Fans of the Met's regular cinema broadcasts will already be familiar with the work of tenor Lawrence Brownlee. At 37, he is well known for his appearances in bel canto repertoire all over the world, including the leading houses in Berlin, Vienna, Washington, Milan, Tokyo, Madrid, Munich and Tokyo. Most recently he has been singing Rinaldo in Rossini's Armida at the Met, alongside Renée Fleming.
In London, he has been more elusive. A Covent Garden debut in Lorin Maazel's ill-fated 1984 in 2005 hasn't yet been followed up, and his BBC Proms debut in 2007 was cancelled due to illness. So his London recital debut next Tuesday, 25 May 2010, at St John's, Smith Square as part of the Rosenblatt Recital Series, is something to be celebrated. Indeed, no less an artist than Joyce DiDonato has described it as a 'don't miss recital'. I caught up with Brownlee to ask him a few questions in advance of his rare London appearance.
His programme for the recital is strikingly eclectic, so I ask whether he feels more inclined to take the chance to perform other kinds of repertoire when doing a solo recital or just to stick with the core bel canto composers for which he's world-renowned. 'I would not call myself world-famous,' he replies, 'but I do take the opportunity to venture into other things when doing recitals. I love Rossini and the other bel canto composers, but I also enjoy forays into Mozart, and the French and sometimes German repertoire.'
The choice of Elliot Carter's five-movement Cantata (1964) is particularly interesting. Brownlee explains that 'Martin Katz introduced me to this piece a few years back, and it is a group that I enjoy performing a great deal. It is based on familiar American Negro Spirituals, that were set to an elaborate, energetic piano score. I am very sure that Iain Burnside [Brownlee's Rosenblatt accompanist] will play it well.'
And do the Duparc songs have a specific significance? 'I just enjoy performing them,' says the tenor. 'Several years back, a former voice teacher gave me "Phydilé" with which I instantly fell in love and I built a set around it to showcase the works of Duparc.'
I ask him about the intimacy of doing a recital, and Brownlee replies: 'I do enjoy performing recitals with the sense of intimacy they bring. It is something that I feel I have gotten better at doing, but, equally, I now also more fully understand the responsibility of the artist to take chances and make special moments in order to take the listener on an aural journey throughout the recital.' He also explains that 'I appreciate the balance of doing recitals, concert work, and opera; it keeps things exciting.'
Inevitably, we mention performing with Renee Fleming in Armida at the Met. Brownlee says that 'Renée is someone whom I have admired for years as a singer, and now have found her to be a wonderful, and gracious colleague. I learned a great deal from her throughout the run of Armida, and appreciate her openness and desire to do good work. She is the consummate professional, and has become more than a colleague, but also a friend. I have enjoyed working with the other five tenors a great deal. Before the run, I was already friends with three of them, so it was like working with "buddies". Because we all have mutual respect for each other, there has not been any competition, but a lot of laughs and fun.'
Rossini is the backbone of Brownlee's season, with Barbiere and Cenerentola as well as Armida. Why is this the composer he chooses to sing most often? 'Well, I enjoy other composers, but the music and style of Rossini fits my voice well. Rossini composed specifically for a few singers whose voices he knew and respected, and based on what I have performed of his work up until now, I believe my voice has many of the characteristics of some of those voices he appreciated.'
Earlier in the season, Brownlee performed in a rare production of Mayr's scarcely-revived Medea in Corinto. Does it deserve more attention? 'I received a great deal of pleasure working on Medea in Corinto,' he confesses. 'It was for me a surprise to find the mastery of the vocal writing for the role of Medea (the soprano), and two tenor parts specifically (Giasone and Egeo). I think it and other lesser-known operas should be explored more often. Sadly, many things are lost, but one can see influences of other well-known composers in the works of even the lesser-known people like Mayr and many of his other contemporaries.'
Considering the current state of the record industry, Brownlee has an impressive number of recordings either already out or due to be released. The tenor tells me a little about a couple of recent ones: a disc for Opera Rara, which was released just before Christmas, and a new live recording of L'Italiana in Algeri, which is to be released here on the Naxos label in the UK this month. 'The Salon recording of Rossini songs with Malcolm Martineau, and the other artists was quite enjoyable,' he says. 'It was a group project, and the rehearsals were like a "Schubertiad" of sorts where we could all sit back and get to know other music intimately. I hope to take part in more projects like this. The L'Italiana in Algeri was a live recording from the Wildbad Festival in Germany. Recording anything live requires a different kind of concentration. In a studio recording, you have the opportunity to go back to fix and patch things, but in a live recording the goal is to be as "correct" as possible. We are not perfect individuals, but I have learned how to prepare myself in a way that I hope I can do my best and "become the character", and make music even when I am in a live recording.'
In July, Brownlee is due to record Rossini's Stabat Mater with Pappano for EMI. What appeals to him about this comparatively neglected work? 'I have already performed this with Maestro Pappano twice. This is a piece he knows inside and out; he understands all of its intricacies. I think it was masterfully written, and should be performed much more frequently. I say that not only because I enjoy the music, but because I would like to sing it more often!'
Between September and the end of December, the tenor will sing two operas twice: La Sonnambula and L'Italiana. What appeals to him about the roles he plays in these two pieces? 'I am not yet learning the role of Elvino in Sonnambula, but I have the recording of Pavarotti and Sutherland, and to me it is a lesson in singing. I am eager to perform it. L'Italiana in Algeri for me is one of the most enjoyable operas I sing. It is a true ensemble piece, and especially Act 2 is nothing but sheer enjoyment. I find myself laughing on stage sometimes, especially when I have colleagues who are great actors, as I am very fortunate to have in both productions I will take part in.'
Brownlee's rise through the ranks in recent years has been meteoric. Is it what you hoped for, or is it beyond all expectations? 'As you said before, I shared the stage with Renée Fleming recently, and I could never have imagined that when I started out,' he explains. 'I am so grateful to those people who gave me opportunities early in my career, and am thankful to those who pushed me and challenged me to work as hard as possible to learn and be a student of singing. I sit down and think sometimes about what I have been fortunate to accomplish until now, I cannot believe how much has happened. I am humbled, and grateful to be doing what I am.'
And what ambitions does he have left? 'I hope to continue discovering new roles, and to grow as a singer. I am thirty-seven and that is relatively young in this business. I want to embrace all that is ahead of me. They say that a tenor hits his stride in the late 30s and early 40s, so maybe my best singing is to come. I truly want to be back in London. I have already debuted at the ROH, and immensely enjoyed my time there, so I hope to be invited back.'
Lawrence Brownlee appears at St John's Smith Square on 25 May 2010 as part of the Rosenblatt Recital Series.
Photo credits: Marty Umans; Dario Acosta; Ken Howard
Interview with Lawrence Brownlee (July 2007)
Review of Opera Rara's Il Salotto disc with Lawrence Brownlee
Review of Lawrence Brownlee in Il barbiere di Siviglia at Baden-Baden
Review of Lawrence Brownlee in La Cenerentola at the Met
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