Lawrence Brownlee brings his bel canto tenor to Shriver Hall for a new song cycle focused on American black men
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
Feb 22, 2020 | 1:08 PM
There are certain perks that come with being an internationally renowned opera singer. There’s the travel, of course, and the public showering of praise after a job well done. For tenor Lawrence Brownlee, though, the biggest perk is how his platform can now lend support to other projects.
Brownlee has made a name for himself as one of the world’s best bel canto tenors, meaning that his voice is particularly suited to the lyrical, agile singing required for early 19th century Italian operas. (Think Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini.) It was in the role of Almaviva in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” that Brownlee made his professional debut in 2002; since then, he has reprised Almaviva with opera companies all over the world, and is repeatedly hailed as one of (if not the) best Rossini tenors performing today.
But over the past few years, fans have been just as likely to see Brownlee slipping into new, experimental roles as Almaviva’s stylish frock coat.
This Sunday, Brownlee will bring one such project to local audiences with the Baltimore premiere of “Cycles of My Being,” a song cycle made in collaboration with composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes that investigates the experience of living as a black man in today’s America.
Brownlee traces the origins of the project to a sleepless night several years ago, when his head was filled with thoughts of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and numerous other black Americans who have either been killed by police or lost their lives while in custody.
“I woke up, and I just started writing,” Brownlee remembered. “I started pondering hate. Hate takes on many shapes. It is subtle but it’s also overt. Passive but also wrapped in disguise. What does that mean?”
As he wrote, Brownlee was struck with the idea that this subject should become the basis for a song cycle. At the time, he was also preparing “Dichterliebe” for a performance, the Robert Schumann song cycle that tells the story of a man lamenting and eventually coming to peace with a failed love affair.
“Dichterliebe” is a staple of Romantic repertoire, and the parallel seemed obvious. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great as a black man in America to be able to have something that speaks to our story as well?” Brownlee said in an interview. “That’s how the idea came about — programming a recital.”
Sunday’s performance will see this pairing come to life, as Brownlee performs both “Dichterliebe” and “Cycles of My Being” with pianist Myra Huang, who specializes in collaborating with vocalists on lieder and art songs.
That sleepless night provided Brownlee with more than the idea of the program. Brownlee described the authorship of the libretto as “about 70 percent” by Terrance Hayes and 30 percent by himself, with the text of the fourth movement, “Hate,” coming from the reflections he penned that night.
“Hate” and the opening movement, “Inhale, Exhale,” provide some of the most direct text of the cycle. It is easy, for instance, to read lines from “Inhale, Exhale” (“America — do you care for me as I care for you? / Do you love the air in me, as I love the air in you?”) as explicit commentary on Eric Garner, who died from a police officer’s chokehold in 2014; Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry at Black Lives Matter events and other protests against police violence.
The rest of the text in this six-movement, roughly 40-minute work is rather abstract, meditating more on an internal emotional struggle than specific events — though it is clear the speaker’s anguish comes from external treatment.
According to Brownlee, the flexibility of the text is intentional. It was “meant to describe the complexity of a black man,” he said. “It doesn’t have this nice and neat narrative. We go through different things.”
While the work is meant to speak to, and for, a particular demographic, “Cycles” does not intend to portray black men as “this monolithic type of person,” said Brownlee. “There are some black men in America who are very angry, very militant. They feel oppressed. They feel pressed down. They feel that on a day-to-day basis and they react to it.”
Brownlee, by contrast, describes himself as “a pretty calm person,” even in his own experiences with discrimination, as well as someone who feels like “a citizen of the world” — he has performed in 47 different countries. “But that’s a part of ‘Cycles’ as well,” he said. “That’s all in the pot.”
Collaborating with artists, then, who could bring their own experiences and voices to the project was essential. And despite not knowing each other beforehand, Brownlee recalled both Tyshawn Sorey and Terrance Hayes (both of whom are recipients of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, among other awards) as “from day one, eager to contribute and be a part of this creation.”
Which comes back to the idea of platform. Diversity, as in other places, has become something of a buzzword among classical music organizations over the past 10 or so years; but it’s one thing to espouse the idea as a kind of virtue-signaling, quite another to enact changes that will actually make classical music a more democratic art form.
That “Cycles” premiered at Opera Philadelphia was not by coincidence: Since 2017, Brownlee has served as the organization’s artistic advisor, a role in which, among other things, he works on initiatives that court wider audiences. In this sense, “Cycles” can be seen as part of a larger effort to program works that honor lives that have been historically marginalized within classical music.
“YARDBIRD,” an opera about the life of Charlie Parker, which Opera Philadelphia premiered in 2015 with Lawrence Brownlee in the title role, is another example; as is “Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine,” the 2016 opera (with music by Tyshawn Sorey) that re-imagines the life of singer and activist Joséphine Baker.
For Brownlee, it’s also not a coincidence that he’s able to turn his attention to such projects at this point in his life. “I wasn’t doing this in the beginning of my career,” he said. “A lot of people know me [as] the bel canto guy. But I needed to establish that first. Now, because of the cache I feel I’ve built up, I am able to expand and do passion projects, things that are heavy on my heart or things that I just really enjoy doing.”
The result is works that have real effect. Brownlee remembered the audience at the premiere of “Cycles of My Being” as “probably 70 percent African-American.”
That’s important not just for classical musicians who “want to look out into the audience and see people that look like [them],” said Brownlee, but also for any fellow musicians or potential classical music fans among the audience.
“Classical music is an acquired taste,” Brownlee said. “But what we want to do is make sure people know that this is for everyone. To tell them of the great legacy of people like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Paul Robeson — there are so many who made tremendous contributions to this art form. [We want] to open this to them, and invite them. Come join us and experience what we love so much.”
IF YOU GO
Lawrence Brownlee and Myra Huang perform “Dichterliebe” and “Cycles of My Being” at Shriver Hall as part of the Shriver Hall Concert Series, 3400 N. Charles St., Sunday, Feb. 23 at 5:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $42, student prices $10.
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.