A Bel Canto Who Rises Above All Obstacles

Lawrence Brownlee, who will perform in the Washington National Opera's "The Barber of Seville" on Saturday, sings the national anthem at Nationals Stadium. Video courtesy Washington Nationals
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

When a singer makes a debut, he is usually being introduced to the public. But when Lawrence Brownlee makes his company debut with the Washington National Opera on Saturday night, singing Count Almaviva in "The Barber of Seville," it's more like a homecoming.

Brownlee has sung with the Wolf Trap Opera. He has appeared with the Washington Concert Opera three times. He has given recitals with the Vocal Arts Society. He has even sung Almaviva here, making his professional stage debut with the Virginia Opera in 2002 -- a few months before singing the role at La Scala. So Washington audiences are familiar with the 36-year-old tenor with the light, round, firm voice, the ebullient personality and the high-flying career around the world.

In person, Brownlee is the antithesis of the divo tenor, though physically he fits the stereotype. He is short, although no longer so round: standing 5-foot-6 ("give or take," he says), he recently lost more than 30 pounds. ("I saw the pictures of the Met's 'Cenerentola,' " he says ruefully, referring to last year's high-def broadcast that was seen around the world, "and it was that that made me start" the diet.) There is one physical difference from the stereotype: Brownlee is African American.

Historically, African American tenors have had a particularly difficult time breaking into the operatic mainstream: You can count the famous ones on one hand. Brownlee says at the start of his career, he was warned off -- mainly by other African Americans, who told him he didn't have a chance of being cast by opera houses as a romantic lead. Brownlee remembers an agent, after the Metropolitan Opera audition finals, making fun of the short little black guy who had performed: "He's got a great voice, but he's not going to have any career at all." (The agent didn't realize he was talking to one of Brownlee's friends.)

"There are definitely times that I haven't been hired, or rehired, because of who I am," Brownlee says. But, he adds, "You have to worry about the things you can control." Hence his decision to diet. "I don't have to be short and tubby."

Like his character in "Barber," Brownlee wears many guises. He loves salsa dancing and arranges to do it wherever his travels take him. He's a passionate sports fan who sang the national anthem before the Nationals game Wednesday night. He met his wife of nine months, Kendra, on an Internet dating site. In her profile picture, she was wearing a T-shirt of his favorite football team, Ohio State.

For all the variety, Brownlee's vocal endowments restrict him to a relatively narrow segment of the operatic repertoire. "I don't have a gargantuan voice," he observed this week over coffee in downtown Washington. He has a high sound with a rapid-fire vibrato, leading some reviewers to describe him as an old-school singer. There's warmth to the sound, but it will never be right for the power roles of "Bohème's" Rodolfo or "Tosca's" Cavaradossi; Nemorino in "L'Elisir d'Amore," which he tried out for the first time this summer, is about as heavy as it is going to get.

In other words, he's a bel canto tenor, ideal for the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, with the coloratura for the virtuosic aria that ends "Barber of Seville," and the high F that Arturo infamously sings in Bellini's "I Puritani." (In Seattle, where Brownlee last sang the role, they said he didn't have to take the F if he didn't want to. "Out of five performances, I did it maybe three, four times," he says.)

Brownlee, one of six children, grew up in Ohio and planned to be a lawyer before the opera bug bit. He was blessed with good teachers, none of whom pushed him into unsuitable repertory or bad technical habits. When he graduated with a master's degree from Indiana University, his teacher there, Costanza Cuccaro "gave me this list of vocal exercises," he says, "and she told me, 'If you can do everything on this list, you don't need to come see me.' " Cuccaro still gives him the occasional lesson, and frequent advice over the phone.

Since graduating, he's had huge success: winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2001, receiving a Richard Tucker award in 2006. But Brownlee was something of a late bloomer: Juan Diego Flórez, the star tenor who shares Brownlee's repertory, made his debut eight years earlier, though he's three months younger.

Kim Witman of the Wolf Trap Opera, remembers first hearing Brownlee audition in the late 1990s. "He walked out onto the stage like a deer in the headlights," she says. "Clearly, he was someone that we needed to watch. Clearly, he was not someone who was ready to sing for us." She kept her notes and waited, assuming he would audition again the next year, but two years went by with no further sign of him. "Then he walked in on the third year, he took the stage, and he sang the spots off his aria," she says. "I said, 'Larry, where have you been?' He's such a polite, gentle soul. He said, 'Mrs. Witman, I've just been growing up.' "

This kind of self-awareness, and self-possession, are still Brownlee's hallmarks. He brings the same kind of awareness to his characters -- even Almaviva, which he has now sung dozens of times. Almaviva, Brownlee says, spends most of "Barber" in disguise: first as a student, then as a soldier, then as a music teacher. The count's showy final aria, "Cessa di più resistere," is the first chance he has to display himself as the headstrong count -- the character who grows up to become the domineering aristocrat in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" (to which "Barber of Seville," though written later, is a prequel).

The eight-minute aria is something of a high-wire act. And Brownlee isn't seeking to achieve perfection. What he's hoping to achieve are what he describes as the things everyone remembers about a great opera performance: special moments, memorable notes, a single phrase that lingers in the imagination.

"If you can do it, and just do it, better not do it," he says. "But if you can try to make something special of it, then it makes sense.

"I think it strengthens the entire plot," he adds. "But most people think I'm just lobbying to do the aria."

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