Tenor Lawrence Brownlee is one of the most in demand bel canto tenors working today. Born in Youngstown, Ohio, he grew up playing trumpet, guitar and drums, and sang in the local church choir, directed by his father. In high school, a teacher heard something in Brownlee’s voice and encouraged him to study music.
At the time, Brownlee didn’t know anything about opera, but he grew to love it through his university studies in Indiana and time spent in the young artist program at Seattle Opera and the Wolf Trap Opera Company. In 2001, at 29, Brownlee won the grand prize at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. The prize brought him instant publicity and opera roles at the Met and elsewhere, including the world-famous La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy.
He became known for singing roles in operas that demand his particular bel canto voice — a traditional vocal style that emphasizes the beauty of the voice rather than its expression of emotion or drama — but he’s also branched out from that. In 2015, he played Charlie Parker in the opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, an exploration of the jazz virtuoso’s life and times. He has also recorded albums of songs and spirituals, including his most recent project, Rising, for which he commissioned six African American composers to write songs based on words by poets of the Harlem Renaissance.
Brownlee’s struggles to become an artist in the world of opera can be summed up by something one of his high school teachers told him about being a black musician: “You have to be better, just to be equal. And then you have to be special.” He’s conscious of the work of Black singers of the past having helped him achieve what he has, and he intends to help open doors for younger singers.
Host: Vernon Neal
Producer: Dan Nass
Writers: Andrea Blain and Scott Blankenship
Executive Producer: Julie Amacher
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