INTERVIEW: with Lawrence Brownlee (and Opera Philadelphia general director David Devan).
The busy life of one world-class tenor just got that much busier, and the American opera scene stands to benefit mightily by it.
On March 30, Opera Philadelphia announced that renowned tenor Lawrence Brownlee will be its newest “artistic advisor” – a role in which the artist will carry an impressive brief of prerogatives for advancing the programming, outreach, and project development of a company already regarded as among the most progressive, energetic and innovative in the country.
Brownlee is, of course, an international performance star, appearing regularly on stages from New York’s Met to London’s English National Opera, and at premier opera houses and concert halls from Paris to Milan to Zurich, as well as points across North America.
In particular, Brownlee enjoys the status of a sort of primus inter pares among the current crop of virtuosic bel canto tenor princes – apropos of which, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross has posed the patently rhetorical question, “Is there any better Rossini tenor than Lawrence Brownlee?”
But why stop there? Ask about a better Donizetti tenor; or Bellini tenor, or Mozart tenor. With his Count Almaviva in Barber of Seville, his Tonio in La fille du regiment, his Arturo in I Puritani – or his upcoming Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio at Houston Grand Opera – Brownlee is at the vanguard of a major modern reclamation of the dazzle and technical artistry of the late 18th/early 19th-century tenor repertory.
But Brownlee is no stranger to modern opera – an exciting new vector in his career most prominently represented by Daniel Schnyder’s and Bridgette A. Wimberly’s Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, an emotionally fraught, musically unfettered stream-of-consciousness about artistic will and defiance of mortality in which Brownlee turns in a searing performance as the eponymous jazz great.
It’s a major contribution to the modern repertory – and it was developed for and premiered by Brownlee at, of course, Opera Philadelphia, in 2015.
“It’s really had some legs,” Opera Philadelphia general director David Devan says of YARDBIRD and its post-Philly life as a star vehicle for Brownlee. “He’s performed it at the Apollo [in April 2016]. He just did it in Chicago [in March]. He’s doing it in London [this coming June].”
And it was during the preparation of YARDBIRD that Brownlee came to a more sharply focused appreciation for the complexity of making a new opera – an epiphany that led to the talks that have culminated in Brownlee’s new assignment.
“Larry learned from that experience how much work goes on outside the rehearsal hall and off the stage to make things like that happen,” recalls Devan. “And he came to me and said ‘How can I help?’ He wanted to be a participant, not a bystander.”
“I want this form to live for the next generation,” Brownlee says, recounting that “Renee Fleming – a dear friend of mine and, of course, an icon in the business – has said that the way to ensure that opera will still be around for the next 20, 30 years is to do new works.”
A New Era
Devan – who himself joined the Opera Philadelphia administration in 2006, bristling with ambitions and fresh ideas about what an opera company in the city of America’s founding could and should be, calls YARDBIRD “essentially the first premiere from the ‘modern’ version of Opera Philadelphia.” And Devan dates that “modern” watershed from his own assumption of his current general director position in 2011.
Rightly so. The company has, in the space of a mere six years, revolutionized itself, now boasting a vigorous and exemplary composers-in-residence program, a pledge of producing at least one new work every season, and programming that jaunts all over town, from the landmark – and very traditional – Philadelphia Academy of Music, to more contemporary or even offbeat venues of varying size and cachets, in a strategy Devan refers to as “city as stage.”
It’s an energy and an eclecticism in which Brownlee is a gleeful new stakeholder.
“This is a company I love,” Brownlee avows unabashedly of Opera Philadelphia. “I love their passion and their commitment to new works. I love the fact that they give younger singers opportunities and they really invest in careers.”
“We’re not shy about saying what we want to do – even if that means it’s a belly-flop every now and then,” says Devan. “But we try to make sure not to make empty promises. We want to be about delivering results.”
Thus, in laying down the blueprint for the new relationship in advance of making public announcement, Devan and Brownlee focused their thinking on ambitions that “could get delivered in the first year of [Brownlee’s new] role.”
“We agreed on repertoire expansion, diversity inclusion, and assistance with promoting the company,” Devan says.
And, during early discussions, Devan says that Brownlee wowed him and others in the company with an impassioned and persuasive vision for special efforts to be centered on next February’s Black History Month – programming that would, as Devan puts it, “highlight what we already do, but with a form and substance” that will represent an entirely new benchmark going forward.
The Brownlee Version
We caught up with Lawrence Brownlee recently, soon after the announcement of his new Opera Philadelphia position, having recently concluded his latest stint in YARDBIRD in Chicago, and having just arrived in Houston for rehearsals of the upcoming HGO Seraglio (opening April 28).
“There’s never let up,” Brownlee noted, “but I enjoy it!”
Squeezing in time between stocking his temporary digs with groceries and getting to the rehearsal hall, our wide-ranging conversation covered topics from Opera Philadelphia and Brownlee’s many ideas for developing new audiences, to his enthusiasm for his favorite football and basketball teams, and his moving involvement with special needs children and support of the charity Autism Speaks.
A busy man, indeed.
Brownlee also dropped some hints about the new opera being developed for him at Opera Philadelphia (likely to premiere in the company’s Festival “O2020”).
And one couldn’t resist asking about Brownlee’s prodigious production of that infamous “high F” in Credeasi, misera, in the final act of Bellini’s I Puritani.
Storms were threatening in the metropolitan Houston area during our talk, but a lot of bright things were clearly on the horizon.
Charles Geyer: Lawrence Brownlee, hello! Your new role as “artistic advisor” at Opera Philadelphia sounds like a very important development. But may I first satisfy a burning curiosity about your technical abilities? How the heck do you achieve that high F of Arturo’s just before the final curtain of Bellini’s I Puritani?
Lawrence Brownlee: Well, I wear the tightest pair of underwear that I own! No… I had a really good teacher who said you should always bring your head voice down, and mix it with a little bit of chest. So it’s not like the [Arturo of] Pavarotti, that was almost all head voice. Plus, I feel I have the natural ability to do it. Still, it’s live theater, so you always have to take chances. I’ve done I Puritani in six or seven productions or concerts, and there have been times when I’ve been tired and it has not come out “optimally.” But it’s never cracked! I always squeaked it out some way. It may sound like a cat being skinned, but at least I did muster the note.
CG: Very funny. Well, it’s a stunning achievement. But let’s talk about your new position at Opera Philadelphia. How did the new assignment come about?
LB: We’ve been talking about it for a while. A lot of people know and understand that Opera Philadelphia has been very important to me in my career. I’ve done several things with them now, probably the most important being Charlie Parker. But my involvement started even before I got to Opera Philadelphia, in a sense, because the music director, Corrado Rovaris, gave me the biggest opportunity I ever had when he accepted me to sing the role of Count Almaviva at La Scala. We started a friendship and a working relationship that has endured over the years. We’ve become very good friends.
Throughout the years, Opera Philadelphia – first with Robert Driver and then with David Devan – they’ve all been so supportive. And I love what they’re doing. It was an easy decision for us to begin to work together.
CG: There are currently two other artistic advisors with the company – one being Mikael Eliasen. I assume your role will be different?
LB: Yes, the capacities will be a bit different. I know Mikael Eliasen and I’m a big fan of his since his days of involvement with [the]Curtis [Institute of Music].
They’ll get my opinions, my viewpoints, on some of the things they’re trying to develop – and I will probably be involved in performing some of those things. Also, I will be dealing with diversity expansion – trying to reach not just people of color (obviously, I’m African-American), but people of diverse groups. Opera Philadelphia has always been colorblind in casting; they have been inclusive of gender, and of people of all sorts of orientations. I’ve been really appreciative of that. So one of the things they want to do is really reach out to all those categories – to serve everyone in the community. That’s one of the things I’ll be involved with.
CG: Let’s wade in more deeply. What are your specific ideas about how to achieve better outreach and diversity of audiences?
LB: Well, one of the things I want to do is target people my age – young urban professionals. I’m a member of an [historically]African-American fraternity called Kappa Alpha Psi, and its headquarters are in Philadelphia. A very good friend of mine who is a member of the fraternity is also a pastor in the community; and another fraternity brother works at the national headquarters. So the two of them and myself are trying to inspire [peers]to come to a company like Opera Philadelphia. I want to tell them that opera is cool!
CG: And that goes hand in hand with your enthusiasm for helping develop and mount new works, no?
LB: It’s so important that we address that. Fighting in the trenches, to make sure that these works are being presented. I think a lot of people need to be reminded that bohème was once a new work. And traviata. So we need to put our stamp on history by doing and creating things in this spirit and time.
CG: Is that part of how you view your role? As a working opera practitioner also engaged in a sort of front-line battle for the art?
LB: I think so. We as artists are on the stage – that’s what you see. But for a performing artist to be in the think-tank, or in the boardroom, when decisions are being made is very valuable. I have colleagues all over the world, and now all of Opera Philadelphia are my collages. Ultimately, I think artists like myself will want to come to a company like Opera Philadelphia where their needs or their desires are being addressed – where the boardroom and the artist are being connected! That’s how I look at it.
CG: Part of your great value to a company is the very fact that you do have such an international career, and are constantly making connections everywhere.
LB: Yes. I will be a liaison. If I’m in a production and there’s a wonderful young conductor, or wonderful young soprano, I can say, hey I would love for Opera Philadelphia to hear this person. I will see things. I will talk to people. People will reach out to me. That’s the idea – to have my eyes and ears open to what’s going on and really use that.
CG: It’s interesting that you mentioned your fraternity colleague who happens to be a pastor. I would think that the churches are a natural interface between community and opera – the place where so many encounter truly soulful music for the first time. It may even have been the case for you?
LB: You’re absolutely right. And you have to realize, there’s a tremendous legacy of people, like Leontyne Price, who started in the church. Marian Anderson started in the church! Martina Arroyo. They all had background in the church. So if people can draw these parallels, I think they can appreciate the art form a little better.
CG: And how did your later evolution into professional opera come about?
LB: I was involved in madrigals and things like that in high school, and the sound of my voice was pointed out by different people. They kind of guided me toward opera. So I began to listen, and study.
I think the first opera I ever saw was The Ballad of Baby Doe. I remember thinking, “Wow! They sing the whole time.” I was just so intrigued by that.
I was in The Magic Flute as a freshman. I was Tamino. And I remember doing a competition early in my career not really knowing what was going on – and I won! So it was like: “You have something that you don’t even know about.” It all happened organically and so fast.
CG: Since you do get a first-hand experience of opera culture all over the world, how would you compare or contrast the current American opera scene and that in, say, Europe?
LB: When I’m in Europe, there’s much more historical and also geographical connection with some of these classic works. A lot of people are fine with hearing just classic things – another traviata, et cetera – and the most recent thing might not really be something current – not 2017. (Though the English do a fair amount of new works.)
Our country is much younger, and our experience of opera is much younger. So I think people here are more open, more flexible.
CG: Interesting. Though, at the other extreme, it seems that there are houses – in Germany, for instance – where, even with the classics, the tendency is to re-imagine them so radically that it’s almost weirdness for its own sake, no?
LB: Yes. You have to scratch your head.
CG: In which case, why not just commission a new work! So, tell me, what’s the most you are at liberty to say about the new work that is in development for you at Opera Philadelphia? I believe it’s currently projected to premiere in the 2020 festival?
LB: It’ll be in English. It’ll be about American characters. It’ll be set in the 19th century. It’s fiction, but there’ll be a lot of historical information that will inform the story. The librettist and the composer have already been engaged – both very gifted. All the people involved are American.
A dear friend of mine – a very well-known artist – and I will be doing it together. We’re involved in the process, giving our feedback, in on the ground floor. We’re excited about that.
CG: Sounds fantastic. Tell me, now that you have moved into an advisory and even developmental area of the opera-making process, could you see yourself, down the road, “calling the shots” somewhere? Becoming, possibly, a managing or artistic director of a company – like Beverly Sills legendarily did at the helm of NYCO for many years?
LB: But how accomplished was Beverly Sills! This was someone who knew the art form, knew the traditional performance practice, knew so much about opera. We have a saying: a person has to stay in his lane. That is, do what you do well. What I’m trying to do is what I feel I know how to do well.
CG: Fair enough! Though, one can change lanes if he signals properly, can’t he?
LB: Well, when I accepted this position, that was not what drove me. But I love the art form. I want to bring it to people. I want to take away any “stigma” that a lot of people have with opera. So we’ll see how this goes. I could see doing it on a more permanent basis, though I don’t know exactly in what capacity. I just want to be involved in making sure this art form that we love does survive for many years down the road.
CG: In addition to rooting for the future of opera, I understand you’re quite a sports fan, too.
LB: You’re not going to find a guy who’s a bigger sports fan than myself.
CG: Is that something you might be able to use to negotiate crossover and build new audiences, do you think?
LB: Yes! It’s part of taking the “stigma” away from opera. A lot people think that a guy who goes to the golf course or to a football game doesn’t go the opera house. But I’m that guy. I play tennis, I play table tennis, I cycle. I love the Steelers, I love the Celtics. One person can exist in all these realms. Showing who I am and being that person with them, interacting with people and letting them see that, hey, this is a regular guy that I could go out and have a beer with and he also sings opera –that’s what I hope people can take away. “Okay, let me see what this guy does. Maybe I’ll go to the opera house.”
I tell people all the time: it’s about human situations, it’s about relationships. If you understand that, you can go to the opera and appreciate what you seen onstage. It doesn’t have to be your only passion in life for you to get something from it.
CG: So how about a football opera? Or a basketball opera?
LB: It would be great. I would love to be involved. I’m pretty short, though; so maybe if it’s an opera about a really short character….
CG: I didn’t realize that! How tall are you?
LB: About 5 foot 6 inches. Not very tall.
CG: Fascinating. On the Met stage, in I Puritani, for instance, your look– and your sound – were every inch the hero!
LB: That’s good to hear!
CG: Final question: I know that you are very active with Autism Speaks, and that it’s a topic that touches you personally because of your son?
LB: Yes. He’s doing well. And, incidentally, April is “Autism Awareness Month.” I’m doing this challenge, trying to cycle 300 miles in the month to raise money for Autism Awareness. I’d be on the bike today, except we’re looking forward to thunderstorms in the Houston area.
CG: Autism is a very subtle and intriguing subject. Are there intersections between it and the practice of singing, or the area of classical music, do you think?
LB: It’s funny – my son goes to kindergarten, and one day one of his teachers told me he was having a difficult day. So she found one of my videos on YouTube and played it for him. He settled down, and so did all the other kids. So maybe there is a soothing element to classical music, or music in general, for kids with autism.
But one of the things I would love to do [at Opera Philadelphia]would be to implement some programs that deal with special needs kids. It’s something that’s close to my heart.