By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
I recently saw the production of I Puritani at the Lyric Opera and had the opportunity later to ask the principal tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who plays Arturo, a few questions about his career in classical music. The opera is a sweeping drama set in 17th century England, in which a passionate young couple find themselves caught up in a conflict between political factions. Albina Shagimuratova plays Arturo’s bride-to-be, Elvira, in a story that is both like and unlike “Romeo and Juliet.”
Instead of writing this as a profile, I decided to write in a “question and answer” format. In this way, I get to share more Black History with readers.
Crusader: You have a great body of work and recognitions. When did you first become interested in music?
Lawrence Brownlee: From the time I was a small child I was involved in music. Not singing, but playing several different instruments. I grew up in a church tradition where my father was the choir director, and my mother was a soloist in the choir. Being one of six kids, music was always around. I remember even at a young age having an ear for vocal music. When my father would teach the choir at church, I could hear that he was making small mistakes, and I remember a time, I think I was around 12, when I finally had the courage to tell my father he was teaching something wrong. And I was right. So it was clear from early on that I had an inclination and natural affinity toward music, because I was so involved with music in my childhood, though it wasn’t classical music.
Crusader: What can you say has been your greatest accomplishment, so far?
Lawrence Brownlee: Wow. Well there are many for sure, but my greatest, and this may sound cliché, but my greatest accomplishment would be my kids. My family keeps things in perspective. I love my job, I’m committed to it, and I want to do it as well as I can, but my family is very important to me and I want to make sure that I’m a good husband and father. If I’m a good husband and father, then I will be a good artist as well.
Crusader: Is it just my limited opera experience, or is the “damsel in distress” a recurring theme for many productions?
Lawrence Brownlee: Yes, it is, but it’s also a recurring theme for many movies, books and stories. It’s a common theme when there’s someone who needs some type of assistance, and it goes hand in hand with how stories have historically been written. And I’m not saying that I think women are the weaker vessel, but you see a lot of stories where men are storming in to save the day. And since the plots for operas come from stories and books that have been written in the past, you see it a lot. But I also think it’s a common theme across the board.
Crusader: If I were to view I Puritani in urban street vernacular, it seems as if you just “left an established sistuh and took up with the woman who was in turmoil.” I know this is [Vincenzo] Bellini’s piece, and I’m not speaking to one woman being in love with you and then you temporarily go with this other woman. However, can you speak to this part of the opera—I see it as a way to sort of restore the “good” in the play, meaning that the prisoner was able to escape with you. (And to me that sort of makes up for them dragging her off in chains). But at what cost? Elvira went mad for a bit.
Lawrence Brownlee: When you grow up in the Black community, you learn to “rep your ’hood.” In I Puritani my duty and honor is to rep my ’hood and I’m not going to let something happen to somebody from my ’hood. In that moment, that feeling overrides my commitment to love. Like, if I have to take a bullet for you, I will. You feel like you’re called upon to do something because it’s your duty. If you’re from a certain neighborhood and you happen to see harm or danger, you have to step up as a representative of your family and your neighborhood, you know. So in that case, yeah, I left that situation, but I had to because of my duty that I was being called upon to perform at that very moment.
Crusader: How many languages can you speak, also in which languages do you sing?
Lawrence Brownlee: I would say that I’m fluent in English, of course, and Italian. I have a very good working knowledge of French and German, but I’m always improving those. Whenever I go to countries that speak French and German, I take private lessons in both languages. My goal is to be fully fluent in a minimum of five languages in my lifetime. I sing primarily in Italian, French, and German, though I’ve also sung in English, Latin, Russian and Spanish.
Crusader: The travel has to be so rewarding—what are some of your favorite places—for opera and for leisure travel, as well?
Lawrence Brownlee: I love to travel, I’ve been doing it internationally for 30 years. I’ve seen 45 countries to date: this is the perfect career for someone who loves to travel. Some of my favorite places to perform are New York City, Paris, Milan, Chicago, Rome, Zürich, Berlin and Vienna. Outside of just performing, I’ve enjoyed Greece, the Tuscan region of Italy and France. Also, Cape Town, South Africa, was definitely one of my favorite places to date. I’m blessed to be able to travel for both work and leisure, and I hope to see much more of the world.
Crusader: You are part of a small class of Black male opera singers. Do you have a favorite person that you admire more than others?
Lawrence Brownlee: I admire all of my colleagues and appreciate their accomplishments. True, it’s a small fraternity. George Shirley and Paul Robeson are the two names that were inspirational in the beginning of my career, as men of color.
Crusader: The opera is more than singing but also acting. How do you mentally prepare for your character roles? Do you research the time period, how you think the characters would have acted, the historical context of the time piece? How does your preparation help you better connect with your character?
Lawrence Brownlee: Someone told me a long time ago that I have to embody every character in my own personal physicality. So, what does that mean? I’m not a very tall guy, and perhaps when people see me, because of history, they don’t have someone like me in mind as the handsome prince, or the king, or another role that I’m playing which hasn’t been historically thought of as a short, Black man. I have to learn how to navigate all those things myself in a natural way, so for example, how to look like someone who has been groomed as a royal.
A lot of times I look at historical films for inspiration. As a budding thespian over the years, I feel like I’ve developed a sense for what sells to an audience: what shows that this is a person of royal blood, or someone who’s refined and elegant. I also have a background in dance, which informs how I move on stage. But most importantly, I need to make it look like something that’s natural for me. If I were trying to do it as a 6 foot 5 inch, blonde haired, blue-eyed guy, I would do it extremely differently. I just find the ways that feel natural for me, and that make it believable to the viewer. My aim is that their initial assumptions that I couldn’t possibly portray that particular role are forgotten, and people leave feeling like they were taken on a voyage by the believable character that I put on stage that evening.
Crusader: What can you say to encourage young people or people of color to attend the opera more? Are you involved in any after-school or school enrichment programs to encourage young adults to consider the opera as a viable career choice?
Lawrence Brownlee: I am currently serving as the artistic advisor at Opera Philadelphia, and part of my job description is involvement with diversity expansion. This means community activities, and being an advocate for the company, so that people of color will know that we are also on the stages, working in administration, and working in all other parts of the theater. Opera Philadelphia in particular is very focused on supporting the people of that community. I encourage young people by being an artist that’s on the front lines in the community, so people see that someone who is performing on stage is also reaching out as an artist. And for me, it is wonderful to look out in the audience and see people of color. My hope is that people who come feel like they have someone on their side, and that it makes it easier for them to feel like they can relate to the stories they see on stage.
Crusader: And finally, I did see you as Charlie Parker in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird: 1A Chamber Opera. Great interpretation.
Lawrence Brownlee: It was a tremendous honor for me to portray the role of Charlie Parker, and it was one of the greatest projects of my life. Getting the opportunity to bring him to life was remarkable. He was such an iconic figure to the world of music at large, and it was an honor to bring him to people who didn’t know who he was or about his great legacy.