Lawrence Brownlee: 'Music to me is an expression of the soul.'

Interview on singing Rossini's Stabat Mater at the Proms

3 July 2007

Lawrence Brownlee

On 16 July 2007, London audiences will have a rare opportunity to hear one of America's newest and most acclaimed vocal talents. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee will be appearing at the Proms alongside Antonio Pappano and Joyce DiDonato for a performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater.

Brownlee recently won the highest praise for his Met debut (pictured), at which he sang the role of Almaviva in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia along with DiDonato as Rosina. By all accounts, it was an astonishing occasion.

Mike Silverman of the Associated Press (which shares reviews between the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune and other leading newspapers) reported that 'The tears that filled Lawrence Brownlee's eyes during his curtain call at the Metropolitan Opera spoke of more than mere relief at a successful debut. True, he had just vanquished the daunting tenor role of Count Almaviva in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. But that was only part of the story Thursday night. He also became a phenomenon that's still entirely too rare - a black man getting a chance to perform a leading role at the nation's premier opera house.His lyric voice falls on the ear with unusual sweetness, even in its upper reaches, yet it carries enough punch to be clearly heard in the vast Met auditorium. He has mastered the bel canto technique of fast runs, trills and ornamentation that Rossini requires, and stopped the show with his acrobatics in the aria 'Cessa di pił resistere' late in the evening.'

Even our own, often curmudgeonly, Hugh Canning of The Sunday Times wrote that '[Joyce] DiDonato is the best Rosina around, and Brownlee, another young American tenor, is her near equal, an astonishing technician who rightly brought the house down.'

Evidently Brownlee, who has yet to appear in a major role at Covent Garden (though he made a striking impression in Lorin Maazel's ill-fated 1984 a couple of years ago), is something special. We had the chance to ask him a few questions about performing Rossini's Stabat Mater and his career in general in advance of his forthcoming Proms appearance.

When asked what the challenges of performing Rossini's Stabat Mater are, he answers: 'I personally enjoy singing this piece so much that I don't find it to be all that challenging. What is important to me is not only being committed to the music, which is so very beautiful, but equally to the text. '

Rossini wrote the piece a few years after the death of his mother, which many writers feel makes it a very personal work of art, and Brownlee seems to concur. 'Yes, I would agree most definitely; much of the music speaks to me differently than that of his operas in my repertoire. It could be that his emotions are being expressed in other distinctly poignant ways. His closeness to the piece is very evident to me.'

The piece was also written after Rossini's retirement from the opera house. Brownlee says that he finds it stylistically different from the operas of his that he is used to singing. 'It is evidence of his evolution as a composer. The music is not as light, but is more lyric and deeply expressive.'

The tenor is particularly lucid about the differences between singing a sacred choral piece such as this and staged operas. 'The singer has a greater responsibility to be able to communicate effectively because of the lack of physical action. If done well, it can actually be even that much more effective. I find that sometimes we singers hide behind the lights, make-up and staging.'

Brownlee is evidently excited about performing at the Proms for the first time. 'I am looking forward so very much to this concert. My colleagues are wonderful singers and Maestro Pappano is a masterful musician who is rightfully well respected.'

Sadly, though, he has no plans to sing in staged performances in the UK in the future. 'At this moment, the only thing that is scheduled is to record a CD of Rossini songs in London next year. After that, I hope to return to appear in the UK as often as I possibly can. '

Although he is now well on the way to the top of his profession, Brownlee doesn't seem to have planned to be a singer. 'Singing was my destiny I suppose. As a young person, I actually hated to sing, but my father would force me to do so in Church. It seemed that when I sang, people always responded in a positive way. As I got older, I began to appreciate music more. Now I love it and it is my life.'

His ambitions for the future are very simple. 'I would like to continue singing those parts that are right for my voice, in the theatres where I have been fortunate to appear thus far and in new ones as well. I don't plan to do it forever, but I am enjoying my career very much right now.'

When asked what direction he sees his career going, Brownlee is refreshingly content with his current situation. 'At this point, I am very content with where my career is. In the future I will add things that are a little more lyric, but for now Rossini, some Donizetti and some Bellini fit very well vocally.'

What does music mean to him? 'Music to me is an expression of the soul. It is a part of yourself that you share with others. I feel that a singer has a responsibility to communicate. It has to be internalized and real, and that comes from a real place, such as the soul. I think people can read right through the fluff. It is about being committed.'

Is he optimistic about the future of opera? 'Yes, very much so. There is a lot of excitement right now in houses like the Met, and also in many other places worldwide. Music will always be relevant to society.The role of the young is to make opera hip, to help to interest new opera-goers in this art form and relate to today's society.'

And what would he like to be remembered for? 'Not for just singing, but for being able to 'say' something different. I would like to communicate in a way so that if the composers were able to hear me sing their beautiful music, which I feel I am privileged to share with the public, they would be pleased.'

By Dominic McHugh