Fort Worth — Renowned for his silky, bel canto tenor, opera star Lawrence Brownlee uses his craft and his artform to heighten the narrative of black men in America. Coming off the successful debut of his song cycle Cycles of My Being, Brownlee will soon be gracing audiences in Fort Worth with a recital program that opens The Cliburn’s 2018-19 season. In collaboration with baritone Eric Owens, the pair of world-renowned vocalists will perform a collection of arias, spirituals, pop, and American standards. In advent of their program, TheaterJones had the opportunity to catch up with Brownlee to chat about his artistic journey, his experiences with race and identity in classical music, and his upcoming performance.
The concert is 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, and Friday, Sept. 21 at the Kimbell Art Museum in the auditorium at the Piano Pavilion. For tickets and more info, go here.
TheaterJones: Youngstown, Ohio. I lived there while I was in high school, and in my experience, there wasn’t a ton when it came to classical music and really getting exposed. How did you find your love for classical music there, and how did you manage to nurture that passion into a marketable talent?
Lawrence Brownlee: When I was in high school, Youngstown City Schools had great programs for music. I was a part of a group called the Youngstown Connection. There was a great emphasis on the arts and music, and that gave us the opportunity to be a part of various styles of music. We did mostly show choir stuff, but we did some other types of music as well—Americana, some choral things, some madrigal stuff—and that exposed me a great deal to other styles of music. There was a program at Youngstown State through the Youngstown Connection for gifted music students that gave me the opportunity to study classical voice for the first time. So, being a part of that program was where I had my real introduction into classical music and understanding what classical voice was about.
You are an exemplary bel canto tenor—Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and the ilk. Is it safe to say that is where you feel most at home when it comes to your voice?
Yeah. It’s one of those things. They say that what you’re good at finds you—what you have a natural affinity towards, something you feel like you were born to do. I had a teacher who told me, when I wanted to sing other types of music, he said, “Your voice is somewhere else.” He said the type of voice, the natural instrument I have, is perfect for this type of music—a voice that tends to lie high, to have a certain amount of nuance and flexibility in the higher range. He told me I should move towards this particular style of music, so that’s how I found my home.
I want to ask you a bit about Cycles of My Being. It debuted earlier this year, correct?
Yes, that’s correct.
It has been getting a lot of praise since it debuted. Can you tell me a little about your goals and your mission with this song cycle, and what sort of message you wanted to convey with this project?
This is a passion piece. I felt like it was important for me as a recognizable artist to use my platform to say something that is important to me. I was talking to a friend of mine, a pianist, about how important it is for us as artists to be representatives of who we are as people. If three of us are standing out on the corner, someone might think that we could be involved in gang activity, not to know that he is a multi-Grammy Award winner, I am a Grammy nominee, several degrees, we’ve traveled, met presidents. There’s so much that we’ve accomplished, but people view us in a certain way just based on the way we look. So, the experience of a black man in America is so different than someone who doesn’t walk around with this skin that we have. What [Cycles of My Being] was meant to do was to give the listener an idea of what it is to walk in this skin. We have the same goals, hopes, and aspirations as someone else. We want to be good men; we want to be good fathers; we want to have access to education. We want to be able to take advantage of the things this country says we’re entitled to.
What has the reception been like?
It’s been overwhelmingly received so positively. And the funny thing is, it’s been in so many different types of audiences that we’ve received support. I have to say that it has been successful in all places that we’ve been to, from New York City to Provo, Utah.
Kathleen Battle was recently here in DFW, and she brought her program Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey, which was very well-received. I see these programs really trying to pull artists from diverse backgrounds into this community and showcase these voices. From your perspective, as a working artist of color, are you experiencing the same thing? Is representation changing in the realm of classical music to be more inclusive?
If you had an entire season that had all Caucasian people, no one would bat an eye. It would go unnoticed. But when you have, in just a few months, three notable artists of color all coming to that area, it’s like, “Whoa, what’s happening?” The access wasn’t there. The opportunity hadn’t been there before. Speaking for myself, I feel like I should be a representative as an artist first. I want to be an artist that people want to hear, but I also am an artist that represents who I am—my race. I’m thankful for the opportunity. For this concert, we are not bringing a program that is just about the black experience. I’m happy that we’re bringing a program that includes European music—some arias, some duets, some things in French, some American songs—things that have nothing to do with the color of our skin, which is great. It just so happens that you’ll have two well-known artists who happen to be black. So, is there a burgeoning? Yes. Opportunities are being given. I just hope that the issue of them being a black person doesn’t always define them.
Do you think that the current socio-political climate in our country plays any role in the work that you do and the message you hope to convey?
Absolutely. [Cycles of My Being] is based upon the fact that we see too many black men being arrested—being killed—like the young man there in Dallas killed in his own apartment. I still walk down the street and experience all the things that happen to me because I am a black man. You have to know that that is a part of it. But, I’m more than that. I’m working on a tribute to some popular and American songs—Nate King Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., and some of those guys. Does that have anything to do with being black? I’m giving reference to these people who sang it, but the music is a part of the DNA of America. That’s what I want to give glory to: what these guys accomplished with their art.
You and Eric Owens have worked together many times before. What makes this collaboration so special? Why does it work so well?
Any time you get a chance to perform with someone you like as a person, it makes it a lot much more of an enjoyable experience. He’s been a buddy of mine for close to 20 years, so when people see this program, they see us having fun on stage.
Off the stage, what has your ear? Are there any artists or genres that get you excited right now?
A lot of stuff. I’m a classical singer, but I like so much. I like gospel; and who doesn’t like Drake. I’m a big fan of vocal jazz—New York Voices, Manhattan Transfer, Clare Fischer. Salsa music is one of my great loves; I’m actually a salsa DJ.
You’ve been singing for a long time, and you’ve definitely had success. Do you feel that you’ve reached a sense of artistic maturity in your career, and if not, is there something in particular that you hope to improve on?
People say that you’re always a student, and so you’re always learning. I do feel that there are things I’ve accomplished where I show growth and maturity. I think people respect me for my work and my reputation. But, when I see people like Plácido Domingo or Cecilia Bartoli always excelling, I feel like there’s more for me to learn and do. I feel like, culturally, as an artist I haven’t done my best stuff yet.