Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, AU alum, faces friendly crowd during Met debut

Thu, 2007-04-26 07:54 -- univcomm
April 26, 2007

AU alum Lawrence Brownlee looked at the list and it was lengthy. More than 100 family and friends will be in the audience Thursday night when the tenor makes his Metropolitan Opera debut.

There was mom and dad, who were driving in from Ohio. Then there were four sisters and a brother, and all their spouses. Add in an aunt, three cousins, two high school choir directors, three voice teachers, his first piano instructor, the dean of Indiana University’s music school and the former dean of Anderson University [AU persons in the audience will be AU President James Edwards, Dr. Carl Caldwell, Dr. Fritz Robertson, Dr. Jeffrey Wright, and Dr. Darlene Miller just to name a few]. The group could fill a small auditorium.

“I know a lot of people are going to try and compare me to other people. ... I’m just going to be me. I just go and put my voice out there, put my own spin on it,” he said.

Brownlee received a bachelor’s degree from Anderson University in 1996 and a master’s degree from IU in 2001.

Read the most recent issue of Signatures for more on Lawrence Brownlee

Listen to Lawrence Brownlee discuss his debut at The Met on NPR

The 34-year-old from Youngstown, Ohio, has been at or near the top of up-and-coming list for several years. He was a winner of the 2001 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the 2006 Richard Tucker Award. He’s a black man in a business with few black singers, especially tenors. His management has tried to insulate him from any prejudice, but he thinks the color of his skin has cost him.

“There are probably times that I didn’t get jobs because I’m short and black. I’m sure of it. Someone may say, ‘He’s not the type’ or ‘We have the soprano already and she’s like 5(-foot-)10, blond and blue eyes,”’ he said Tuesday during a lunch interview at his publicist’s apartment. How short?

“Five-(foot)-6, in the morning, before I’ve stood up and let my feet sink down,” he said. “I’ve found this a lot — I’m the same height as the soprano until they put them in heels and a wig. I’m like Joe Pesci. He’s one of the most intimidating people I’ve ever seen on screen. You can command the stage. I don’t have a Napoleon complex, but you don’t have to be 6-feet tall to be commanding on stage.

His Met debut will be as Almaviva in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” the same opera in which he made his debut for Milan’s Teatro alla Scala company in 2002. He’s in the second cast, following Juan Diego Florez, the most-acclaimed Rossini tenor in the world. For now, Brownlee gets a lot of invitations to follow Florez in productions.

“He’s not Florez, of course, because he’s very young,” said Thursday’s conductor, Maurizio Benini. “But the color of the voice is an incredible color. He can become a great singer. I’m sure of this.”

When Brownlee was performing in a recital at Youngstown State, he was heard by a voice teacher, David Starkey, who suggested he pursue opera. Brownlee comes from a family with a musical background: his father directed a church choir and his mother was a soloist.

His biggest break came in 2001, after his manager, Robert Mirshak, sent tapes to La Scala and Brownlee was offered an audition. Brownlee, who was in Seattle when he received the news, quickly traveled to Italy and performed in the famed auditorium for conductor Corrado Rovaris and Luca Targetti, artistic administrator of La Scala’s opera division. A Russian tenor also sang that day.

“My audition was not particularly great. At one point, I felt like my voice kind of shut off a couple times. At the end of it all, I stopped and went off stage maybe two or three times,” Brownlee recalled, detailing how the pair spoke to the other singer first when it was over.

“They said thank you to him and they asked me if I could stay for a minute. Immediately I thought, ‘Why do you want me to stay here? You cannot possibly be interested in me after I didn’t give a fantastic audition.’ “

But they did, and he made his La Scala debut as part of the second cast in “Barbiere” the following year at the Teatro degli Arcimboldi, the company’s temporary home from 2002-4. Since then, he’s returned and sung at the historic theater downtown.

He’s sung in Europe at London’s Royal Opera and the Vienna State Opera, and his Paris Opera debut is likely to come in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” in 2010. At the Met, he is scheduled to sing in the company’s new production of Rossini’s “Armida” alongside Renee Fleming in the 2009-10 season.

“It’s absolutely a distinctive voice,” said mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, his Rosina on Thursday. “It immediately grabs you because it’s so beautiful. He has such a passion for what he does. He has such a humility that it’s infuriating at times. I really haven’t come across anybody that works harder and wants to succeed as much to make the experience for the audience memorable.”

The Herald Bulletin in Anderson as well as the Associated Press contributed to this story. Reprinted with permission.

Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,700 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson continues to be recognized as a top Christian college: in 2008, U.S. News and World Report ranked Anderson University among the best colleges and universities in the Midwest for the fourth consecutive year. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 60 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing and theology.