My First Opera | Lawrence Brownlee

Photo of Lawrence Brownlee by David White.

My first opera wasn’t one that I saw — I was in it. I had just gotten to Anderson University in Indiana, where I was going to study as a voice major, and I met another student in the hallway. “Hi, my name is Larry,” I said, and she said, “Oh, you’re Tamino!” I said, “What’s a Tamino?” I had no idea that I had been cast in The Magic Flute — in fact, I didn’t know what The Magic Flute was.

That same year, I actually got to see an opera for the first time: The Ballad of Baby Doe, at Indianapolis Opera. Unlike The Magic Flute, which we did with a piano in the school auditorium, this was a full-scale opera, in a place that was specifically set up for opera performances, with an orchestra and chorus, props, costumes, and lighting. All of these things told me “This is what opera is.” When I was a kid, I thought opera was all fat ladies; that people broke glass when they sang; that you couldn’t understand what they were saying because it was in a foreign language; and that it was boring. My view was changed by the fact that this was in English and you could understand what was going on. It let me know that opera could be enjoyable. That transformed me.

Rob Orth was Horace Tabor in that production. I met him backstage at Wolf Trap recently and told him about the impression that performance made. It
was nice to be able to say, “You’re part of the reason I’m here today.” But I’m afraid I made him feel old!

I was studying voice because people said I had a gift that was appropriate to the world of opera. I was always musical: My mother told me that when I was a kid, I’d sing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in my sleep. My father led the church choir, and if something was wrong — if somebody was slightly flat — I’d tell him, because it rang so strongly in my ear. I played drums, the bass guitar and the trumpet. The first time I was singled out for my voice was when I sang a solo in church at age 11 or 12. People were so positive about it that it made me nervous. To be honest, I hated singing in public at first, because I felt so exposed, but eventually I got over my shyness.

When I was a freshman in high school, in Youngstown, Ohio, I got the big solo in the Christmas chorus concert. My sisters couldn’t believe it — they knew there were seniors who were the singers at school, but when I auditioned, the teacher gave me the solo on the spot. I had no idea what classical singing was about, but I could sing high and with intensity. I wanted to be a lawyer (with three older sisters, I was good at getting out of a pickle), so when people would talk to me about being an opera singer, I’d think, “Opera — are you nuts?” But my senior year I got into a program for gifted high school musicians to study with graduate students at Youngstown State University. At the end of the year, there was a recital for all of us, and I got an overwhelming
response from the audience. Afterwards, a Youngstown professor came up to me and said, “I don’t know who you are, but you need to pursue this.”

When people would talk to me about being an opera singer, I’d think, “Opera — are you nuts?”

My sophomore year at Anderson University, I entered the regional competition of NATS, the National Association of Teachers of Singing. I sang “Ecco, ridente” from The Barber of Seville and it was fine. I could sing high and I could sing fast. But there was a baritone in my age group who also had a good voice, only his singing was more refined, more detailed and more captivating from a dramatic standpoint. He won first place in our category; I won third place. But I wasn’t discouraged: I thought, “I’ll see that guy next year.”

Lawrence Brownlee (at right) with baritone Will Liverman in Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette A. Wimberly’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” at New York’s Apollo Theater in April 2016 (photo: Sofia Negron).

The experience made me realize that singing opera is about a lot more than having a good voice and a high C. It’s a deeper thing. It’s about inhabiting the character and making the role a part of you. That was the era when The Three Tenors were selling out stadiums. I saw Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti on television and their eloquence overwhelmed me — without understanding a word of what they were singing, I knew what they were saying.

For the next NATS competition, I prepared “Che gelida manina” from Bohème. It’s not right for me, but I knew I could sell it well. But I also knew I had to take all of it very seriously. I spent a year working on that aria. It wasn’t just a matter of memorizing the words and music: I had to take ownership of what I presented to the audience.

On the bus ride to the competition, I thought, “Maybe the guy who was so good last year won’t be there.” But when we got there — guess who was the first person I ran into. So we did the preliminary round, then the finals, and I sang my heart out. Well, this time around I won. Not only did I win in my category; at the end of the ceremony they gave out an award for the overall competition. When they read out the name “Larry Brownlee,” I couldn’t believe what was happening.

The difference between the two competitions was that now I had a real idea about what makes opera special. Afterward one of the teachers came up to me and said, “You have to keep doing this. You were born to sing.” I took her advice, and from there I never looked back.

Lawrence Brownlee, one of the world’s leading bel canto tenors, has sung the
works of Rossini and Bellini on the world’s leading opera stages, including the
Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala, the Bavarian State Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera. He recently appeared in the New York premiere of
Charlie Parker’s Yardbird — the first opera ever to be staged in the legendary Apollo Theater.

This article was excerpted from the Summer 2016 issue of Opera America Magazine, the quarterly of the national nonprofit service organization for opera. Members of OPERA America receive the print and digital editions of Opera America Magazine as a benefit of membership. Join today.

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