Q & A: Lawrence Brownlee on Rossini, Bel Canto & His Grammy-Nominated ‘Rising’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Zakiyah Caldwell Burroughs)

On Saturday, Dec. 2, the Washington Concert Opera will present the first of its two performances this season with a showcase of Rossini’s rarely-performed “Ermione.” While the cast features Angela Meade in the title role, the other main attraction is tenor Lawrence Brownlee who has made Rossini a specialty of his, taking on dozens of roles throughout his career. Now he takes on the challenging role of Oreste in “Ermione.”

The Grammy-nominated artist has performed in both popular Rossini titles as well as more rare ones. His immersion with the composer’s work also led to the highly-celebrated collaboration with Michael Spyres, “Amici e Rivali.”

OperaWire recently spoke to Brownlee about his relationship with Rossini and other major Bel Canto composers as well as his recent Grammy nomination for “Rising.”

OperaWire: You have performed numerous Rossini roles over the years and each one presents unique challenges. What are the unique challenges of the character of Oreste in “Ermione?” 

Lawrence Brownlee: I think this is either my 17th or 18th role of Rossini, so I’ve done, yes, many, many roles. And the challenges of Rossini are usually the same. The role of Oreste is one that was done originally by Giovanni David, and I have sung now many of the roles that he debuted, so I think that my voice is similar to his.

It’s a high line role. It’s one that demands that you sing in the passaggio of the voice quite often, which basically, requires a certain elegance or niftiness singing in that range repeatedly throughout the night. So being able to sing that in a graceful way with some control, with understanding of the voice, to sing piano, but also to sing coloratura or fioritura — flexible, melodramatic music, those are some of the challenges of singing this role or acting. Which is similar to some of the other roles I’ve sung before, because, again, it was originated by Giovanni David and I like to think my voice is very similar to his.

OW: What is it like for a singer to go from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment” to a dramatic Rossini opera?

LB: The thing about Rossini is just the flexibility that the voice requires for singing the roles. Donizetti isn’t as flexible coloratura, the fioritura (the flowering) of his vocal lines are very flexible in Rossini. So Donizetti is known for legato and Rossini is really known for flexibility. So I’m really going from one style to the next. Both Italian language, both in Bel canto, both have high line, you know, the tessitura of the piece, but those are what I think the differences between Donizetti and Rossini.

OW: And then after this opera, you will jump over to Bellini’s “I Puritani,” which is remarkably different. How do you prepare as a singer for these massive shifts in vocal writing and singing? Is it easier now with more experience to jump from one Bel Canto composer to another?

LB: The most important thing as a singer is to be consistent in how you sing. You sing everything with your voice. And so for me, jumping now to Puritani is a role that I’ve done many times before. I’ve done it with Washington Concert Opera many times. I think that was the first time I ever did it. But, you know, it’s one that I feel like I have in my voice and I understand what the role requires.

So everything I do, I sing with my own voice. Some stylistic things you have to sing that are specific to the composer, in this case, Bellini. You just sing it with a good understanding of your abilities, but also what the role calls for from a technical standpoint. That’s how you go about doing it.

You know, my role, my voice, my career, rather has been primarily Rossini done and Bellini. So those are two or three composers that I believe I quite understand. And again, I feel like stylistically I can live in their own worlds. And there is a lot of overlap there. There’s a lot of, you know, similarities in their writing styles. They all impress one another. They all kind of were inspired by each other, you know, they lived at the same time, the three of them. And so because of them, you know, Bellini being the youngest of the three were around the same time, versus closer to Verdi.

It’s understanding my voice, understanding their styles, and understanding my technique which makes that approach to all their different and these unique styles are also easier for me because I have an understanding of who I am as an artist.

OW: Do you have a favorite musical moment in this opera and what makes that so special?

LB: My favorite musical moment in “Ermione” is the duet with Ermione and Oreste at the end of the opera in Act II. Both of them approaching the writing of Rossni that is so virtuoustic. It requires you to be calm, but I think it’s beautifully written. The orchestration, how the lines organically kind of ascend to a certain point and then you have several high c’s  that you get a chance to sing. And you know, people talk about the high c’s all the time, but the way that he approaches them is quite unique.

I’ve done many Rossini roles and I haven’t quite seen before in the way that he’s done it in all that I’ve done so far, how he approaches it. And so it’ll be interesting to know if this is one of his later works because maybe that’s how you see his maturation as a writer. And, you know, everybody said that Rossini and some of the other ones were precursors to Verdi, but I think it’s brilliant the way he set up this duet and how it ends with them singing together.

It’s probably the most difficult and technical singing of the night right at the end of the opera, but by then you’re really warmed up so that’s my favorite moment in the opera.

OW: What excites you most about taking on this opera with such artists as Angela Meade in the title role as well as David Portillo and Ginger Costa-Jackson?

LB: It excites me that we get a chance to do something that’s rare. Angela and I are long time friends as well as David. I’ve never worked with Ginger before, but I got a chance to meet her and she’s very, very nice and a very good artist! So our paths had crossed before, but now we know one another!

But getting a chance to do something that I think is worthy music that people don’t do often, that’s the wonderful thing about Washington Concert Opera is that they really hang their hat on doing rare things. And so I’m excited for the public from the surrounding areas to come and experience this — this virtuosity music with artists that I respect and admire.

I’m really looking forward to them coming to the show and for my colleagues to show their wonderful artistry and abilities, and I get a chance to sing my 17th or 18th Rossini role, having fun with the composer that’s been so important to my career to this point!

OW: What has been like working with Antony Walker and his interpretation of Rossini’s work?

LB: Working with Antony, You know, it’s like returning to a scenario or a situation that is very comfortable for you — someone who I respect and admire as a musician and who is a true singer’s conductor! It’s an experience that you feel that you’re in good hands, and so it’s been fun to explore this role with him.

Antony and I have done many things together, a lot of debuts I’ve done with Antony, so it’s always so nice to to come back to this work environment, but also exploring this repertoire. I can say I’ve had many firsts with Antony Walker, and so I’m enjoying this foray into more Rossini Land with my friend and colleague.

Our work together is usually a collaboration, a lot of times we check in and just talk to one another — so his interpretation is also tuned into your own interpretation. I think as an artist, what this means is you have to come with an idea of who you are, what you want to say, and if that lines up with him. We talk about the text, we talk about the meanings, we talk about the, you know, the characters and the relationships — and so your interpretation is very much based upon that. So, yes, we explore, we dive in, we dig, we talk, and then we come up to our own of what compels us, what was dragged out of us to give these characters real life, real texture, and real dimension.

I think his interpretations are wholly based on that, and he being a singer and a conductor — the consummate musician — and it makes this experience quite enjoyable because you don’t find that every time you sing this repertoire. 

OW: What are some other Rossini or Bel Canto operas in general that you have not yet sung that you would like to perform?

LB: My top three would be “Matilde di Shabran,” “Linda di Chamounix,” and “Lucrezia Borgia.” They’re all Bel Canto – one’s Rossini, two Donizetti. 

OW: Shifting toward another topic, your album “Rising” was just nominated for a Grammy. What was the experience of touring this program and its impact on audiences? And what do you hope that new audiences take away from its continuing legacy?

LB: “Rising” for me was a labor of love that paired writers that inspired me with composers, that also inspired me — taking the writings of Langston Hughes and Georgia Johnson, James Baldwin, among some of the others. There are other writers who, as a young kid, kind of shaped who I am as a person, and taking these composers that I think are doing some really compelling work where they’re getting a chance to show their artistic voice has been really important for me. Then also touring this with my good friend Kevin Miller at the piano, how we found these pieces together, how we began to shape them.

We recorded our album and I’m really honored that the Grammy Association felt that it was worthy to be nominated. I am very proud of that. You know, I produced the album and was the executive producer for myself. It was something that I paid for out of pocket, but it was an important project for me so I’m happy that it’s out there.

But the legacy that I hope is that it will be about showing who these writers are — even Damien Sneed, Shawn Okpebholo, Brandon Spencer, Jasmine Barnes, and Joel Thompson. These are all worthy people who have something to say and I’m excited that people are getting to hear their voices. They don’t need my help, but to be part of them getting their voices out even further in the world makes me happy. And so I hope it will be something that’s on the shelves of libraries and music libraries that people will seek these composers out and want to do their music and give them the opportunity to write more and more and create, which is, I think, the beginning.

We can make this contribution to the world, the canon of music right now, so I’m happy that “Rising” is a part of that and what it’s done thus far.


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