On Wednesday, March 28th at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, those who had gathered for the evening’s event learned quickly that in addition to singing, opera star Lawrence Brownlee is a skilled and charming conversationalist. He’s also really funny. That he is able to execute all of these with such efficacy is our great fortune, and indeed results in a compelling duet of intellect and artistry that is the quintessence of Brownlee’s alchemy: the transmutation of inspiration into art through clear intention. Brownlee’s wonderful instrument, a precise and versatile bel canto, is the perfect metaphor for this pursuit, exhibiting not only what this artist is capable of (what he can do with his voice), but what he has decided to do with it, which is at many turns surprising.
The evening’s format included a series of musical interludes, broken apart by lively and entertaining discussions with WQXR overnight host Nimet Habachy. Brownlee opened with a trio of crowd pleasers including arias from Donizetti (L’Elisir d’Amore: Una furtiva lagrima), Scarlatti (Gia il sole dal Gange) and Torelli (Tu lo sai). When Habachy inquired as to the interesting juxtaposition of pieces in his opener, Brownlee related stories of his early experience with the repertoire found in the well known manual, Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias, or “the twenty-four hits” as Brownlee described them to appreciative and knowing chuckles from the crowd. Brownlee went on to speak of his early aspirations to sing dramatically, having been reared by recordings of The Three Tenors, and his journey under the guidance of insightful mentors and teachers who would ultimately help him uncover the right place for his voice in the bel canto universe. In an apt follow-up, Brownlee returned to center stage and performed the first seven songs of Schumann’s Dichterliebe with exquisite style and character.
Having established his unquestionable ability to breathe new life into the established canon with such imaginative resolve, the program was then rocketed to the present with a new work for voice commissioned by Brownlee. Perhaps the most compelling method for expressing one’s unique experience as an artist is in the creation of a new and unique work, born of one’s own surroundings and preserved for future generations to continue to interpret and redefine in present moments to come. Brownlee made no compromise in choosing his collaborators, crafting this new body of work with not one but two MacArthur Fellows; this year’s incumbent in musical composition, Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes, who received the honor in 2014.
Indeed, if there was anything disappointing about the evening’s program, it was having spent so little time with Sorey and Hayes’ wonderful collaboration. The work is a song cycle entitled Cycles of My Being, which explores the realities of life in America as a black man, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and catalyzed by the many reckonings that have come as a result of the contemporary political climate in America.
Brownlee set the stage in dialog with Habachy, and expounded upon his fears not just as a black man but as an individual who has risen beyond the zenith of his expected experience, an individual who has been fortunate enough to live off of his passion and art, travel the world to meet presidents and kings only to return to a reality in which his life could abruptly and pointlessly end within the context of something so mundane as a traffic stop, due to the color of his skin.
Sorey’s stark and delicate composition flowed freely from the piano at first with spacious consonance, colored increasingly by creeping dissonant tones that carried Hayes’ pointed text, “America, I hear you hiss and stare, do you love the air in me as I love the air in you?” across a gulf of dramatic tension navigated with expert precision by Brownlee. This exciting and important work received its World Premiere at Opera Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on February 20 and will receive its New York Premiere at Carnegie Hall on April 24, 2018.
A compelling coda to this exploration of the black male experience came on a more optimistic note, with Brownlee’s interpretation of classics from the American songbook repertoire. As he explained, though there have been numerous women of color to grace the opera stage, being a black man in opera often left him with a deficit of male role models. In reaction, his pursuit for inspiration turned toward artists such as Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis and others whose contribution to American song and American culture have been deeply significant.
Admittedly, when Brownlee started singing Unforgettable, there was a brief period of disorientation caused by hearing the song’s velvet melody shoot forth trumpet-like on the back of Brownlee’s superb instrument. However, the power of his commitment quickly overrode any skepticism, reinforcing the artist’s point that one does not have to change oneself to fit the style, but must focus the style through a personal lens in order to show (as he so often commented) that it was done on purpose, with forethought and intention acting as key elements of one’s artistry. Indeed, what future generation of singers may bring Cycles of My Being to the stage in a similar context, both to understand what this important work means today, and could mean in that future world?
To close the circle, Brownlee returned to his early roots with two traditional spirituals, Every Time I Feel the Spirit and All Night All Day. Brownlee commented that singing in a gospel choir (as he did from an early age) requires a “cool head and a warm heart.” There is no question that these values have served him well, and as a result, he has not only conquered the breadth of exciting repertoire upon which he has come to establish the notoriety he enjoys, but has also been able to deconstruct the stereotypes enclosing other styles typically reserved for other types of voices and make each of them uniquely his own.