The interview with Lawrence Brownlee was conducted on the “ranch” of the Santa Fe Opera, whose facilitation is gratefully acknowledged:
[Below: tenor Lawrence Brownlee; resized image of a promotional photograph.]
Wm: Your biographies mention that you were raised in Youngstown, Ohio, where, although you had little knowledge of opera, you were exposed to gospel singing. In my conversations with artists, it seems a common denominator was some early experience with vocal music, be it classical, musicals, rock performance or sacred music.
LB: Gospel music was my primary influence. I grew up in the church in which my father was choir director and my mother sang also. The house was always filled with music.
Wm: Gospel music seems to have had an influence on opera singers, particularly African American artists. Are the vocal skills to be a gospel singer similar to those to sing opera?
LB: Gospel is very melismatic (with several notes sung to a single syllable) and it is improvisational. A lot of those skills I developed as a kid transferred over to classical music. Moving the voice as required by Rossini’s florid vocal music is a bit more natural for me.
Wm: You graduated from Indiana University, which many regard as the pre-eminenet American university for the vocal arts and opera. How did you come to enroll in Indiana, and how did you come to pursue a vocal career?
LB: I had obtained an undergraduate degree at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. My goal was to audition for three graduate music schools. My first choice was to go to Juilliard, but they didn’t offer me an audition.
The only school that had a date open was Indiana (although later I received an invitation to audition from Boston University). I knew I was a good singer, but I had had a teacher who said Indiana University is too big a place. There you are a small fish in a big pond.
But I decided to go there anyway and feel it was the right choice for me. I got a chance to sing seven roles in my repertoire, every one of which I sing now, so it gave me a lot of hand onstage experience.
Also, I participated in regional competitions that were set up in a way that contestants would be in competition only with their same age and gender.
These regional competitions put me at an advantage in my category, because all my life I sang in school and church. Soon I won the competition in the Junior Men category. I received at least one award in every competition I entered, which included the competition’s grand prize.
Wm: From early in your career, you have been identified with the Rossini tenor roles. How did you become interested in this repertory?
LB: My vocal training at Indiana University coincided with the phenomenon of the Three Tenors and their popular CDs. I wanted to sing the great tenor roles in “La Boheme” “La Traviata” and “Lucia di Lammermoor”. I wanted to portray suffering and dying on stage.
[Below: Lawrence Brownlee as Lindoro for the 2004 Boston Lyric Opera production; edited image, based on a Richard Feldman photograph for the Boston Lyric Opera.]
But my instructor told me that I didn’t have the full lyric sound with power needed for such roles. Instead, he assigned me the aria Ecco ridente from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”. I felt a bit down at having such a light sound as my assigned aria when other tenors had their passionate music to sing.
To my delight, he had me sing Ecco ridente several times. He said that the ease of my voice is a quality that one does not find these days. He began to open up my eyes and ears to what was there.
I didn’t know anything about Rossini singers, but it seemed that my voice is suited to that repertory. My teacher told me that it was one of those things that would come to me easier than anyone else he had had.
What you can do finds you out. I see there are few reasons for it. The interest in Rossini seemed to die down after Marilyn Horne retired and Samuel Ramey left that repertory behind.
Wm: But subsequently there has been a worldwide interest in Rossini scholarship and in authentic performances of his operas. Do you feel this international interest in Rossini has opened doors for you?
LB: Very much so, as it has for such singers as Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato. The annual Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy, has been an important catalyst.
Wm: And, for the second year in a row, the Santa Fe Opera Festival has created a new production of a Rossini dramatic rarity – “Maometto II” in 2012 and “La Donna del Lago” in 2013. Here you are singing with a cast that includes DiDonato, Marianna Pizzolato and Rene Barbera. Do you feel that you are part of a Rossini fraternity?
LB: I think we all do. The world of opera we inhabit is not that big. There are only a few singers who are invited to sing at the important theaters. I continue to invest in what I’m doing. Each of us has our own gifts. People know what we do.
Yes it’s a fraternity. When I’m onstage I sing with the best mezzos, each of whom, besides being a great artist, is a nice person. I know how hard Joyce DiDonato works on her language skills and delivery. I was recently in Vienna with Cecilia Bartoli. They are hard working all the time and they are good human people.
Wm: In Santa Fe you are working with one of my favorite stage directors, the Scottish director Paul Curran. What is it like working with him?
LB: What is so special and interesting about working with Paul Curran is that he understands music. Curran is pushing us. The cast is amazing. You know he just came from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London. He feels that this cast is as strong as the one he had in Covent Garden.
I’m happy that the Santa Fe Opera Festival given us an intelligent stage director who does not go against the music and who understands the drama that underlies the music.
You have to use the drama to fuel the vocal fireworks. It’s not just enough for us to stand around and sing. He requires us to be believable actors.
Wm: How does working with a theatrically-oriented director change your approach to acting in opera?
LB: With traditional direction you were simply finding the spot where you would stand onstage. I remember working with an old school opera director whose basic idea was to “stand in a three quarters position and sing.”
But Paul Curran says “I don’t want dance moves, I don’t want pointed toes. If you have relied on ‘operatic’ gestures in the past, you have to unlearn them.”
For me it’s now like a reflex to move only when the drama calls for it. I now think, why is my arm coming up at all?
When I inhabit a role, I don’t lift my hand if there is no reason to do so. That stuff goes away with experience with theatrically-oriented directors. I now have it instilled in my approach to performance that a gesture should only be used if there is some motivation for it.
So I appreciate Paul. It’s good to watch him, We are similar in height and weight. When he acts a part of a scene I can see what he does, and I’m a good copier. I know that that’s what I need to do.
With a model like him, it’s helpful for us as artists. I can study what he is doing now, so that I can make it my own later. From that standpoint it’s all good
Wm: It’s taken a while for stage directors to take the Rossini opera serie seriously.
LB: I got a chance to work with Moishe Leiser, who like Curran, understood music. He would say: “Here is the drama. Look at the value of the rest that’s noted in the music. This is a pause. If you keep thinking about what is in the music, it fuels everything you need to understand about the drama.”
I appreciate that type of director, although they are few in numbers.
Wm: The reputation of American singers seems to be on the rise in the past. Do you agree?
LB: In the past, American singers were good, but some had terrible pronunciation and style. That has now changed. It is easier for American opera singers to be accepted as stylish artists in Europe.
[Below: Tonio (Lawrence Brownlee, standing center) sings “Oh mes amis” in the Laurent Pelly production of “La Fille du Regiment” at the Metropolitan Opera; resized image of a production photograph.]
A lot of times in Europe the focus in opera is so much on voices that the drama is given little attention. There, the tradition of standing and singing still lives on. Because of that, there is a lot of demand for us American singers who are good actors. That’s why I believe it important that we are actively engaged in working on our foreign language skills.
As an American opera singer you want to sing both in Europe and the U. S. A. I could name a number of American artists such as Isabel Leonard, Stephen Costello, Michael Fabiano, Ailyn Perez, Joyce DiDonato, and Sondra Radvanovsky who are incomparable artists.
We’ve raised the stakes. The history of present day opera performance will be our history.
Wm You are singing here in Santa Fe in “Donna del Lago” with such prominent Rossini singers as Joyce DiDonato, Mariana Pizzolato and Rene Barbera. Ia there a Rossini fraternity?
LB: I think we do think of ourselves as a fraternity. The world of music is not that big. Only a few singers are invited to appear at the important theaters. People know what we are able to do.
Yes it’s a fraternity. When I’m on stage, I am singing with the best mezzo-sopranos, each one of whom is also is a nice person. Everyone has their own gifts.
I was in Vienna with Ceclia Bartoli. I know Joyce DiDonato works on her language and delivery. I continue to invest in what it is I’m do. They are great artists, but they work hard all the time. At the same time they are nice people and good human beings.
Wm: What is like singing in the same opera with Rene Barbera, another Rossini tenor?
LB: He is a nice guy. We hit it off immediately. We don’t discuss singing. There is no rivarly. He has “present forward” voice, but most big voices cannot move like his can.
When I first heard him singing, I knew I would have to bring my A game – in fact, I’d have to find a better A game. In the scene where we sing together, we play ping-pong off of each other’s voices.
Joyce, Marianna, Rene and I are giving the conductor some incredible Rossini singing. It makes you feel that you want to do it. It’s great.
Wm: You are singing the role of James V and his disguised identity, Ubaldo, that was originally created by the legendary tenor Giovanni David, known for his florid styie and wide range. Yet perhaps the best known recording of our day casts a spinto weight tenor, Franco Bonisolli, not known for florid singing, in that part. Even Cesare Valletti, whom I had seen as Almaviva in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” sounded entirely different from a contemporary Rossini tenor.
LB: I’m unfamiliar with Bonisolli’s recording of the James V. Both of the tenors who created the roles of James V and Rodrigo (respcctively Giovanni David and Andrea Nozzari) are from the era of the original Almaviva, Manuel Garcia, and were competitors with the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini. All of these parts were written for tenors with higher sitting, lighter voices.
[Below: Lawrence Brownlee as King James V of Scotland; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The notes Rossini wrote for these parts don’t lie. When a different type of voice tries to sing the roles, they do not sing “naturally”.
You spoke of Cesare Valletti. He had a lyric weight voice, and the lyric roles are where he excelled. I met Luigi Alva, who was considered a lighter voiced tenor in the 1960s and 1970s, but even his approach to Rossini was much different than we sing it today.
Wm: I have personally argued that lumping Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti together as the “bel canto” composers does a disservice, since each has a distinct style. Do you find that singing Donizetti requires different skills than singing Rossini?
LB: Yes, I certainly do. I think what Rossini wrote is right for for my voice.
When I sang my first Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”, I became aware of how much that role differs from the Rossini roles. If in Rossini you sing on levels 6, 7, 8, with Donizetti you start singing at level 8 and from there go on to 10.
I believe that if a tenor does not have the the natural ability to sing the Belcore-Nemorino duet in “L’Elisir”, he cannot get to Una furtiva lagrima. I have to pace myself to be ready for it at the end of the opera.
I can excerpt anything. I sang the role of Nadir in Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers” in Copenhagen. I had performed much of that role in excerpts. But doing the part of Nadir altogether in a single performance is challenging.
Wm: Are there Rossini roles you have not done or roles by other composers that you would like to add to your repertory? Have you considered Arnold in Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” (which I am scheduled to see with John Osborn next spring)?
LB: Arnold is a great role for John Osborn, who is a close friend, and who I talked with on the telephone earlier today.
There are some Mozart roles I am considering, such as “Clemenza di Tito”, and also Gluck’s “Armide”. I am working on lessons in French and German pronunciation, and, in time, will do some song cycles and some French roles.
Wm: I had reviewed your performance of Lindoro in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” in Paris in Alexei Serban’s production. Can you give me an explanation – a point that seems to have confused Parisians as well as myself – of why a person in a gorilla suit wanders throughout that production?
LB: I did not take part in the first performance of Serban’s “L’Italiana”, but at the premiere the first performance all the artists noticed an extra body on stage, that had not been there in the dress rehearsal and had not been mentioned in any previous discussions of the staging.
It turned out that the extra character was the stage director, Alexei Serban, dressed in a gorilla suit, making obsene gestures to the public that he meant to be offensive.
It was meddlesome, and had nothing to do with the score. He just meant to be offensive. I just tried to sing normally and ignore all the hoopla created by a gorilla’s presence.
Wm: And, recently, you’ve been associated with the zany Rossini comedy productions of Joan Font.
LB: Joan Font and I have done three 0r four shows together. He comes from the point of serving the music, which he respects, not just provoking a response. That attitude is more appealing to me as an artist.
Wm: It might surprise some of your Rossini fans that you participated in the world premiere of Lorin Maazal’s opera “1984”. How did you come to take on that project?
LB: Lorin Maazal was in Chicago and I was invited to fly there to audition for him. As soon as I arrived he asked, so you sing a High D? Just like that! I told him that I did sing high D as part of my practice scales. He said o.k., we’ll go with that!
The first day of rehearsal I ‘m sittng in a room with Diana Damrau, Nancy Gustafson, Simon Keenlyside and Richard Margison. Then Margison asked us if anyone else was completely freaked out about this experience. There are no seven bars that are written in the same meter!
The experience made me approach singing differently, and, I believe, helped me become a total musician. In bel canto opera, you can forecast what will happen. “1984” made me explore my voice outside of its normal use.
I enjoyed that experience. It’s the only time I’ve sung at Covent Garden so far.
Wm: You are the seventh artist I’ve interviewed so far that has received the annual Richard Tucker Award. What did this mean to you?
LB: Historically, almost everyone who has received the Richard Tucker award has gone on to an extremely successful careers.They just don’t hand it to you. It recognizes achievement.
Wm: You perform all over the world. How do you manage your intense schedule?
LB: I feel that Im a citizen of the world. One of the things that keeps me sane is to have hobbies. I’m an amateur photographer, and I constantly try to improve my photographs. I’m a huge sports fan. I participate in fantasy football leagues, I’m constantly writing .
Probably my most distinctive hobby is salsa dancing. I participate in salsa dances all over the world. It provides me with the opportunities to be part of a city other than the opera house and not be just a singer visiting the place and associating only with his colleagues.
I could probably do salsa dancing six days a week. I just did a round of performances in Vienna, which is one of the best cities for this type of dancing. I let my colleagues know that after the show, I was going to a dance. My salsa friends were waiting off stage for me.
Im fortunate to have a job that I like – a fun, extraordinary job. It’s not easy for many people to understand it, much less to live it.
Wm: You have two small children at home. Have you noticed any promising musical inclinations in them yet?
LB: Oh, they are still in the Elmo’s world of early childhood. However, they did watch a video of me singing Oh mes amis from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” and seemed to like the part in which I was sang the nine high C’s.
Wm: Thank you for you time.
LB: Thank you, also.
For my reviews of Lawrence Brownlee performances, see: Rossini Royalty: DiDonato, Brownlee, Pizzolato and Barbera in Curran’s Staging of “Donna Del Lago” – Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 2013, and also,