Lawrence Brown­lee

‘They doubted I could make it big in opera’

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page -

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

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