One of the most celebrated tenors in the opera world, Brownlee describes his L.A. opera debut and his CD, “Spiritual Sketches.”
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee
Tavis: Lawrence Brownlee possesses one of those rare opera voices. He’s a tenor specializing in the bel canto singing in those beautiful but difficult high-flying registers that elude so many singers. His artistry has made him one 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 [laugh]. 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.
Tavis: Oh, my [laugh]. You sounded good, brother, sounded 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 [laugh].
Tavis: And who plays to a great fraternity called Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated. 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: Yeah. 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 gonna 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 Indiana, it’s the only school that had an audition date left for classical music for voice was in Indiana, so I went there and I fell in the love with the campus right now. So I’m happy to have gone there.
Tavis: It’s a beautiful place. How did you end up in music when you were considering law? I mean, I guess you could represent yourself in your own negotiations. 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, you know, 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. 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, you know, I think you have something special, that you can contribute something to the world of classical music. And 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 love 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. That’s not me [laugh]. 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 [laugh].
Tavis: Well, that works [laugh].
Brownlee: Well, you think about people on TV and everybody thinks of the lady with the horn 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. So when I was talking about being properly introduced, I didn’t really know about sitting in an opera and understanding what was going on.
And, 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.
Brownlee: And I thought, wow, this is fantastic. I didn’t know, again, growing up in a Pentecostal church, I knew who Commission was, I knew 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: And how did you make the transition? When I say how did you make it, was it a difficult transition? Did it come with more 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 malismas, I was doing that in church.
So my voice lent 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 have a 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 [laugh] because it’s the more difficult road to travel.
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. So why go the operatic road less traveled?
Brownlee: Well, it was something that I felt that I was natural in. And even in singing it, of course, you have to learn proper technique. And 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 woofy voices. But they taught me that singing is a natural extension of speaking. So with that proper technique, it 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 are “born” to do.
So when I got into opera and classical music, I felt like, wow, this 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: Yeah. To your point earlier made and I think by your own admission – I say this respectfully – you don’t have the biggest voice, so that Rossini works for you. Does that mean that you won’t be singing a lot of Puccini or…
Brownlee: No. I think the natural makeup of who you are is what you do. Of course, I’m 5’6. I’m not gonna play center in the NBA either [laugh]. 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, one, that I feel like in the arena of what I do is proper, is what I should be singing. So 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: 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.
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 could name many, many. Much fewer men have been successful. Simon Estes has been, Willard White, Paul Robeson, of course.
Brownlee: So myself being a tenor which I think probably 95% of the time is the romantic interest. So you have that dichotomy where you have a Black male playing opposite a Caucasian. I think in 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 “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 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. 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 onstage, this guy who was about this tall.”
So I think I’m a little bit taller than this tall [laugh]. And he said, “He came onstage and the first thing I said – this is the gentleman speaking – what is this guy gonna 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 in 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 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 only 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 as something that could deter me.
I feel like, if I always worry about the things that I can control, 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, you know, how I prepare for my work, I think that that’s going to, given the God-given tools, to be successful in what I do.
Tavis: Lawrence Brownlee has a new project out, a CD called “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 [laugh]. Lawrence Brownlee, I’m glad to have you on this program.
Brownlee: I might have exaggerated that a little bit [laugh].
Tavis: I ain’t gonna make you stand up.
Brownlee: 5’5 1/2 at least [laugh].
Tavis: Okay [laugh]. You stay seated. You ain’t gotta do that, you ain’t gotta do that. Congratulations, though.
Brownlee: Thank you.
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