Q & A: Lawrence Brownlee on Bel Canto Opera & The Debut of “Cycles of My Being”

By Santosh Venkataraman

Lawrence Brownlee is one of the great bel canto tenors of this generation, singing the works of Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini, among others, to tremendous critical success around the globe.

He is currently in the midst of a run in one of his signature roles as Arturo in Bellini’s “I Puritani” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and prepping for a major project entitled “Cycles of My Being. The song cycle was composed by Tyshawn Sorey with lyrics by Terrance Hayes. The cycle will get its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia on Feb. 20, 2018 and then head over to New York and Chicago for additional showcases.

The Ohio native recently spoke with OperaWire about the song cycle and its cultural importance and relevance.

OperaWire: You are known so much for your bel canto roles, for Bellini and Rossini.  How is it for you being a veteran at these roles since you have been doing it for some time now as far as refining mannerisms, characterizations, those types of things?

Lawrence Brownlee: Part of it is the learning process and you get better at everything you do and you understand how to make a believable character because you had the opportunity to work on your craft and understand the stage and understand the style, understand so much of it. Anything you do more and more, you become more at home in it so that’s how I built my believability and what people can understand as a comedic character who knows what he’s doing.

OW: As far as your schedule now, you have been doing many of these roles for a long, long time now. How do you build in which ones you want to revisit, which ones you feel like you’ve had it within opera alongside everything else you do?

LB:  It depends on the project. For example, there’s a lot of things I’ve retired from my repertoire, a few Rossini roles I tell my agency not to even pursue. So based upon things I want to do artistically, they will present operas at various places or some theaters will say to me, “Is there something you want to do?” And for me basically roles that I want to continue singing, although the voice does change, it may change for the better, it may make a role more comfortable and easier to realize, as age takes its course.

So that’s kind of how I do it.  It just depends on which theater it is.  If I want to do “Barber,” I’ll do that at the Met, La Scala, Covent Garden and that’s how I decide what I want to do artistically. But then it opens up the opportunity for me to do new projects or passion projects or song cycles or concerts or recordings because I have established myself in the bel canto repertoire so that’s how the doors get opened for me to explore new avenues.

OW: I want to get into “Cycles of My Being “and I have seen you speak about these topics.  Just to give you my background, I am Indian-American and I went to a black college and people always ask me what does it mean to go to a black college and I tell them two things.

One, you will go to school with somebody that ends up dying and that’s a very different experience for white people that don’t quite understand that. Because I know people that I went to school with that are no longer here. So that’s one difference.

And two, I went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. and we’d go to Georgetown and I’d see my classmates slammed up against the pavement by the police and that’s a very vivid memory for a younger person. So it really showed me things in a different way that I know I would not have seen. And it’s kind of what you are doing with this work, right?

LB: Absolutely. What we talk about with “Cycles of My Being,” we talk about the subtleties of racism. If you are walking down the street, you know that people have a certain perception of you.  So I’m walking down the street, if I see a woman clutch her purse, and I’m the only person of color close to her, it’s hard for me not to know or feel that she did that based on what she saw.

I did a Guardian piece and I said, if I’m walking with a Rolex watch and I see my Rolex watch costs more than everything you have on, I’m not saying these people are lesser than me but if I look at them, they don’t know me at all but they see my black skin and make a conscious decision to believe something about me.  It’s just these small little things.  So I wake up every day knowing this, I’m conscious that people have this in their mind, whether it’s direct or indirect, I know it’s a possibility that people can think this about me as a person of color, it’s just a reality. When I’m walking out of a store and something beeps and I’m the only black guy, I know there’s a probability in their mind that it’s me. This is my reality.

OW: Tell me a little more about “Cycles” as I am not familiar with Tyshawn or his music. How would you describe it and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

LB: I hope to accomplish basically a dialogue where we as African-American men can let the world see through our eyes and our experiences, or understand some of the things we deal with on a day to day basis.  For “Cycles,” this guy Tyshawn Sorey is a jazz composer, a kind of new-age, jazz, highly rhythmical, likes beautiful melodies but also writes things that are probably associated more with out-there composers. I think he combines rhythm and melody and chords and all kinds of interesting things.

Tyshawn and both Terrence, the poet-lyricist, are two young African-American men who have been recognized in their own rights, their own respects and are doing good work. So we wanted to come together to bring our collective experiences to be able to talk about some of the questions we have in our own minds.  For example, we ask “America, do you love the air in me as I love the air in you?”

All of us felt like this is a great opportunity for us to use our art as a platform so that’s how “Cycles of My Being” came to be. I hope we can touch people in a way that they can understand our experience, have a little bit of empathy. I think changing the world starts on a small level. Hopefully, there’s something in there that people can say, “I get it.” This is a piece that was well thought-out, hopefully, one that resonates well with people and hopefully, people can have a great appreciation for our message because they can see it comes from three intelligent black men who have something to say with our art form.

OW: Along these lines, how have recent events kind of changed your perspective on America? I recall a trip I took some years ago in which I went to Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee in which I went to all these Civil Rights places. For me, having been born here, this trip meant the most to me.  I went to Selma, Montgomery, I went to Greenwood, Mississippi which is 20 miles off the highway, you can’t get there unless you are going there. I spent a week going through these places, seeing how rural it is, and realizing the history of people fighting for Civil Rights and people coming together, which was fifty some-odd years ago.  And now you see events happening now, so how does that play into your mindset?

LB: Of course, I think the cover was pulled off everything with the election of Donald Trump. And living in the era of social media, that definitely colors things a different way to understand the underpinnings of our society. There’s a lot of problems. There’s a lot of racism. There’s a lot of conflict. There’s a desire to sweep things under the rug and not acknowledge things and to write certain things off.

And that doesn’t necessarily apply only to race, but (also) when you think about one of the biggest issues we’re facing right now is sexual harassment cases where men have willfully used their power over women forever in society and history.

So traveling and understanding people and understanding the differences… I live 15 minutes from Alabama and so I ride through, when I used to come from Georgia where I lived, I ride through those areas. I know their reality where people are driving trucks waving Confederate flags in the back half as big as the truck. There’s a certain mentality that’s out there.

And I don’t dwell on that and I want to make it clear. When I talk about the experience of me being a black man in America, it is not that I am just a disgruntled person, that I’m saying is “Woe is me.” But what I am doing is I am trying to give people an opportunity to see who I am as a person.

And some of the questions we ask, so hopefully they can realize that “I get it. If I was that person, I would have the same question.” And this idea that another black guy or another person of color could pick this song cycle up and say, “This is my story as well. I like the idea of that too.”

OW: I’m curious about your thoughts as far as opera in the United States. It seems like we don’t appreciate our own composers, like we don’t appreciate our artists in some ways. As opposed to some companies over in Europe that will try productions and different things. There are great Americans making music here and I feel like that’s something that needs to be done to move the art form forward.

LB: Absolutely. And I don’t know if you know this but I’m an artistic advisor at Opera Philadelphia. And their mission is to be able to give young composers that are writing here the opportunities to develop their talent. They have workshops, they have programs in place where they want to support writing operas of this time.

I want to be a part of that and it’s part of my job description to do that and be an advocate and to tell stories that are meaningful and are relevant today. I think it’s great that other people are doing that. I know they are doing that in England and other places but I think companies like Opera Philadelphia and The Dallas Opera and Houston Grand Opera, LA Opera have done new works.  And I’m most proud of Opera Philadelphia because they have a committed, concerted effort to make new works a big part of what they do at that opera company.

OW: You are doing “Pearl Fishers” next year in Houston, you are doing Nadir. What’s your history with that? I don’t recall seeing anything in your history with Nadir and are you doing “Pearl Fishers” somewhere else as well?

LB: No, this will be the first time I am doing it and this is an opportunity for me at the age of 45 to step into something that is a little bit different than what I do.  So not that I am necessarily leaving the bel canto repertoire since that’s not the case at all. There are many things that I hopefully will continue to do and enjoy doing.

But this is an opportunity to kind of spread my wings, to kind of try something different in a theater that’s really been supportive of me A theater that’s inspired me and has put something like this together. Now I have performed Nadir in concert before. I have sung the aria “Je crois entendre encore” for years, but this is my first foray into doing this in a production, so I’m excited about it.

OW: I saw somewhere that you are friends with John Osborn. To speak of inventive things, I saw him doing “Fra Diavolo” over in Rome. It’s a fabulous role, it really is. Is there anything like that that’s unusual that could be on your horizon that you’re looking into as far as these lesser-known works?

LB:  There are some things. Fra Diavolo maybe isn’t necessarily for me. The characteristics of John’s voice work really well with some of those, I guess, off the beaten path things like some of the Meyerbeer or some of these other composers.

But for me, I’m looking at some things too like “Il pirata.” Yes, it’s Bellini, but it’s rarely done. There are some other composers that hopefully I’ll get a chance to do, some Gluck.  But just exploring some of this repertoire that’s not done, of course.  There was a great revival in the late 70s and 80s and 90s of people like Marilyn Horne and Rockwell Blake, Sam Ramey.

And if I can be a part of some of these works in the bel canto repertoire that are not everyday things like “Dom Sebastien” and “Il duca d’Alba” and some of these other middle of the road Donizettis, it’ll be fun for me too. I do have some things like that on my horizon. I will do “La Favorite” in a few years and just exploring some new repertoire as I age a little bit and take on different colors of my voice.


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