‘They doubted I could make it big in opera’
Scroll back half a century and opera was being magnificently swelled by a flood of African American singers, newly enfranchised by the Civil Rights movement: first Leontyne Price, then the likes of Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Martina Arroyo, Reri Grist, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. That tide has sadly ebbed now (South Africa has become the fresh well of black soprano talent), but what is noticeable about that list is that it is exclusively female: among black males, only tenor George Shirley and basses Simon Estes and Eric Owens have ever had major international careers, none of them of the very front rank.
This is a sobering fact that gives Lawrence Brownlee pause. He is a 45-year-old tenor from Ohio, who in many respects has broken this glass ceiling with a glittering CV that includes a debut at La Scala at the age of 28 and acclaim in the European operatic heartland of Munich, Vienna and Salzburg, as well as starring roles at the Metropolitan Opera and a high media profile in the United States.
London has been slower off the mark. Although Brownlee has sung a few concerts here, and was at the Hackney Empire last summer to play the saxophonist Charlie Parker in
Yardbird for ENO, his only appearance at Covent Garden to date has been a minor role 12 years ago in Lorin Maazel’s 1984. “I have to be diplomatic about this,” he says with a tight smile. “It’s a very important house, and I have always wanted to sing here again. But things just haven’t worked out.”
Anyway, he’s back at last, for
Semiramide, Rossini’s tragic drama, to be presented in a new production by David Alden that happily reunites Brownlee with his “great and dear friend” Joyce Didonato, and Antonio Pappano, a conductor whom he emphatically “loves loves loves”.
He plays Idreno, an Indian king, and though Idreno’s part in the plot may be secondary, his music is extreme and ostentatious. “He has two arias, and they aren’t there for any Joe Schmoe to sing. They lie very high, and the coloratura passages are tricky.”
This sort of challenge is grist to Brownlee’s mill. He’s a Rossini specialist, and a superb vocal athlete – ranking alongside Juan Diego Flórez and Javier Camarena as one of today’s great virtuosi of the bel canto repertory. Blessed with a voice of rare sturdiness and flexibility, its range extending to a stratospheric top F (you can hear this bizarre note on his Youtube version of “Credeasi, misera” from Bellini’s I Puritani), he’s travelled to parts of the opera world where no black man has ever trod before and his journey is far from over yet. How hard was it for him to get there?
Music was an important feature of Brownlee’s childhood, though opera meant absolutely nothing to him. His father was the director of the church choir in which his mother was a soloist; at home he imitated Johnny Mathis, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder in falsetto; at high school, he sang everything from show tunes to madrigals. His natural facility singled him out and he was steered towards a programme for gifted musicians that involved an end-of-term solo recital. Alongside the popular hits, his teacher made him present a baroque Italian aria, “Tu lo sai”, and although he “hadn’t a clue what I was singing about”, he won “an amazing response” and the notice of someone from his local university’s music department, who invited him to study.
“My first thought was that classical music is not for the cool guys”, Brownlee admits. “I had planned on becoming a lawyer. But people kept telling me I was good at it, so I thought I’d give it a try. At first I wanted to feel the pain, die the death and do all the Three Tenors romantic stuff, but I’m not a heavy heroic singer and I never will be. Rossini’s music baffled me at first, but they told me it was right for my voice and it all fell into place.
“I was always encouraged. I kept winning prizes and nobody said anything negative, but there was always this awareness that I was a short black man and what chance would I have of making it big in opera? This wasn’t exactly racism – it was more a sense that the opportunities and support just weren’t going to be there. That was my fuel, and like Cuba Gooding Jnr in that movie A Few Good Men, I wanted it more because I was being told I couldn’t have it.”
A belief in the sensible maxim “Let your talent do the talking” – and Brownlee’s rare ability and readiness to sing bel canto rather than the Verdi and Puccini standards – helped him on his way. In 2001, he won the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Auditions, and after his debut at La Scala in Il Barbiere di Siviglia he was launched. Now he’s a role model to young black men and he’s aware that “if I’m smart about it”, he can use his success as a platform – a position he discusses a lot with fellow liberal activist Joyce Didonato. He’s proud that a spiritual he has arranged in collaboration with jazz musician Jason
‘Directors today ask you to do crazy things, climbing up poles and standing on your head. Most singers say no: I like to say yes’
Moran is featured in The 13th, Ava Duvernay’s powerful documentary about the incarceration of African Americans, and he fully supports the NFL’S kneeling campaign [a protest against police brutality towards black people]. In 2015, he sang the national anthem at a big league game; in Trump’s America, he wouldn’t do so without making a statement as well. “I am a patriot and my father is a veteran. But the discrimination against African Americans and the level of arrests and deaths in custody are injustices.”
He has another crusade as well – his seven-year-old son is autistic, and he devotes a considerable amount of time to supporting an American charity that promotes awareness of the attendant problems. But spending extended time at home with his family in Florida, where he and his wife Kendra also have a six-year-old daughter, is something he can rarely do – “I’m away up to nine months of the year, and I can’t pretend that’s not difficult.”
For all that, Brownlee is a cheerful and friendly soul, who is using his time in London to take boxing lessons and indulge his passion for salsa dancing – activities that explain his agile physicality on stage. “Directors today sometimes ask you to do crazy things, running around, climbing up poles and standing on your head. Most singers say no: I like to say yes.”
He’s been singing Rossini’s music for more than 20 years, but it never bores him – beyond the mechanics, it has a deeper melodic heart that “I’m still on a quest to find”. He seems tentative about taking on new roles in different areas of the operatic repertory, but he will sing in Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles next season and he’s enjoying an exploration of German lieder. Even more intriguing is a return to his roots in the form of a “serious” crossover album that will reunite him with those black American traditions which nurtured him but which sadly play such a marginal role in classical music.
Hats off: Lawrence Brownlee. Above, with Julie Miller in
Yardbird at the Hackney Empire last summer