Lawrence Brownlee talks about finding a sense of place — and an emotional connection — in three different songs: L'Esule (The Exile) and La Danza (The Dance) by Gioachino Rossini, and L'amor Funesto (Unhappy Love) by Gaetano Donizetti.
A debut at the Metropolitan Opera is an opera singer's dream. It's about to become a reality for tenor Lawrence Brownlee.
Last year, Brownlee won the Richard Tucker award and the Marian Anderson award — two of the biggest prizes for rising singers. And this Thursday in New York, he takes center stage at the Met, singing the role of the love-struck Count Almaviva, in Rossini's The Barber of Seville.
Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Brownlee played trumpet, guitar and drums, and sang gospel music in church.
"I would say that the flexibility that I have with my voice is in large part because I sang gospel in church," he says. "It's a lot of improvisational singing with a lot of ... riffs or runs. I think that gave me a lot of flexibility to be able to make some of these things sound fresh."
He recalls that his parents at times "forced" him to sing — though he was always embarrassed when he sang lead — and didn't seriously consider a singing career until he was a junior in college.
In college, Brownlee became enthralled by the big, passionate singing of the Three Tenors: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. Brownlee sang along in the car, at first making up his own words, later going to the library to get the actual lyrics. He wanted to sing their repertoire — in particular, powerful arias like those from Puccini's La Boheme.
But Brownlee's teacher, Fritz Robertson, convinced him that his voice was not built for that kind of sound, and that he could seriously harm his voice singing that way. Brownlee's voice had a different weight — and instead of Puccini, Brownlee's teacher saw that he would be much more at home in the lighter, faster realm of bel canto composers such as Donizetti and Rossini.
A perfectionist who has a hard time listening to his own voice, Brownlee says that he'd never sat down to listen to his own solo CD of Italian songs, released last year.
Brownlee says he hopes he can "transport" the audience.
"When they see me, they may think, 'Hmm, I don't know if he looks like a prince — or those clothes, if he would wear that.' But what I'm doing through my performance will take their mind away from all of those things. And after they leave, they'll be able to say, 'He was the Count, he was Tamino, he was Ferrando, you know, he was that character.' And something that I do will touch them."
Features in this series are produced by David Schulman and NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr.