Over the past few years the American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, has been establishing himself as one of the brightest hopes in the supremely challenging field of bel canto opera. Making a name for himself singing bravura roles like Arturo in I Puritani, Tonio in La fille du Régiment and Conte Almaviva in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, the opera world has warmly embraced a rare and distinguished voice, which undoubtedly will continue to thrill its listeners for decades to come.
Following his UK concert debut as part of the Rosenblatt Recitals series (to read a review of this remarkable evening, please click here), I was able to put a few questions to the tenor about his burgeoning career.
AL: Your prowess in singing some of the most challenging bel canto tenor roles is now solidifying your reputation as one of the most sought after tenors in the world. Where did your passion for bel canto opera originate?
LB: My passion for bel canto started when I began to hear the recordings of tenors like Araiza, Blake, Ford, Valetti and Alva. I am a fan of singing in general and there is something special about all of the singers I mentioned, whether it be phrasing, vocal color, breath control, technical prowess or sheer elegance in singing.
AL: There is something quintessentially electrifying about hearing a great voice launch a volley of top Cs, and in your case Ds, Es and Fs. Have you always had such an extensive upper register, and what have you done to cultivate and develop its usage over the years?
LB: As a child I had a very high voice. In fact, when I would sing at church in a group with my sisters, I would sing higher than some of them as well. My voice did go through puberty, but the highness remained and it has always been the easiest part of my singing. That being said, over the years I've had great instruction and my teachers have been instrumental in helping me retain the placement, but in a way that's connected to my whole body.
AL: Who are your role models from the world of bel canto?
LB: Rocky Blake, Cesare Valetti, Alfredo Kraus (I was born on the same day as Kraus; November, 24), Fritz Wunderlich, Bruce Ford, Francisco Araiza, and many more.
AL: You have just received glowing praise for your singing of Rinaldo in Rossini’s Armida at the Metropolitan Opera (click here to read a review), an opera which features six tenor roles. Can you tell us a little about this experience - both about the production and why this particular score appealed to you?
LB: What a tremendous joy I had with Armida. I had the great pleasure of working with Renée Fleming who is a wonderful colleague and singer. In addition, I was in a cast with my buddies (John Osborn, Barry Banks, José Manuel Zapata, and Kobie van Rensburg) and we all share our mutual respect for one another. Riccardo Frizza, the Conductor, is also a dear friend and excellent musician, so it was an enjoyable experience from a standpoint of the "work environment." The role of Rinaldo itself is one I grew into. It is a challenging and demanding role because of its extreme vocal range; it features both low C's and High D's that appear within the first few pages of his music (there is even a low A-flat, but I had to take it up an octave because I cannot sing that low), and the same low C's and high D's at the end of the Third Act. Pacing myself through the evening and understanding how to warm up was important to me over the course of the run and helped me to be more successful and secure in the role. I enjoyed it immensely and I'm looking forward to reprising it at the Met next year as well.
AL: Of all the tenor roles you have so far performed which is your favourite and why?
LB: This is not so easy to answer because I find something gratifying in many the roles. I enjoy singing fast, high, melismatic music, but I also enjoy the long expansive legato lines of a role like Arturo in I Puritani. The entire third Act for Arturo is fiendishly difficult, but the most gratifying I have ever sung, I believe. I also appreciate its dramatic challenges which are a departure from the often one-dimensional roles I normally play in Rossini.
AL: Do you consider there to be a great deal of difference between the operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini, or do they all require the same stylistic approach when singing?
LB: I find both similarities and differences in the works of the three major bel canto composers. They were contemporaries of one another, so I am sure they had many of the same influences. All three wrote exquisitely but Rossini is more virtuosic and florid. Donizetti, I find more dramatic and a bit lower of tessitura. Bellini is written in a very high tessitura and calls for the most sensitive singing at times. I don't approach them all the same way, but I try to understand how to use my voice to capture what the composer intended whether it be to show technical mastery or seamless legato.
AL: Although you have made notable debuts in many roles, your Arturo in I Puritani, your Tonio in La fille du Régiment and your Conte Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, has made people realise that yours is in fact a very rare voice indeed, with a range even more extensive than Juan Diego Flórez. How do you ensure that you only choose the roles which are right for your voice type and refuse those which although attractive, may indeed prove harmful?
LB: Thankfully, I have a small, select group of advisers who know my voice and also its limitations. From the beginning of my career I have been warned of the negative repercussions a voice can endure when taking on too much, so I have resisted the temptation to step into rep that is not suitable. There are times to accept a challenge, but I always sing anything I sing with my voice, and I make the role suitable and never try to make my voice suitable for the role.
AL: You were last in London in 2005, when you sang the stratospheric role of Syme in Maazel’s adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 at the Royal Opera. What was the experience like working at Covent Garden and also appearing in a world premiere?
LB: The role of Syme was my debut into Covent Garden. It was exciting to be singing a role that was created based on the specific characteristics of my voice. I must mention how grateful I am to Mo. Maazel for having given me such an important opportunity to take part in that project. Although Syme is an extremely demanding and high role, it is much more diverse than my “normal” repertoire. I enjoyed my time there at the ROH, and I would love to sing one of my signature roles at Covent Garden if the opportunity presents itself.
AL: Your St John’s Smith Square (Rosenblatt Series) recital marks your UK recital debut. Can you tell us a little about the repertoire selection for this occasion and why you chose it?
LB: I selected repertoire that is versatile, in order to illustrate different music from that which is more usual for me. I have long loved French music so I included the Duparc set which I find is full of contrasting colors and subtleties. The Liszt songs of Petrarch are like arias and provide a full scope of dramatic challenges. The John Carter Cantata gives me the opportunity to touch into my African- American roots with an interesting take on traditional Negro Spirituals. The Mozart and the chosen arias show the technical demands of singing. There is much room for versatility.
AL: What plans do you have for extending your repertoire and are there any upcoming recordings in the pipeline?
LB: I am adding the role of Elvino in Sonnambula this year, and I hope to sing more Mozart in the future. I will also be recording the Rossini Stabat Mater this summer with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia for EMI conducted by Antonio Pappano. There are a few other projects being discussed at this time, but nothing that I can mention right now.
AL: Looking ahead, are there any further plans to return to the UK within the next few years?
LB: As of now I have no future engagements in London, but I would love to be back singing here as soon as possible.
To find out more about the career of Lawrence Brownlee, I would highly recommend taking a look at his detailed and informative website. Click here to be re-directed.
Photography Credits: (1) LB by Marty Umans; (2) LB in Medea in Corinto by Tanja Dorendorf; (3) LB in Armida by Ken Howard; (4) LB and Renee Fleming in Armida by Ken Howard; (5) LB in La fille du Regiment by Ken Howard; (6) LB; (7) LB in L'Italiana in Algeri by C.Tamoni