By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
“The Barber of Seville” (Barber) is an opera that was composed in 1816 by Gioachino Rossini, but the storyline could just as well have been written 200 years later. The Lyric Opera of Chicago (20 N. Wacker Drive) opened its 65th season in grand form, with a Lyric favorite, Lawrence Brownlee, in one of the leading roles.
Irrepressible Rosina (played by Marianne Crebassa) refuses to marry her pompous old guardian. Meanwhile, a bold young count is eager to win Rosina for himself. And who’s going to make sure those two finish the opera united? The cleverest character in all of Seville: the barber Figaro, whose services are sought after by everyone for everything (the guy has a lot more talents than just cutting hair). Rossini’s music—the aural equivalent of champagne—is the last word in humor, inspiring smiles and laughter on every page of the score, which is what makes “Barber” the most popular of all operatic comedies.
Figaro (played by Adam Plachetka) has all the information on everybody in the Spanish village and advises Count Almaviva (Brownlee) to go undercover to gain access to Rosina’s home, where she is obsessively under watch. “Barber” is great entertainment from the start, and the elegant confines of the magnificent Lyric don’t stifle the audience members’ delight in the events unfolding. The cast members and audience appear to have a great time performing, watching and appreciating, I might add, the at turns serious and playful antics that are part of this best-known comic masterpiece. In the end, can this unlikely duo of Figaro and Count Almaviva win the heroine’s heart before it’s too late?
Black operatic tenor Brownlee is great in this lighthearted role, as he leaves no stones unturned to win his beloved’s hand in marriage. The Crusader interviewed Brownlee last year when he was featured at the Lyric in “I Puritani,” where he played Arturo, who along with his bride-to-be, Elvira, was a passionate young couple who find themselves caught up in a conflict between political factions.
Brownlee had his first professional stage debut in the “Barber” with the Virginia Opera in 2002 and his first Metropolitan Opera in 2007. To deliver performances in these and other different arenas with different operas requires fluency in many languages, and Brownlee has continued to master this, as well. “I would say that I’m fluent in English, of course, and Italian. I have a very good working knowledge of French and German, and when 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, although I’ve also sung in English, Latin, Russian and Spanish.”
He has traveled much for work and pleasure during his nearly 20 years for work, but all total Brownlee says he has traveled internationally for 30 years. Last year, he told the Crusader: “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.”
When asked about the small class of Black male opera singers, he paid homage to George Shirley (who was the first African-American tenor to perform a leading role at the Met in New York City) and Paul Robeson.
This reporter would be remiss if I did not mention the late opera extraordinaire Jessye Norman and her influence on current and future Black opera singers. I wrote about a young lady in last week’s column (Muti Keeps Promise, Holds Special Rehearsal for CWCMC, October 5) named JeSelle Jakes, who I think has a promising classical singing career and who I’m sure is familiar with Norman’s body of work.
Often times people of color just need to see themselves in the arts. Given this, Jakes and Brownlee are on the right track. “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,” Brownlee added.
And this community feeling is a two-way street. “It’s wonderful to look out in the audience and see people of color. My hope is that people who come [to see me] 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.”
To see Brownlee and the full cast in “The Barber of Seville,” which is playing through October 27 and sung in Italian with projected English translations, visit lyricopera.org/barber or call 312-827-5600.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.” For book info, editor firstname.lastname@example.org.