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A tenor looks beyond opera and explores being a black man in America

Opera tenor Lawrence Brownlee is trying to find ways to express who he is in a traditionally white world, in part, by commissioning and seeking out new works about aspects of the African American experience. (Brian Branch-Price/For The Washington Post)

Lawrence Brownlee is among the most celebrated bel canto tenors alive. He regularly sings at the major opera companies around the world, and at 46, he’s at the peak of his career. Where do you go from there?

In Brownlee’s case, you commission new work exploring, in song, the experience of being a black man in America.

Brownlee is front and center in Washington this month. On Friday, he takes the tenor lead in Washington Concert Opera’s production of Rossini’s “Zelmira,” one of the less-performed serious operas by a composer best remembered for his comic romps. On Thursday, he appears in recital with Vocal Arts DC at the Kennedy Center. Washington has long been a kind of artistic home for Brownlee, going back to multiple appearances at Vocal Arts and the Washington National Opera, the Virginia Opera and even as a young artist at Wolf Trap in 2001. (He was going to return to Wolf Trap in the summer of 2002 but was invited to make his La Scala debut then.)

A bel canto singer who rises above all obstacles

“Zelmira” shows Brownlee in silvery voice as a leading Rossini tenor. The Vocal Arts recital offers another side of the singer. It features “Cycles of My Being,” a song cycle by Tyshawn Sorey, the experimental jazz composer, and the poet Terrance Hayes, both winners of the MacArthur “genius” grant. Brownlee is pleased that the piece, designed for an art-song audience, was created entirely by black men.

“At a point,” he said by phone from Atlanta, “you realize your platform, your cachet will allow you to do certain things. This was a passion project. [It shows] black men dealing with problems based largely on their skin color.”

And Brownlee is finding that audiences are eager to hear about it.

“Because of what I’ve built up over a 20-year career, people are open and receptive,” he says. “I’ve done ‘Cycles of My Being’ in the most conservative voting district of the United States, in Provo, Utah, to an audience that was 99.9 percent Caucasian. The response from them was overwhelming. [They were] happy and eager to hear it. As an artist, you have to be intelligent about a subject that can be divisive. You have to present it in a way that’s true, and also digestible.”

Bass-baritone Eric Owens explores mentoring and donating money to opera

Brownlee was in Atlanta for another passion project: the final stop on a 12-city recital tour with bass-baritone Eric Owens. Owens and Brownlee are completely different types: Owens large and lumbering, with a huge dark voice; Brownlee diminutive, with a silvery gleaming top. They’re also longtime friends who haven’t worked together as much as they would like, but because they have the same manager, they were able to block out enough time to work up a show and take it on the road. It was a striking success, mingling opera arias and duets, spirituals and popular song, and Brownlee was feeling expansive on the eve of the final show. He used to live in Atlanta, and many of his family members had gathered there, both to hear him — some for the first time live — and to celebrate his mother’s 70th birthday.

“One initiative I’m passionate about is diversifying audiences,” Brownlee says. “Hopefully this does that, gets people into the theater.” His hope is that some who are listening feel this show is an appetizer, leading them to try opera again.

This, of course, is the hope of most opera companies and orchestras. “Diversity” and “outreach” are the pet buzzwords of the field. Many singers of color — Brownlee and Owens very much among them — are increasingly involved in administrative ways, as well as on the stage, in working on reaching a wider segment of the population than the white upper-class echelon that tends to fill — or, these days, less than fill — the nation’s concert halls. Brownlee is artistic adviser at Opera Philadelphia, a part-time gig that involves strategic phone calls with general director David Devan, some performances and face time at events such as a recent luncheon with local civic leaders — addressing the company’s goal of being, Brownlee says, “an artistic institution for all people in the city.”

Part of that effort involves programming different kinds of works, such as “Yardbird,” a 2015 opera about Charlie Parker and a vehicle for Brownlee, who played the lead. Part of it also involves more colorblind casting — a willingness to cast singers of color in all operatic roles, rather than mainly in “Porgy and Bess.” The Washington National Opera and Opera Philadelphia both have good track records in that regard; other companies have been slower to catch on. Still, Brownlee has been able to have a stellar career.

“If you see it onstage, you can relate to it onstage,” he says. “Most of the roles I’ve sung have not been black-centric.”

Another motivation for Brownlee to diversify his performing is his desire to spend more time at home. Since opera productions tend to involve a rehearsal period of several weeks, they involve more time away than concerts, which require only a couple of days. Brownlee and his wife, Kendra, have two children, a 7-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy. Their son, Caleb, is on the autism spectrum, and the family recently moved to Florida in part to be near a highly rated school designed for children with autism. It’s a private school, and tuition isn’t cheap, but “it’s a small price to pay,” Brownlee says, “for really unlocking some things so that he can live his life to the fullest.”

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