that will go a long way, so in the future, if they don’t know an opera — one that’s in Czech or Russian or French —they’ll be open because they’ll understand the structure and they’ll understand how much the music contributes to the story. It needs to start early, and we have to let the kids begin to understand how opera is even put together. Then, from that knowledge, they’ll be able to have a growing interest in the art form itself. How did you get involved in opera, if I may ask?


AK: Well, my parents always loved classical music and opera. Growing up, I would always hear music playing in the background. When I was younger, they would take me every now and then to see something, but I wouldn’t think very much of it. But, over the years, I started to realize that this music is really cool. Around six to seven years ago, I fell in love with it and it became my favorite genre of music. When I was twelve, I built my website, AppreciateOpera.org, and it’s gotten bigger and bigger ever since, as my passion for music has grown.


LB: That’s amazing. People like myself love meeting people like you. There’s a stigma that opera is high-brow or ultra elitist, but it’s not. When you see Dialogues des Carmelites (Dialogues of the Carmelites), in that chorus at the end where all the women are singing, and, every second, there’s one less voice, until there’s one voice at the end, and you realize that those women are going to the guillotine — once you understand these situations, you can be so affected by the music and the orchestration and how those things come together. There’s a lot for people to understand about opera, and I hope that they will give it a chance and not feel like it’s so far removed from just regular music. I really appreciate what you’re doing.


AK: I also really appreciate what you’re doing and what you’ve done throughout your career as well. Thank you so much for speaking with me, and I very much look forward to seeing you onstage, both at Carnegie Hall and at the Met!

 

I'm Alkis Karmpaliotis and I'm a Junior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. Thanks for reading my article! I founded Appreciate Opera in 2019, and you can support my work by reading my articles and interviews and subscribing.

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