Cover Story: Scaling to the Top

Fri, 2012-04-27 00:55 -- batch_migrate

Scaling to the Top

Cara Miller

As a child, Larry Brownlee BA ’96 hated to sing. Occasionally, he might perform at church to make his parents happy. He had a beautiful singing voice, after all, and everyone who heard it would tell young Brownlee what a gift he had. His response was always the same, “Yeah, but I don’t like to sing.”

In high school, Brownlee joined the choir. He brought his grades up so that he could perform in a singing group led by Carol Baird ’60, supervisor of creative and performing arts for Youngstown City Schools in Ohio. But it wasn’t because he wanted to sing. He joined so he could get out of class when the choir performed. He always had trouble sitting still in class, and Brownlee’s parents and teachers agreed that singing would be a productive use for his boundless energy.

Baird recalls, “I had him three years, and he was phenomenal. The talent just oozed from his pores, and everybody loved him. He really made our rehearsing fun, and he made the performing fun.”

Back then, fun was the most important thing to Brownlee, who admits he didn’t take his performances too seriously.

“My senior year, I had to sing a song in this recital,” he says. “And I really didn’t know what I was doing as far as being a classical opera singer. I was kind of clowning around, and after the recital, there was a gentleman who approached my father and me. He asked me, ‘Are you going to pursue classical music? I think you really have a gift.’ I thought, ‘No. I don’t even like this stuff.’ But as I was exposed to it more, I began to admire the style of music and I grew more interested in it. I guess from there, it kind of took off.”

More than 15 years later, Brownlee, 33, has had more success and critical acclaim as an opera singer than most performers dare to dream. His name is internationally recognized as one of the most talented, graceful tenors to hit the stage. And he’s seen a lot of stages — in Boston, Detroit, Washington, New York City, Berlin, Madrid, Brussels, London, Milan, and countless others. In 2001, Brownlee won the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He also received the 2003 ARIA Award, the 2006 Marion Anderson Award, and the esteemed Richard Tucker Award for 2006, which included a $30,000 cash prize and the opportunity to sing at the Tucker Foundation’s annual gala.

Currently, Brownlee is preparing for his big performance at the Metropolitan Opera, where he will debut as Almavivia in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. “Probably the single most important debut that I will make will be at the Metropolitan Opera in April,” Brownlee says. “It is considered by many as the pinnacle in our profession, so I am so excited. My family, voice teachers, agents, friends, and manywell-wishers have already planned to be in attendance for this great occasion.”

What happened during those 15 years to turn a fidgety, playful young Brownlee into the focused and ambitious professional he is today? Besides the natural progression toward maturity, Brownlee has had several mentors to help cultivate his talents and aspirations for the future.

Baird was one such mentor who not only nurtured Brownlee’s musical gifts, but she also encouraged him to attend Anderson University. In fact, she personally drove Brownlee and his two friends, also aspiring singers, to AU through a snowstorm in early 1992 so they could audition for the music program.

“AU is such a good Christian school with a great music program,” Baird says. “I just thought it would be a good place for Larry to develop his talents and keep the focus he needed to have.”

From his first encounter with the music professors that audition day, Brownlee felt welcome. “They were very warm and outgoing, and made me feel comfortable from the beginning,” he recalls. “I had a good feeling even before the audition.”

He walked into the audition room, feeling at ease, though not particularly confident in his singing abilities. Turning to face the panel of four music professors in front of him, Brownlee sang “Caro mio ben” to a piano accompaniment.

He nailed it, leaving the jaws of all four music professors dropped open as he left the audition room. Music Professor Fritz Robertson was particularly impressed with Brownlee.

“The four of us were sitting there before the audition, and in walks this young, African-American man,” Robertson recalls. “He opened his mouth to sing, and I sat there, and I listened. And I got really excited. … I felt very strongly that I wanted to have the stewardship of that voice, and I certainly have never regretted it.”

Brownlee spent all four years at AU under the singing direction of Robertson. For one hour each week, they met for private voice lessons, honing Brownlee’s vocal technique and musicianship. At first, however, even an hour was too long for Brownlee to sit still.

“I enjoyed every single one of his lessons,” Robertson says. “But he had all this restless energy, it was hard to get him to stand still. He’d be looking at himself in the mirror, and I’d say to him, ‘I’m going to nail your feet to the floor so you’ll hold still and focus.’ And then I thought, I had voice teachers saying the same things to me.”

In fact, Robertson saw many similarities between himself and Brownlee. Besides their outgoing personalities and restless tendencies, they were both tenors with similar weight and range to their singing voices. This posed a unique challenge to Robertson, who felt his own singing improve dramatically because of his mentorship with Brownlee.

“I received as much as I gave from those lessons,” Roberson says. “It got my own voice back in top shape. In order to show him how to do things — because our voices were so similar — I had to make sure I could demonstrate it.”

During their countless hours together, conducting voice lessons, working on opera productions, traveling to singing competitions, and preparing for Brownlee’s junior and senior recitals, Brownlee and Robertson formed a special bond. “It’s hard to say that he was a teacher,” Brownlee says. “He was a teacher, but more than anything, he was a real friend. … He cared and invested a lot into my life. He taught me so much about singing, about life, and I think I really did grow a lot being in his studio. I attribute a lot of where I am today to him because he did so much for me.”

Of course, music wasn’t Brownlee’s only pursuit during his years at AU. His energy and varied interests led him to participate in a number of activities. He participated in student government, played intramural basketball and volleyball, rushed the Adelphos social club, attended Chapel regularly, and played lots of table-tennis with his friends.

“He was into a gazillion things when he was here,” Robertson says. “I remember him playing intramural basketball, and sometimes they would do these midnight basketball games, and I would say, ‘How can you sing after all that?’ But he managed to hold it all together, and he kept his GPA high.”

Brownlee was still as energetic and outgoing as ever, but during his four years at Anderson University, he began to take things a bit more seriously — his relationship with God, his schoolwork, and his future as a professional singer. “Everyone grows up,” Brownlee says. “Being at AU, in that Christian environment, I had the opportunity to cultivate my own relationship with God. I really learned how to stand on my own two feet, to really be a grown-up in Christ. This was my first time away from home, and I think I became a lot more independent.”

As one of his close friends and mentors, Robertson especially noticed the change in Brownlee, who returned to his voice lessons during his senior year with a whole new attitude. “His last year, he really decided to focus on exactly what he wanted to do,” says Robertson. “Larry’s instrument is certainly the best I’ve worked with. His instrument is far superior to mine, and that was an interesting experience early in my teaching career to work with a student who goes way beyond what I have done or will do. That should be the teacher’s goal, to have their really great students far surpass them.”

Because it is such a difficult business to break into, Robertson doesn’t usually like to predict how far his students will go in the music business, but he had a feeling about Brownlee. When Brownlee sought his opinion, as he often did, Robertson would tell him that if he worked at it, Brownlee could have a very successful career.

Fourteen years later, Robertson is planning his trip to New York in April to see Brownlee’s debut at the Met. He’s proud of and elated for his former student, but he’s not surprised. “There isn’t a single thing that he has accomplished that’s really surprised me,” Robertson says. “He’s delighted me. He used to call me and tell me about his debuts and different performances, and I’d write them down so I could go back to school the next day and tell everybody. We’ve all been excited for him, but not surprised. … Larry and I used to joke, and I’d say, ‘Now Larry, when you make your Met debut, I want twelfth-row, center seats.’ We were joking, but at the same time, we weren’t.”

The passion and dedication to music that took hold of Brownlee during his four years at Anderson University continued to flourish after graduation. The training he received from Baird, Robertson, and the AU music program gave him much-needed confidence as he entered the large, highly competitive music school at Indiana University.

“At the beginning of the year at IU, they have what’s called a cattle call, and I think about 250, maybe more, singers audition for the few roles they have at the university for the entire year,” Brownlee explains. “It was quite an intimidating thing, especially coming from a smaller school. I thought, I’m no longer a big fish in a small pond. But I felt like, because of what I’d received from Anderson, I was prepared to go to IU, and I was fortunate to have a lot of success there.”

Brownlee was among the select few to acquire significant singing roles during his four years at IU. His stage experiences and musical repertoire continued to expand, which helped him get into an apprenticeship program at the Seattle Opera.

After years of studying, practicing, auditioning, and absorbing his fair share of rejection, Brownlee got his first big break in 2001 when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. This was his third time competing in the prestigious competition, and he was eager to prove himself. “I remember itching and really wanting to get out on stage,” he says. “That was when I really started to have the performance mind set that I use today — that if you do all the work and you’ve prepared, you’re not there by coincidence. You should be there because you worked to get there, and for me, I was so ready. I prayed before my audition, and then I sang my heart out. After I finished, the response from the audience was so overwhelming that I was just completely stunned.”

That same year marked Brownlee’s debut appearance at Teatro alla Scala, perhaps the most esteemed opera house in the world. He has since performed at many other prominent theatres around the globe, including singing engagements in Italy, Japan, Genoa, Baltimore, Boston, Vienna, and Hamburg.

Wherever Brownlee sings, critical acclaim is sure to follow. One critic reviewing Brownlee’s performance in Florencia in the Amazons in Seattle said Brownlee “delivered sweet bel canto lines with verissimo passion.” Another reporter in Boston covering the production of L’italiana in Algieri claimed that “Brownlee seduced the audience with his incredible agility and range and never let up through three thoroughly enjoyable hours. … Not all tenors can tackle these kinds of roles; Brownlee showed, clearly, that he could and made it look easy in the process.”

With only a few years of experience in the music business, Brownlee has acquired a reputation that precedes him. In fact, he is in such high demand that he has to turn down more offers than he could possibly accept. Still, Brownlee is the outgoing, fun-loving person he’s always been, not one to let a little fame and fortune go to his head.

“My father always says that if a man has a million dollars, he doesn’t have to say it,” Brownlee says. “I think that if I can have the attitude of working hard and trying to improve and trying to better myself, I don’t have to think about being famous or all this other stuff. I’ve had the chance to meet some big-name people in this business, and I’ve come to realize that people are just people. I’m extremely blessed and fortunate, but I feel like if I can always keep it in perspective, it’s a better place to be.”

To that end, Brownlee takes advantage of what little free time he has to just be “a normal guy,” playing fantasy football, playing tennis, rooting on the Steelers and the Ohio State Buckeyes, enjoying a rousing game of Scrabble, and watching the latest episode of Law and Order.

Some might even say that Brownlee’s joyful spirit and humble attitude have contributed greatly to his successful career. “I think one of the things that distinguishes Larry, besides his beautiful instrument and his naturally engaging performance abilities, is who he is as a person,” says Robertson. “He is a person of character and faith, and he demonstrates it in the way he lives his life. He can be ambitious for himself while being supportive of everyone else who is trying to make their way in the business as well. There isn’t a mean bone in his body.”

Indeed, through his intense career focus and immense success, Brownlee has kept his eyes on the Lord for guidance and support. One of his greatest sources of inspiration comes from Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

“Part of it is that I’ve had a great support system with my family and my parents,” he says. “They’ve always made me feel like I can achieve what I set my mind to. And the Bible says that that strength to achieve comes from God. I always believed that I had the ability to do anything if God says it can happen.”

Though his is the clear, radiant voice that has impressed the toughest critics and rendered crowded theatres awestruck, Brownlee is the first to admit that he hasn’t come this far on his own. It has taken the guidance and continued support of his parents and family, the patience and encouragement of mentors such as Baird and Robertson, and the steady strength and wisdom of the Lord to help mold Brownlee into the Christian man and dynamic opera star he is today.

They will all have their special places in the audience on that magical night in April when Brownlee debuts at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, yet another dream come true in the exciting career of a man, who at one time, didn’t even like to sing.