Opera tenor Lawrence Brownlee

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The renowned tenor reflects on his success despite the judgment of naysayers and his role in the U.S. production premiere of The Magic Flute.

Performing opposite the leading ladies of contemporary opera, Lawrence Brownlee is the most in-demand American tenor in the bel canto repertoire (the beautiful, but difficult high-flying registers that elude so many singers). He's been featured in nearly every major theater in the world and enjoys a relationship with many premiere conductors and symphony orchestras. Brownlee has won numerous honors, including the distinction of being the first artist to win both the Marian Anderson and Richard Tucker Awards in the same year. An Ohio native, he holds a Master of Music degree from Indiana University and participated in young artist programs at both the Seattle and Wolf Trap Operas.


Tavis: Lawrence Brownlee possesses one of those rare opera voices. He’s a tenor specializing in bel canto, singing in those beautiful but difficult high-flying registers that elude so many singers. His artistry has made him of the opera world’s most sought-after singers.

He’s about to make his L.A. Opera debut in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” He also has a CD out which pays tribute to his gospel roots. He first started singing in church, like so many other Black folk. (Laughter)

The CD is called “Spiritual Sketches,” but let’s take a look at Lawrence Brownlee in a performance of Rossini’s “Armida” at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

[Clip of live stage performance]

Tavis: Oh, my. (Laughter) You’re sounding good, brother, sounding good. I don’t often get a chance to do this, to welcome to this program not just an amazing artist but one who also went to a great school called Indiana University.

Lawrence Brownlee: Yes.

Tavis: And who pledged to a great fraternity called Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity incorporated. (Laughter) So I get a chance to just be in this moment for just a second with an Indiana University graduate and a fellow fraternity brother, so I’m honored to have you on this program.

Brownlee: It’s a pleasure, thank you.

Tavis: This fraternity is all about achievement, and you have done that.

Brownlee: No, I consider myself blessed, and I think that it’s great to have gone to Indiana. Such a good school for music, and many other things as well. But I had a great experience there, and I’m enjoying my life right now.

Tavis: I just saw Joshua Bell not too long ago, another IU person.

Brownlee: Yes, another grad of IU.

Tavis: But it really is a wonderful music program.

Brownlee: It is.

Tavis: How did you end up there?

Brownlee: Well, I actually went to undergrad at a school called Anderson University. I thought I was going to do my – I wanted to be a lawyer, but I was taking music classes all along, and then my teacher at undergrad said, “Why don’t you look at graduate school?”

So he didn’t want for me to go to Indiana. The only way I ended up in Indiana is the only school that had an audition date left for classical music for voice was Indiana. (Laughter)

So I went there and I fell in love with the campus right away. So I’m happy to have gone there.

Tavis: Yeah. No, it’s a beautiful place. How did you end up in music when you were considering law? They seem – I guess you could represent yourself in your own negotiations. (Laughter)

That might not have been the worst route to go, to have done both. But they seem so distinctly different, law and opera.

Brownlee: Well, I grew up saying – I’m one of six kids, and I grew up saying I want to be in a place where you can wear suits and you can get a chance to defend yourself.

Having four sisters, three of them older than me, (laughter) I had to get myself out of pickles a lot of the time. So I was always fascinated by law, and I thought that that’s what I would do.

But along the way I was, again, involved in music my whole life, and some people said, “I think you have something special, that you can contribute something to the world of classical music.”

So at the end I said well, if this doesn’t work out, I can always go to graduate school and do law. But I got some great opportunities, and I loved music. I didn’t really know exactly what opera was, and then some people introduced it to me properly and I fell in love with it right away. So I consider myself, wow.

I have friends that are lawyers and I respect what they do, but that’s not me. (Laughter) I know that.

Tavis: When you were introduced to opera properly, as you put it, and I’ll let you explain what you mean by that, but when you were properly introduced, what was it about what you were hearing that you fell in love with, particularly given your background, which we’ll come to in a moment.

Brownlee: Well the interesting thing is the first opera I ever saw, I was in. Of course, (laughter) we –

Tavis: Well, that worked.

Brownlee: No, well, you think about people on TV and everybody thinks of the lady with the horns on her head, and you’re in the commercials, and you’re like, “What is this? Okay, I don’t want to see this anymore.”

When I was talking about being properly introduced, I didn’t really know about sitting in an opera and understanding what was going on. Again, in undergrad, I was in an opera before I saw one.

I got a chance to visit the Indianapolis Opera and see a production of the “Ballad of Baby Doe,” and that was my first real, proper introduction, where I sat in the seats and I experienced opera as it is.

Tavis: Wow.

Brownlee: I thought, wow, this is fantastic. I didn’t know. Again, growing up in church, in a Pentecostal church, I knew who commission was, I knew who the Winans, John P. Kee, all of this stuff, Ken Burrell.

I knew who they were, but I didn’t know who the great singers of classical music were.

Tavis: How did you make the transition? When I say how did you make it, was it a difficult transition? Did it come with more ease, relative ease than you thought? How was the –

Brownlee: Well specifically the type of music that I sing is called “bel canto,” and probably more than anything else, I sing Rossini. Rossini is a composer that wrote for voices that move very well.

Of course people like Ken Burrell, like Stevie Wonder, like so many other great gospel artists who use their voices in ways – we call them “doing runs,” “doing melismas.” I was doing that in church.

So my voice lended itself to singing the music of Rossini, which is very florid. And it was a transition that, of course, I always say your voice is your voice, and you have to use it stylistically in whichever genre that you’re in.

But using the voice correctly and with proper technique is something that I learned. But my teacher told me that I had the natural facility to sing classical music, so people would hear me and they would say, “You know you have the voice to sing classical music. You have easy high notes, and the tone of your voice is one that is proper for classical music, for opera.”

Tavis: There are two things that come to mind now, given what you’ve just said. One is that your voice might have lent itself to singing opera, particularly Rossini, and yet you had to know that sometimes, the road less traveled, there’s a reason for that.

Brownlee: Exactly.

Tavis: Because (laughter) it’s the more difficult road to travel.

Brownlee: Exactly, exactly.

Tavis: You’ve listed a whole bunch of names, a lot of names of artists who we both love and admire and know, and you could have gone that route with a voice like this.

Brownlee: Right.

Tavis: So why go the operatic road less traveled?

Brownlee: Well, it was something that I found I felt that I was natural in, and even in singing it, of course you have to learn proper technique. My teachers, I’m fortunate to have had some really good teachers who didn’t manufacture singing.

By that I mean we all think of opera singers and having these big (makes noise) whoofy voices. But they taught me that singing is a natural extension of speaking.

So with that proper technique, gives you the opportunity to use your voice in an efficient way. So I applied those techniques and found that it was something that felt right for me.

People will say, “How did you become what you are today?” Someone said to me a long time ago that a lot of times, your career finds you out. You find out naturally something that you were, quote, unquote, “born to do.” So when I got into opera and classical music, I felt like wow, this is something that is right for me.

Now when I go back to church, my parents and all those other people still want to hear me try to sing gospel, and it is a part of who I am. But I feel like I’m at home in classical music.

Tavis: To your point earlier made, and I think by your own admission – and I say this respectfully – you don’t have the “biggest” voice.

Brownlee: Right.

Tavis: So that Rossini works for you. Does that mean that you won’t be singing a lot of Puccini -?

Brownlee: Puccini, no. No, I think the natural makeup of who you are is what you do. Of course, I’m 5’6″. I’m not going to play center in the NBA either. (Laughter)

Just like I won’t be singing Puccini. I don’t have that type of voice. But what I do have, the gifts that I do have are ones that I felt like in the arena of what I do is proper, it’s what I should be singing.

There’s a lot of people who tell me all the time that they covet the instrument that I have, and that’s a compliment to me. But I’m grateful for what I have. I think it’s – thank you.

Tavis: So I mentioned earlier that we went to the same school, although you sing much better than I do. (Laughter) I was –

Brownlee: I don’t know about that.

Tavis: I was not in the music program. So we went to the same school, we pledged the same fraternity, we both grew up – now this I did not know until just now – we both grew up in the Pentecostal church.

Brownlee: Okay.

Tavis: My mother’s watching right now, and she’s a Pentecostal evangelist.

Brownlee: Okay, okay.

Tavis: So I know this experience all too well. I grew up in a family of not six, but 10.

Brownlee: Whoa.

Tavis: So we got, we both come from nice-sized families.

Brownlee: Large family, yes.

Tavis: So a lot in common here. Because we have so much in common, I understand – how might I put this – the judgment –

Brownlee: Yes.

Tavis: – that people can place upon you when you come out of a church background and you make any sort of switch to secular or classical, anything other than what you were raised in.

Brownlee: Yes.

Tavis: Particularly when you come out of a Pentecostal experience. So how did you deal with what I assume was judgment, if not push-back, from certain people?

Brownlee: Well, a lot of people didn’t realize what classical music is, and of course, as you said, growing up in the church, I was one of those, I was a part of a family that went to church not just on Sundays.

We went to church many days a week. If there were eight, we would go eight days a week –

Tavis: That’s what we did.

Brownlee: – to church. So I didn’t go to the prom because they felt like – we didn’t go to the movies, they didn’t want us to play sports. I’m definitely appreciative of the training and the background that I have, and thank you to my parents and to my pastor for teaching me all the things that I’ve learned.

But I think my parents have gotten a good appreciation of what classical music is. Of course, if you think about the history of classical music, it was in the church. Secular, Bach – you think all the secular music came from out of the church.

Beethoven, all these people, they wrote masses and other things for the church, so I always told them that this is not something that’s not secular in a sense, but it’s something that grew out of the church and it’s something that is still a part of the church.

Of course the music that you hear in church, even if you hear some of the motifs that now, that you think Richard Smallwood or some of these other people – if you look back, this is what Hayden wrote or what Handel wrote. So music is all the same.

Yes, you can use it in a way that is not necessarily giving God the praise, or you can use your life to give God the praise and then do your music on the side.

Tavis: Well, Handel works as long as it’s Handel’s “Messiah.” (Laughter)

Brownlee: Yes.

Tavis: Other than that, you’re going to hell if you play some Handel.

Brownlee: That’s what they say.

Tavis: Yeah, I’ve heard that a few times in my life. So speaking of which, seems like a nice segue to talk about this project, “Sketches.” I’ll come back to your L.A. operatic debut in a moment here, but tell me about this new CD.

Brownlee: Well, the CD came together; myself and a gentleman by the name of Damien Sneed, both of us have a similar background, having grown up in church, but having been influenced by so many different styles of music.

I did show choir, musical theater, I worked in theme parks as a singer and dancer when I got into college, and of course classical music. All of those things are a part of who I am as a person, and so what we wanted to do is put something together that people could appreciate it from all walks of life, whatever type of music you like.

There are a lot of people who turn their nose up at classical, and there are people who love classical music that turn their nose up to anything else that’s not classical.

What we wanted to do is combine these things together. So we put this together and we felt like as a Black singer, in the beginning they said, “You shouldn’t do something that’s ‘Black,’ because you’ll be pegged as a ‘Black singer.’ You’ll sing ‘Porgy and Bess,’ or you’ll just sing spirituals.”

I’ve gotten to the point that I feel like I’ve established myself as a serious singer in my repertoire, which is bel canto, and I felt like I can take a chance and do something like “Spiritual Sketches.”

So this is everything all merged together, put together to kind of show all the things that have influenced me as a musician.

Tavis: I was in a conversation the other day, Lawrence, with some friends of mine, and as a matter of fact, my mother, who I referenced earlier, and I had this conversation a few weeks ago.

That is having grown up in that church experience, and many of these songs on this CD, most all of them I’ve sung a thousand times, and I was actually a choir director when I was growing up.

For years I was the choir director for the junior choir and for the adult choir as I got a little older, so I know choral rendition, and I love music.

Brownlee: I understand that.

Tavis: Yet I was saying to my mom the other day that some of the songs that I taught the choir how to sing, directed the choir in singing, sang in praise and worship, at this age in my life, the lyrical content of those songs – you know where I’m going with this – they hit me in a different way than they did then.

Brownlee: Yes.

Tavis: Once you have lived some life, these songs take on different meaning. This is true even in secular music. I’ve talked to James Taylor many times on this program, and JT has told me more than once that a song he wrote 40 years ago, when he performs it now, it means something different to him now –

Brownlee: Right.

Tavis: – than it did when he – or Carole King has said the same to me – wrote it many, many years ago.

That’s a long way of saying, a long way of getting to this simple question, which is the stuff that you sing on here, are there a couple songs now on this project that really hit you in a deep way that didn’t when you were just a kid growing up in church?

Brownlee: I can relate to that completely, yes. I think life experiences, what you go through in your life, you can apply something that you hear in a message, like a song, to where you are in your life at that point.

So yes, having lived life – and incidentally, there’s a song on there, “All Night, All Day,” that means a lot to me. I have two children. I have a son named Caleb who’s three years old, and he was recently diagnosed as being autistic.

So the thought that “all night, all day, angels watching over me,” of course I want angels to watch over my son that is suffering, stricken by this disease that we call autism.

So I’ve offered that in a couple venues, and people have come up to me and they’ve related to that in a very special way. Because the message in a situation like that, people dealing with all kinds of ailments, that message can really say something.

So that “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass,” is one that I grew up with, and singing this, yes, has meant a lot to me. Now that I have lived life and have gone all over the world and seen the things that I’ve seen, I can apply these things to my life right now, and yes, they mean a lot to me.

The reason why I wanted to present these songs is because these are things that shaped who I am as a person. These songs all have significance to me. I didn’t put anything on there that I didn’t think was applicable to who I am as a person in my life today.

Tavis: Tell me more now about your journey. It’s obvious to the viewer and to your fans – they’ve known this for quite some time – and to your parents, since you’ve been born. They’ve noticed that you were an African American male.

Brownlee: Yes.

Tavis: So back to that notion of the road less traveled, this opera route has not ever been easy, whether you’re talking to Jessye Norman, whether you’re talking to Leontyne Price, whether you’re talking to Kathleen Battle.

They all have stories, they all have scars, and they’ve all been quite successful. But it’s a different kind of journey, so give me some sense of what it’s been like for a Black male to route this operatic –

Brownlee: Well, I think you said it best. Many of those people that you named, in fact I think they all were women. So for the longest time, there had been women who had been successful. Like you said, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett. I can name many, many.

Fewer, much fewer men have been successful. Simon Estes has been, Willard White, Paul Robeson, of course.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Brownlee: So myself being a tenor, which I think probably 95 percent of the time is the romantic interest – so you have that dichotomy, where you have a Black male playing opposite a Caucasian.

I thinking all of my years of being on the stage, I think it’s only been once that I’ve been opposite someone of color, a Black girl. So incidentally, in L.A. Opera, in this “The Magic Flute,” the girl, her name is Janai Brugger, and she is African American as well.

So this is the first time I’ve ever been cast opposite someone who is an African American. But I’ll go back to the point you mentioned. It’s not been easy. People told me early along that I probably wouldn’t be successful.

Again, I’m 5’6″, I’m not that tall. So I remember early on I did a competition, and there was an agent who – I won’t mention his name – who said to a friend of mine – there was a guy who came on stage, this guy who was about this tall. I think I’m a little bit taller than this tall.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Brownlee: He said, “He came on stage and the first thing I said,” this is the gentleman speaking, “What is this guy going to do? Why is he even here in this arena?”

Then he proceeded to say to my friend, “He opened his mouth and we were blown away, but he won’t have a career, sadly. He may do some things that are off the beaten path in Europe and some small theaters.”

So my friend told me that. He didn’t know that this gentleman and I were friends. I always use things like that for motivation, to say you can say what you want about me, but I’m still going to do what I believe that I’m here to do, because I don’t think anything comes by just happening.

It comes by hard work and sacrifice. So when I look about, when I look at the things that have happened in my career and those people who were naysayers, and I look now – of course this is not me bragging, but I was talking to my manager the other day.

Every major theater in the world – not in the United States; every major theater in the world, every famous opera diva of the world today, I’ve gotten a chance to perform with, on the world’s greatest stages.

So that’s nothing to pump myself up, but more to speak to the lessons that I’ve learned by hard work, and not feel that discrimination is something that could deter me. I feel like if I always worry about the things that I can control, those, I’m in the driver’s seat.

What other people say, fine. Everybody’s not going to love you, and that’s fine. But if I can really invest in who I am, in my languages and how I prepare for my work, I think that that’s going to give me, given the God-given tools, to be successful in what I do.

Tavis: See, there are a couple things that you’ve raised now that strike me as obstacles – clearly not hindrances, but as obstacles. One we’ve just talked about now, which is your race.

But you’ve been very straightforward about mentioning your height. You’re sitting down, so folk can’t really see you right now, but you, to your point, are 5’6″. I wonder if you’ll – I’ve never asked this question in all the years I’ve been broadcasting, but I wonder if you’ll say a word about how you have navigated moving through the world as a 5’6″ male.

I’m asking that, all jokes aside, because there are obviously a lot of men in the world who are of short stature.

Brownlee: Yes.

Tavis: It hasn’t stopped – it didn’t stop Prince.

Brownlee: Napoleon.

Tavis: It didn’t stop Napoleon, although he ain’t the best example. (Laughter)

Brownlee: Danny DeVito.

Tavis: It didn’t stop – Danny DeVito. (Laughter) It didn’t stop Smokey Norful, speaking of gospel music.

Brownlee: Right, there you go. (Unintelligible)

Tavis: And it hasn’t stopped you. Exactly.

Brownlee: Right.

Tavis: But I wonder if you – seriously, say a word to me about how you have navigated the expectations or less than expectations of people, that they have of you because of your stature.

Brownlee: Yes. I always say that my perceived limitations from what other people say are their perceived – it’s their opinion. I have to say that the best example that I have of being a man of 5’6″, African American, is my father has been the greatest example.

My father is also 5’6″, of course. I didn’t just come from someone 6’5″. My father’s 5’6″ and my mother’s 4’10”.

Tavis: Wow. You didn’t have a chance.

Brownlee: So people say (laughter) –

Tavis: You didn’t have –

Brownlee: I didn’t have a chance.

Tavis: You didn’t have a chance at 6′, yeah.

Brownlee: But growing up seeing my father, and I can say this in 100 percent honesty, he is the person that I have had the most respect for as a man. Seeing him being respected by so many, and so he never felt like he was limited by anything. There was a story he told me, and I’ll say very quickly.

Tavis: Sure.

Brownlee: When he was in the Army, and there was about 50 guys in the barracks talking about being paratroopers. There was one guy who said, “I’m going to do it.” All the other 50 guys said they would do it as well, and my father came in on the discussion.

He said, “You know what, I’m going to do it as well.” Out of all those 50-plus guys, the only two people that finished was the guy who said it and my dad, because he felt like it was nothing that could stop him from doing the things he wanted to do.

So I’ve always gone through life thinking that I’m definitely a half-full guy as opposed to a half-empty guy – the glass, we’re speaking of. So looking at him, I never felt like there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.

So yeah, I’m 5’6″. So what? There are some people who can do some things better than me, but I’m going to be better than you in something else. Not just to be better than you, but just to prove to myself that I’m not going to use this as a hindrance for me to keep me from being successful.

So I’m very proud of who I am. I feel like every time I step out on the stage, step out in society, I’m a representation of my family, of my race, of my fraternity, of all that I am, and it’s important for me to just know that there’s not a hindrance that I can apply to my life to say I’m not going to be successful.

I feel like, again, hard work, because that’s where it all starts, is what gives you the tools and gives you the input to be able to go out and be successful. So again, that’s – watching my dad. He was the greatest example and is the greatest example for me, even today.

Tavis: That’s a great story. So I’m anxious to come see you –

Brownlee: Yes.

Tavis: – in “The Magic Flute.” Tell me about this production here in L.A., your L.A. Opera debut.

Brownlee: Yes, yes, it’s great to be here in L.A. I did something with the symphony years back, but being on the stage, of course, this is one of the most important opera companies in the States and in the world.

It’s a fun production. I always tell people that if you want to see an opera for the first time – because people will think oh, I can’t see Wagner, I can’t see something that’s going to last, and I don’t understand.

This is the perfect opportunity for people to come to the opera, because this one incorporates so many different things that we in social media today use. For example, there are projections, and there’s a lot of special effects.

It’s a great cast, a great orchestra, a great chorus. It’s a great company. So when you come and put all those elements together with seeing things that people never thought they’d see on the opera stage, I think people will come and be surprised.

Again, all young, fun, energetic singers, and it’s a great idea and a great concept. I think people will be amazed when they come to see this opera.

Tavis: Yeah, well, I can tell you if you can get a ticket (laughter) – I’m glad I got the hook-up.

Brownlee: We’ll make that happen.

Tavis: Yeah, don’t leave me hanging on that, now, yeah, yeah.

Brownlee: We’ll make that happen.

Tavis: Yeah, good.

Brownlee: I’m looking out for you.

Tavis: I’m glad I got the hook-up. The word is already out – they’ve already added one or two extra dates –

Brownlee: Yes.

Tavis: – because the tickets went so fast. So if you are in the Southern California area and you can get the hook-up to get you a ticket to see “The Magic Flute” at the L.A. Opera, you will want to see it, starring one Lawrence Brownlee.

He has a new project out, a CD called “Sketches,” “Spiritual Sketches,” to be exact. You’ll want to add that to your collection as well. Hearing him sing the stuff that has helped make him who he is today – all 5’6″ of him. (Laughter) Lawrence Brownlee, I’m glad to have you on this program.

Brownlee: I might have exaggerated that a little bit. (Laughter)

Tavis: I ain’t going to make you stand up.

Brownlee: 5’5.5″ at least. (Laughter)

Tavis: Okay. You stay seated. You ain’t got to do that. Congratulations, though.

Brownlee: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: November 21, 2013 at 12:52 pm