Operatic tenor Lawrence Brownlee is one of today’s most in-demand singers in the bel canto operas of Rossini and Donizetti, and much more. Now he is stepping into less familiar territory with a freshly minted song cycle he has created with composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes, a project co-sponsored by Carnegie Hall, Opera Philadelphia, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement and the systemic racism that fomented it, the trio are exploring, in song, the heavy burden that weighs on black men living in America. The cycle premieres in Philadelphia on February 20, with subsequent performances in Chicago, New York City and elsewhere.
What led to the creation of Cycles of My Being?
The project began with a conversation with pianist Jason Moran a couple of years ago about how to collaborate and use art to make a meaningful statement about living as a black man in America, as there had been a lot in the news about the abusive treatment of black people by police. I was already scheduled to perform Schumann’s Dichterliebe in Carnegie Hall, and I decided it would be great to pair that with a newly created song cycle that would speak to the realities of living life as a black man in America today.
How did you choose Tyshawn Sorey and Terrance Hayes as your co-creators?
I wanted to work with other artists who were making strong statements in their own work. Both Tyshawn and Terrance have been recognized for their contributions in their own fields, and they are both MacArthur “Genius” Fellows. They are also willing to jump into new things and have a lot of experience saying what’s on their minds. I knew that collaborating with them would create a narrative with impact, and I also wanted to make sure that the co-creators’ voices were equally and fully there. Tyshawn and Terrence were eager to explore new avenues in their art and use their gifts in a different way. Neither one of them had ever done a song cycle before, so it was appealing to them to expand. Carnegie is well aware of Tyshawn’s talent, and they’re excited to have him involved.
What can you tell us about the work itself?
It was important for all three of us to feel like we could do our best work, and there was a strong push for both the composer and the lyricist to feel like their voices were being heard. I think this work is a representation of something that all three of us gave serious thought to.
We wanted the work to have clarity but not be overly simple. There is a little subtlety, especially in the poetry. The music itself is rhythmically challenging, and also challenges my vocal range. The songs address hate and hope, as well as America and its perceptions of black people. It expresses the many difficulties of living as a black man in America, yet also our resiliency and ability to get up in the morning knowing what we have to face. It is also about hope. Hope is what drives us, and having a positive attitude allows us to face these things despite all the negativity surrounding us. There are many forms of hate—some overt, some subtle, some wrapped in disguise–and the people expressing hate may not realize it, but you can feel the hate. But even in the midst of adversity and turmoil, we can still go about our day because of that hope and the ability to overcome.
The instrumentation for the premiere in Philadelphia on February 20 is tenor, clarinet (Alexander Laing), violin (Randall Goosby), cello (Khari Joyner), and piano (Kevin Miller). All subsequent performances, Chicago on February 22, New York City on April 24, and the recital tour, will be performed with voice and piano reduction. There will be a discussion with the audience after the premiere about the important issues raised by the work.
How does this project fit into the entirety of your artistic life?
This is an opportunity for me to expand and grow in new areas, and to be an advocate for new works. I always follow Renée Fleming’s advice, which is that the only way for opera and similar arts to survive and thrive is to bring forward new, relevant work. So yes, I continue to perform in core operas and recitals, but I also have a desire and a need to pursue new projects. After being in this career for a certain number of years, I do feel like who I am as an artist and as a person is pretty well understood. I don’t necessarily want to build my legacy, but instead write new chapters of my story and show my strengths in other areas as well. I’ve always been a big fan of song and song cycles, and I hope to do them more in the future, so this is a foray into that. Additionally, my goal is to add more diverse works to the repertoire of the 21st century, and to speak for this movement to make a better life for African Americans. As artists, we want to lead the charge to reach out to people in the community because this art form can enrich their lives. And it’s inspiring for people of color to see African Americans on stage.
What are the sponsoring organizations doing to foster diversity and inclusion in the arts?
I serve as the artistic advisor at Opera Philadelphia, which means I assist with broadening the repertoire, diversifying performers and audience members, and helping with community initiatives. Opera Philadelphia got wind of the Cycles project, and wanted to support it. The vision of David Devan, the general director of Opera Philly, is to serve their entire community, which is rich and diverse with many ethnicities. There’s a strong push for diversity throughout their organization—on stage, back stage, in the administration, etc. For David, it’s not just about listing a title like Porgy & Bess in their season, and thinking that’s a way to get people of diverse backgrounds into the theatre, but instead presenting meaningful works that show a representation of all ethnicities, cultures, sexual orientations, etc. And he is committed to making that a reality at Opera Philly.
For many, a newly created song cycle is new territory, and Carnegie Hall was very excited about the project as well, as it fits well into its 125 Commissions Project to celebrate its 125th anniversary. Jeremy Geffen, the director of artistic planning at Carnegie, is striving to be at the cutting edge, and has a lot of projects and initiatives in place to support young composers and to create outreach programs that expand the diversity of audiences. The cultural ambassador at Lyric Unlimited (Lyric Opera of Chicago) also got on board with Cycles, since Chicago also has a rich and diverse community that they want to serve. So the project is co-commissioned by all three: Opera Philadelphia, Carnegie Hall, and Lyric Unlimited: A Division of Lyric Opera of Chicago, and these three important artistic institutions are very eager to be a part of this new song cycle.
Tuesday, February 20, 2018, at 7:30 PM: Cycles of My Being (world premiere) at Perelman Theater in Philadelphia, PA
Thursday, February 22, 2018, at 7:00 PM: Cycles of My Being, with pianist Myra Huang, at DuSable Museum of African American History, in Chicago, IL
Tuesday, April 24, 2018, at 7:30 PM: Cycles of My Being and Dichterliebe, with Pianist Myra Huang, at Carnegie Hall, in New York City