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Still Eager to Learn:
Lawrence Brownlee

by David Browning

Brownlee performing in Rossini's The Barber of Seville
Everyone knows and loves Lawrence (Larry to his friends and family) Brownlee, one of the greatest Rossini tenors of our age. He has sung in prestigious opera houses and at festivals all over the globe, his recordings have won Grammy awards, he was named International Opera Awardsí Male Singer of the Year . . . the list of honors seems endless. He has worked with the organization Autism Speaks to raise awareness of autism. Heís also an avid photographer, a passionate football fan, and a devoted family man. Recently I was able to reach him via Skype while he was in Copenhagen.

Whatís going on in Copenhagen?
Iím doing a gala concert at the Tivoli Festival. I think this is my fifth concert in the last 12 days or so! At some point, Iíll probably transition more into concerts than opera, but weíre not there yet.

What would you like to tell the readers of Classical Singer that might not be part of a more generic profile?
Iíve been in this career now about 15 years or so. Often Iím the oldest person in the cast, especially with the repertoire that I sing. Iíve come to understand the landscape more and I appreciate it. I appreciate the people and I appreciate the things that Iíve done. Iím a veteran but still thereís a lot of growth in meómore things to do.

It sounds like continuing to grow and learn is very important to you.
It is. When you see people like PlŠcido Domingo, people who continue to inspire and continue to learn, you realize youíre not done growing, youíre not done offering. I look at them as a model to try to always get better.

Would you like to be in the business as long as Domingo has?
I wonít be like DomingoóI can promise you that much! I definitely plan to retire in some way, shape, or form before Iím 70 years old. Iíll be satisfied at a certain point to just say, ďOK, more family now.Ē Your career transitions in a certain way, and to be in control of how it transitions is one of my big things right now.

People ask me all the time, what is it you want to tackle? What are the roles that youíve dreamed about doing that you can now do? At my age, the early 40s, you get the opportunity to say, ďOK, I want to sing this!Ē There are a couple of things . . . some are the lighter French, and some of the Italian things that have French titles, too, like the French version of Lucia di Lammermoor.

There are some things that Iím looking at, just to make sure that the progression occurs in a very natural, organic way and still not leaving behind what I do. My favorite role of repertoire is Rodolfo. I would love to sing that, but itís not for me.

How has your voice changed and matured over the years?
People tell me all the time that they can hear a different color. I donít think my voice has necessarily gotten bigger, but I think Iíve taken on different colors and different hues and different things in my voice that show themselves when I sing different repertoire. I just sang Die EntfŁhrung aus dem Serail. I think Mozart needs a little bit more expansion, and so I feel like my voice was up to that challenge.

Mozart is very different from Rossini! Belmonte is pretty high for Mozart, but itís still low compared to your typical Rossini role.
Itís centered, you know. Itís interesting how Mozart wrote for tenors. He wrote very sensually. He didnít write high! high! high! The highest note that Belmonte sings is B-flat. Most Mozart tenors canít sing ďIch baue ganzĒóthey have to cut that aria. And Rossini singers like myself, we make our living up there.

Letís talk about your new role at Opera Philadelphia. Youíve been quoted as saying you want to make opera cool, bring it to a wider audience.
I think we as artists have a responsibility to take part in the conversation. Back in the day, people talked about divas and divos, and opera singers were not accessible like they are today. Itís important that artists are carrying the torch and making sure that we are champions for our arts.

Opera Philadelphia has been very important to me from the beginning, pushing my talent and giving me the opportunity to do things and grow as an artist. The music director, Corrado Rovaris, is a good friend of mine. He gave me one of my first jobs, at La Scala, 17 years ago. It was a very natural coming together of minds.

Some of my duties will be helping to get minorities more involved, being an advocate for new opera. Iíll be meeting with potential donors and showing the importance of our art form, so that people will want to support Opera Philadelphia. Iíll be sharing my own ideas and opinions with Corrado and David [Devan, Opera Philadelphia general director and president]. They take my input very seriously. Itís nice to have a home where you feel like your influence is felt.

Talk more about reaching minority audiences. Do you see marketing specifically to minority audiences as different from general marketing?
Going to the opera and seeing people onstage that look like you is important. Itís very important to Opera Philadelphia to have color-blind casts. They put people onstage regardless of what they look like, solely because of their talents.

I want people in Philadelphia to know that and to get to know me and some of the other artistsóto know what we do and understand that opera is not so far away, not so remote. We want them to become engaged and intrigued by opera. A lot of people just donít have the accessóthey donít have the history or the education about whatís happening with opera. So I say, look, give it a chance. Itís really about human situations, relationships. They can see themselves in those stories.

I tell people that they can talk to me about anything, not just opera. Iím not just an opera singeróitís what I do, but itís not who I am. Iím just a regular guy who loves everyday things, who loves things like football and talking politics. If people can relate to me, then I think theyíll be more open to what I do. Some people will come at the opera and absolutely love it and say, ďWhere has this been my whole life?Ē I hope people can strip away any old ideas they have about opera and come and enjoy it for what it is.

Do you envision bringing in other minority artists to participate?
Yeah I do. Philadelphia is a major city with a large affluent, black community. But I donít just mean the black communityóI mean every minority community. I think Philadelphia and other cities really need to make a commitment to making the arts accessible and relevant to minority lives. But not pandering. You know, some opera companies think, letís do Porgy and Bess so we can get minorities in the theater.

I think itís important for us to approach young minority professionals, people who are between 30 and 45, to get them involved in opera and let them see that itís not stuffy. They can see relationships and stories onstage and imagine themselves in what they see. I think there are people who want to experience culture, and this can become a start for them. We can present opera in a way that doesnít dumb it down, doesnít take anything away from it or try to make it something else, but still make it possible for new audiences to think, ďI could see myself doing thatĒ or ďthat guy looks like meĒ or ďhe looks like somebody that I would love to grab a beer with or go to the game with.Ē

I want to bring in people of color who are leading artists in the business to perform and do outreach with me. Iíve been fortunate to have a career that will helpóthe cachet, the connections, the friendships. People will realize Iím a serious artist, but Iím really invested in making sure that opera is understood, heard, and appreciated.

General Director David Devan told Opera News that Opera Philadelphia wants to be ďone of the leading instigators of new work in the country.Ē Part of your role as artistic advisor is advocating for new works. Letís talk about that.

Leading theaters need to take a stab at doing new things. The way to ensure that opera is around for the next however many years is that we do new works. We have to take our time and record it in history. We need to put our stamp on whatís happening in our art form. Itís absolutely crucial that we do new works.

You mentioned a long-range plan that includes less performing. Do you see yourself going into administration or perhaps teaching?
I hope to perform as long as I can. Iím not looking for that today. Even the new position at Philadelphia is not something that will take me off the stage right now. Part of that role is being an active performer. I will still be around and still be actively doing things. This is my first offstage role, and Iím having a great time. Iím just trying to choose the best situation for my family, for my wife and two kids. Having this opportunity to work with Opera Philadelphia is setting up things, potentially, for the future. Iíve been offered a few teaching jobs, too.

Do you like teaching? Do you like working with younger singers?
I do. Iíve done a lot of masterclasses. You get a chance to pass on the traditions, pass on the practices, pass on the things youíve learned. Iím a big advocate of paying it forward. Another way to ensure that our art form keeps going, keeps thriving, is that we pass on these things, these traditions. I like seeing people succeed. I like even the short masterclasses. I like to see people when their eyes light up and they get what youíre saying.

Masterclasses are really hard because you donít have a whole lot of time for technique. Sometimes Iíll say, ďYouíve got to get the tension out of your jaw,Ē or ďYouíve got to make sure that your breathing is correct.Ē Style should be the aim in masterclasses, but sometimes you do have to address technique. I recommend students work on this or that issue with their teachers, because technical issues get in the way of style. Teachers have come to me afterwards to tell me theyíve been saying the same things, but I say it in a different way.

Coming back to the audience that weíre writing for in this interview, what kind of message would you give to the young singers, the ones who are just getting into the business, or the young professionals?
Interesting question. People consider me one of the seasoned veterans but it took years, and all of those years were greatógreat learning experiences and a lot of time for me to just get in there in the trenches and learn, learn, learn, learn. Singers should realize that every opportunity, everything they doóall the acting style, all the language, all the coachingóis an investment in their career.

Take every opportunity as something to learn and donít be too eager to arrive at the pinnacle so soon. The learning process is one of the things that you can really enjoy later on. There are so many people Iíve learned from by osmosisóthings that are helping me today. Today I understand my craft better because I was an eager learner. Be eager to learn and slow to be an expert.

Especially as an American-born singer, I think the languages are absolutely essentialónot just pronouncing them, but also actually having a working knowledge in several different languages. One of the things that I hate is if Iím in Germany and everybody in the cafeteria is speaking in English because thereís one person who canít speak Germanóme.

Live like . . . you did when you were a college student. Invest in your career, and the business will teach you. When your agent fees and your taxes are due, youíve got to pay those. If you live like a college student, that means you make sure that your bills are paid. Take those immediate paydays and just put the money away and continue to invest in your career. It can be feast or famine, so make sure youíre covered. Save for the times that are less plentiful.

You mentioned not expecting to reach the top too soon. Some people have written about young singers who think the smaller roles are beneath them.
You donít want to sing Borsa for your whole life, but take stock in everything youíre doing and realize that thereís some value in it. Itís part of the learning process. Borsa next to PlŠcido Domingo is not a bad gig.

Weíve talked about a lot of things. I like to ask people about the silliest interview question theyíve ever had. It could be this very question. And in my place, what would you be asking you?
Someone asked me if I had ever sung Otello. He said I wouldnít even have to use makeup.

No question is silly to me. I usually try to answer the questions that people ask me. I donít get bent out of shape. Some people will say, ďThis might be a silly question but
. . . ,Ē and Iíll say itís not silly and Iíll answer it to the best of my abilities.

For a question, oh gosh. I guess, ďWhat you do, is it fun?Ē And I would say yes. But with the fun comes a lot of, you know, tough times. You spend a lot of time in hotels and you sometimes run your body into the ground. You have a performance, you get up at 4:00 in the morning to go to another rehearsal, and you sing, sing, sing, sing, sing.

Your voice, you know, itís resilient, but itís also pretty fragile, so just taking care of yourself is one of the things that Iím trying to learn to do. Itís fun meeting new people and experiencing new cultural things, but just remember to take care of yourself. Itís more fun if youíre healthy.

What do you do to take care of yourself?
Rest. I rest and I read books. I take a lot of walks. I work out. I play tennis to be fit.

One final question. I stole this from Inside the Actors Studio: Whatís your favorite swear word?
Itís cazzo! In Italian it really means, you know, itís the F-word in English. I donít use profanity that much, but I do say cazzo! sometimes.

David Browning is a writer and opera lover, some time board member and occasional advisor to some of New York Cityís small opera companies, and infrequently a singer himself. He is creator of the opera blog Taminophile ( Although he trained for a career in opera, a life as a technology consultant found him.

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