April events in Washington to showcase the multifaceted Lawrence Brownlee

April 04, 2019
By Charles T. Downey

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee will perform at the Kennedy Center April 11 and 14.

Lawrence Brownlee considers Washington D.C. like a second home, and in April it pretty much will be. The celebrated American tenor will be here for three different events in April that showcase his musical range.

First, Brownlee stars in Washington Concert Opera’s performance in Rossini’s Zelmira. Then he returns to the Vocal Arts DC series for a recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Finally, Brownlee will perform on a mostly jazz concert at the Kennedy Center on April 14.

“I am thankful for all the support that people have given me in Washington,” Brownlee says. “Before I became the opera singer I became, I was just a young kid who people thought had talent. The people of Washington have really supported me. So that I am coming there three times in one month is not too much, because I will be among my friends.”

This will be Brownlee’s debut in the role of Prince Ilo, the husband of the title character in Rossini’s rarely heard Zelmira for WCO. “The vocal writing in it is quite virtuosic,” he says. “I think it is the fifteenth, maybe sixteenth Rossini role that I’ve tackled, and this is proving to be one of the most challenging ones, but also one of the most enjoyable ones.”

“There’s a lot of complex, melismatic coloratura writing,” he says. “Just to sing that is not enough, you have to sing it with panache, with finesse. You try to negotiate those passages in a way that sounds like you’re not killing yourself in the process. Really trying to bring out the brilliance of what Rossini wrote is what’s been fun for me.”

Brownlee will return to the Vocal Arts DC series April 11 for a recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. With pianist Myra Huang, Brownlee will give the local premiere of Cycles of My Being, a new work made in collaboration with composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes. With words and music, the piece chronicles what it is like to be a black man in America.

“This was a passion project,” Brownlee says. “Every day we wake up and we look at someone in the mirror who looks back at us with a dark face. We wanted to have an intelligent conversation about what it is to live our lives. We talk about love, we talk about hate, we talk about adversity, we talk about resilience. We ask the question, ‘What causes a person to hate’?”

Brownlee is a creator as well as a performer of this cycle, having contributed some of the lyrics. “There are two movements of hope [in the work],” he explains. “Terrance wrote one of them, and I wrote the other. I wrote ‘Each Day I Rise’, parts of it, and ‘Hate’ is exclusively my writing. It was organic how it happened. We talked through the thing, the different emotions that we wanted to express.”

Has he been affected by racist attitudes himself? “Any black man who is successful, or not successful, in this country,” Brownlee explains, “would not be honest if they would say that they haven’t faced adversity. It’s a daily thing. Not that we go through our day saying, ‘Oh, there’s a slight there, or that person looked at me funny.’ It’s not that. I have absolutely dealt with some things. People looking at me, viewing me, watching me.”

He recounts an uncomfortable episode being pulled over by the police as an example. “When I was stopped, it was with little to no respect,” he says. “This police officer, I don’t know his life, but I can assume that in his life, maybe, he hasn’t accomplished the things that I have accomplished. I’ve traveled to 46 countries in the world. I speak, either fluently or almost fluently, four languages. I’ve been in the presence of kings and presidents.”

The officer, he says, made a judgment only on the basis of what he thought he saw. “This person looked at me,” he continues, “and I was reduced to having been none of those things at sight. They didn’t know who I was or what I’ve accomplished. They spoke to me just as a black man who they assumed was up to no good. It is something that we live with on a day-to-day basis.”

The song cycle, by design, asks some pointed questions of its audience. “We presented this recital in Provo, Utah, with a 100% Caucasian audience,” Brownlee adds. “Some of the questions we ask may have felt a little bit uncomfortable. It’s meant to be provocative, but we try to do it in a way that is also digestible. You want to be true to the integrity of what it is, but also in a way that people can accept.”

Sorey’s music is known for leaving many details in his compositions open to the performers, reflecting his background in jazz. “[Sorey] has said, ‘Every performance should not be the same’,” he explains. “There is artistic freedom that comes into it, particularly in the last piece, a call and answer thing.”

In the original chamber version of the piece, for small chamber ensemble, each of the musicians responded in different ways during this movement. “There was something sort of written on the page,” Brownlee continues, “but it all came from what I was feeling and they could respond to it. Whatever I’m feeling at that moment, if I want to make it more expansive and longer, I can. It is not necessarily ‘improvised’, but there is an improvisatory feeling because there’s freedom in how I can deliver it. You find moments like that all over the place.”

At the Kennedy Center, Brownlee will perform a piano reduction of the song cycle, because the logistics of getting all of the original performers together for subsequent performances proved too difficult. “Tyshawn has been able to pack every bit of that potential into the piano accompaniment,” he says. He sat down with Myra Huang to work on it. He heard her play the piece and was pleased. “She’s a one-person orchestra,” Brownlee says.

Lawrence Brownlee performed “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” in Philadelphia and Chicago. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier

Finally, Brownlee will perform with Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran at the Kennedy Center on April 14, on the theme of the Great Migration. Brownlee will sing a piece he has recorded with Moran, There’s a Man Going ‘Round Taking Names, featured in the film 13th. 

“Our collaboration is actually what sparked Cycles of My Being,” Brownlee says. “It was when I begin to think about using art this way. I knew I wanted a song cycle that speaks about the black experience.”

That collaboration shows Brownlee’s remarkable range as a musician, going back to his roots playing and singing in his family’s Pentecostal church in Ohio. “My mom would say that I would be singing songs in my sleep sometimes,” he remembers fondly. “It was a house full of music. It was not unusual to come in the house in the middle of the afternoon, and my mother was singing something. My father would be working in the yard and singing.”

It’s a formation that has stuck with him throughout his career. “When I sing now, even when I am not singing Gospel, I always like to draw on what I learned then,” he explains. “Even if it’s ‘Ecco, ridente in cielo’, there has to be heart, there has to be emotion, there has to be feeling. So I tap into what I felt when I was singing in church.” Occasionally performing spirituals or Gospel pieces offers him a link to what he knew in childhood.

“You sing Neapolitan songs, you sing Irish songs,” he adds. “It is inherently important for us, me and all people of color who have that unique history as part of our DNA, to carry on that tradition because it is part of our legacy.”

For the future, there are more opera house assignments and some roles he would like to try. 

“There’s Lucia coming up,” he hints. “Roméo, too, and maybe a few others as I am inching toward 50. Perhaps at some point, even though it’s a little too low for me, maybe I could tackle Rossini’s Otello, depending on the way my voice develops. I am a Rossini singer and a singer of color, so that brings an extra element of believability.”

Lawrence Brownlee stars in Rossini’s Zelmira with Washington Concert Opera 7 p.m. April 5. concertopera.org; 202-364-5826. He also sings with pianist Myra Huang at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater 7:30 p.m. April 11. vocalartsdc.org; 202-669-1463.


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