Some would say tenors are the luckiest of opera singers. They’re rare, so they earn top dollar. As well, they get plenty of attention and publicity – and at the end of the opera, they usually get the girl.
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who appears in the role of Count Almaviva in the Houston Grand Opera’s new The Barber of Seville, has had his share of good fortune. He’s blessed with a naturally high and agile voice well suited to the florid bel canto style of composers like Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. At 38, he’s at the top of his game.
Q: You’ve sung Almaviva at the Metropolitan Opera and Milan’s La Scala, to name just two of many places. Would you say that this is your signature role?
A: I think so. It’s been a vehicle for many important debuts for me: in Vienna, Berlin, Tokyo – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s put me in a comfortable place to sing in some important houses. I enjoy it quite a bit.
And I’m always trying to find something new in the role. If the day ever comes when I retire the role, I’ll feel like I’ve done just about everything that can be done with it. But there’s still more to go.
Q: Did growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, prepare you for life as an opera singer in any way?
A: Youngstown is a very blue-collar type of environment. My dad was a factory worker, and my mom was a homemaker and the mother of six children. But when I was a kid, my dad used to make me sing in church. I was really shy and didn’t like it all! But over the years, I got to be a little more confident. In high school, I was in the band and sang in a show choir. This prepared me to be a musician. I didn’t know I was going to be an opera singer. I wasn’t an opera fan – and I thought I’d become an attorney. But people told me I had a special gift that I needed to pursue.
Q: You’ve made a specialty of bel canto. Why is this repertoire so well suited to you?
A: I have a high, light voice. In the beginning, I wanted to sing Verdi and Puccini, and the stuff that the Three Tenors were singing. But my teacher said, “You don’t have that kind of voice.” The first aria I ever sang was from The Barber of Seville, and my teacher said, “This is what you were born to do.”
Q: Looking at your list of repertoire for the past five years, it’s almost entirely Italian opera. Do you have any musical aspirations outside this repertoire?
A: As I get a little bit older, and my voice evolves, maybe my voice will open itself up to do some other things. I think right now I could also do Mozart, and at some point I’d like to make a transition – without abandoning bel canto music – to some Mozart roles. And hopefully, at some point, I’ll get a chance to do more of the French repertoire. But it’s the voice that decides what you can do – so we’ll see what happens.
Q: About 20 years ago, the African-American opera singer Simon Estes complained that male black singers had trouble getting work in opera houses. And he said it had something to do with “getting the girl” – especially if the girl had blue eyes. What’s your own experience today?
A: That’s changing. I’ve performed around the world in some important theatres, and I can say that doors have been knocked down that I thought maybe wouldn’t be. People said to me, “You won’t get an opportunity to do this or that because you’re black – and nobody wants to see a black guy kissing a white girl at the end of the show.” Yet it’s interesting that I’ve never once been cast opposite an African-American girl. I do feel a responsibility to prepare myself so that people have the fewest reasons to say no to me. I don’t want people saying, “He’s short, he’s black, he’s overweight, and he’s terrible on stage.” I can’t control my height or my color – but I can control my weight and my knowledge of the roles, the language and the style. If you give people fewer things to say no to, you put yourself in a better position.
Q: You have a very busy operatic schedule. What else are you doing these days? And what are your plans?
A: Of late, I’ve been teaching master classes when I can. This past summer, I gave some voice lessons in Italy: five lessons a day, with Italian singers. I’m still a learner myself – but I like to talk to younger singers about the things they can do to be better prepared for life as an opera singer. Right now, I’m awaiting the arrival of my second child. Any day now I’m expecting to hear that my wife has gone into labor. And at some point, I’ll want to taper off my performing to spend more time at home with my family – to take my kids to baseball games and ballet recitals.
© Colin Eatock 2011