Arts / Performing Arts

Opera Superstar Brings Rare Concert, Passionate Drive to Houston — Lawrence Brownlee Knows a Diverse Opera Helps Everyone

Changing Perceptions and Expanding the Audience

BY // 01.16.20

When opera superstar Lawrence Brownlee last took the Wortham Center stage in early 2019 for the Houston Grand Opera production of The Pearl Fishers, he noticed something special and wonderful about the casting.

“I looked around and saw how diverse the cast was. The conductor was a person of color, the dancers and actors and everyone else. It was beautifully diverse,” Brownlee tells PaperCity. “I said wouldn’t it be great to have the same type of thing in the audience, that we have a more diverse audience.”

Those onstage observations planted the seeds for a truly unique and rare concert set to melodically flower a year later, Giving Voice: Lawrence Brownlee and Friends Sing Opera, Gospel, and Standards.

Named 2017 “Male Singer of the Year” by both the International Opera Awards and Bachtrack, the American-born Brownlee has collected awards and accolades throughout his career, yet remains committed to community and diversity within opera and bringing opera to diverse audiences.

“One of the things I’ve been passionate about of late is diversity, audience growing, diversity expansion,” he says. “That’s one of the things I’ve wanted to embrace as a mission of mine. I believe we as artists have to be involved in making ourselves a part of the equation where we start to reach out to people.”

Brownlee backs up this mission with an artistic advisor positions at Opera Philadelphia and as a community ambassador at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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Houston Voices

His next Houston Grand Opera starring role this month as Fernand in Donizetti’s bel canto drama, La Favorite became the perfect opportunity to bring that commitment to community engagement to Houston. Brownlee approached HGO with the concept for a concert with a blend of music traditions.

“I said I have an idea for this concert and would you be willing to do it,” Brownlee says. “I have to say Houston Grand Opera took this very seriously. I’m grateful that they embraced the idea and wanted to make this a reality.”

Brownlee notes that in January and February HGO pairs La Favorite with a new production of Aida, starring his friend of 20 years, Russell Thomas, who steps into the role of Radames.

“To have both of us at the same time, two tenors of color in stories that have nothing to do with color, it shows that Houston Grand Opera has a tremendous commitment to color blind casting,” he notes. That casting also lead to perfect scheduling for this extraordinary concert.

“I wanted to capitalize on this time that we have together with both Russell and myself here and some of my other colleagues who are performing in operas who live in the city, to come together and reach out to the community,” Brownlee says.

The majority of those voices Giving Voice have a Houston or HGO connection, including Thomas and Houston native Nicole Heaston, HGO Studio artist Nicholas Newton, former HGO Studio artist Reginald Smith Jr and former Houstonian J’Nai Bridges.

Classic Debut

During our talk, Brownlee seemed quite comfortable preparing for this concert of beloved opera classics, spirituals and some modern standards (be on the listen out for a jazz cool “Minnie the Moocher”) while also rehearing for the HGO and personal debut La Favorite.

HGO – La Favorite – 2020 – Piano Rehearsal – Photographer Lynn Lane-90
Jamie Barton and Lawrence Brownlee in La Favorite. (Photo by Lynn Lane)

While one of Donizetti’s most popular operas in his time, the tragic love triangle between the King of Castile, his mistress Léonor (raising star Jamie Barton) and Fernand, the man of God who loves her, is rarely performed now. Perhaps the scarcity of productions lies in Donizetti’s beautiful arias, which Houston Grand Opera calls some of the most challenging every written.

“They are challenging and they are difficult,” agrees Brownlee. “You have these fiendishly difficult roles to cast and so you need people with the wherewithal to be able to equip themselves with this material.

“In the rhythmic variation of this score there’s so much there. There’s no real rhyme or reason why it is diverse. You have two verses of the same thing and then the rhythms are completely different. If you go on automatic pilot from the first verse to the second you’ll be wrong.”

Dramatic Turn

Often acclaimed for his voice but also his comic range in roles, Brownlee says Fernand is also something of a tonal shift for him as a character.

“People who know me know I’m a silly guy,” he tells PaperCity. I like to have fun and be relaxed, just not be too overly serious.”

Still, Brownlee finds himself relishing the challenge of Fernand, a very serious character who experiences many dramatic struggles.

“He has a real internal conflict between his duty to God and his love for this person,” Brownlee says. “At one point in the opera he says: The power of love is stronger than the vow that I made to God. It’s been great to find all these different levels. He goes from being extremely exuberant to nearly out of his mind.

“I like the dramatic range that I get a chance to approach in this more serious opera.”

Brownlee talks about La Favorite with great excitement, noting that it will be a debut for most everyone, cast and creative crew with only Barton, who he calls “incredible” having performed the role before, but in a concert setting.

“It’s nice to put a piece on its feet for the first time with such a caring and supportive staff,” Brownlee says.

HGO presents the concert Giving Voice: Lawrence Brownlee and Friends Sing Opera, Gospel, and Standards on Sunday, January 19. The concert will also be livestreamed on HGO’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

La Favorite runs January 24 through February 9.

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