Star tenor Lawrence Brownlee has always strived to live his life being the best version of himself, always trying to perfect who he is as an artist. He testifies that this can be done by positioning yourself and looking at how you can maximize what it is you have. Lawrence is one of the most in-demand opera singers today and has starred in opera companies around the world in cities such as New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Seattle, London, Milan, Salzburg, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Munich, and many more. Today, he sits down with Elizabeth Bachman to talk about the opera industry, give some advice to young people at the beginning of their careers, and share the lessons he learned from a bad performance.
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The Best Possible YOU – A Star Tenor Talks About Positioning With Lawrence Brownlee
Part Of “The Relationship Between Business And Art”
This is the show where we talk about how to use presentation skills to get the results you need. A lot of that is about leadership and visibility that is behind the desire and the willingness to step up and make a presentation. I’m happy to have my wonderful friend, Lawrence Brownlee. He is an international tenor. Before we get into it, I want to ask you who your dream interview would be? If you could share the stage with somebody from history, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be in the audience?
If I had a dream interview, it would be Harriet Tubman. Who would be in the audience? Probably, all the graduating seniors of 2020, college and high school people who are trying to figure out what they’re going to do and what’s the next chapter in this uncertainty.
For the sake of our readers who didn’t grow up with us history, who was Harriet Tubman and why do we care?
Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist and led many slaves to freedom.
Explain abolitionists please.
An abolitionist was someone who fought against segregation, who tried to break down the system of slavery and racism. Someone who promoted and was in tune with the idea of freedom for all. Someone who broke down slavery and racism.
During the lead up to the American Civil War in the 1860s.
Late 1800s, early 1900s period of time.
What would you ask her?
I would ask her, “When you escaped to freedom the first time, why wasn’t that enough for you? Why did you go back and lead almost 70 people to freedom? Especially, if you escape the chase wants, why would you put yourself in mortal danger because it was sure that you would die if you were caught leading others to freedom, but you did this over again?” That fascinates me, that intestinal fortitude and that desire to help people so much. That would be my question to Harriet Tubman.
Bearing in mind that in those days it was on foot. She was escaping from probably two months of walking.
There were no Greyhound buses or large capacitor vans to help 15 to 20 people at once. It was probably a few people at that time. There were always slave patrols and people that were constantly on the chase because it was an economic thing. If slaves were missing, it was an economic loss to the slave owners. People were definitely interested in recapturing those slaves. She was in imminent danger all the time. She still went and let these people constantly over again to freedom. That inspires me so much.
It should also be pointed out that the American Civil War, the North fought against the South, not just because it was an industrial society against an agrarian society, but also because the South had free labor. In the North, they had to pay people and suppressing the whole idea of the South getting rich off of free labor. It wasn’t all sweetness, enlightened purity. There were economic reasons behind it.
It was largely and mostly economical, if I can say that.
That’s probably why anybody goes to war. Morals are great, but money is a bigger mover.It was all legal.
How do you describe yourself when you’re talking to non-opera people?
I try to be a humble guy and I say, “I’m a normal guy who happens to see sing opera.” I love all my hobbies. In addition to playing instruments, I am in love with salsa dancing. I also play tennis and table tennis. As the saying goes the, “Jack of all trades, but the master of none.” Whatever I like, I like. I consider myself a normal guy with a lot of passions that I always try to get myself into.
You have a photography company too?You can't be a generalized cookie cutter anything; you need to find one thing that you feel you excel at and go after that thing. Click To Tweet
You can call it a photography company and many of my colleagues in the opera business use my photos as their professional headshots. I appreciate that. It’s a passion and a hobby of mine. I don’t think I’ve charged any of those people that are using those headshots. A company usually makes money, but I don’t make money there. It’s another outlet for me. Myself being an opera singer, I like to have my skill that I do, but have other things that I’m always a student at. That’s the basis of it.
For our non-opera audience, you’re a tenor who sings high and fast. Can you talk a little bit about how you describe your niche?
When I was studying music many years ago in university, I went to a small school called Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. I went to do my Master’s at Indiana University. When I was trying to figure out what type of singer I was, my teachers knew that I had a high voice. One teacher in particular, introduced me to the music of Gioachino Rossini from Italy. There’s a style called bel canto, which means beautiful singing, but this music is about singing high melodic lines with fast moving notes. If anyone knows what gospel is, you have a lot of melodramatic move me notes.
Stevie Wonder, even some of these current singers, they sing a lot of fast notes. That’s where my basis came from singing gospel and church. I had the flexibility in my voice to move it around. When he introduced me to Rossini, he said that this is probably what I was born to sing. I sing that music that comes from the late 1600s into the 1700s. Other composers are Bellini and Donizetti. That’s the bulk of the repertoire that I sing. I’m fortunate to be able to sing and get in places like Italy, France, Germany, Spain, New York and all over the world. That’s what I am a bel canto tenor.
The reason why I wanted to put together this special series is to talk to some of my fellow arts professionals. You and I met at the Houston Grand Opera. I had heard about you, but you were singing in La Cenerentola in one rehearsal room and I was working across the hall, directing Faust and we end up having a lot of lunches and dinners together. Being a tenor is important and they always talk about tenors and how few people can actually sing this range. Only about 5% of people who study it wind up making a career. Do you have any thoughts about what you did in terms of maybe mentorship and allies that got you to the point of being visible, being heard and being accepted?
I have to say early in my career, I had teachers that told me that, “You have to focus in on what you are. You can’t be a generalized cookie cutter. You need to find one thing that you feel that you excel at and go after that thing.” Since I zeroed in on this bel canto repertoire, this is a category or genre of the classical world that is pretty rare as most people talk. It’s difficult as some people say to move your voice around and to have this flexibility. If you have this natural innate ability to sing this, this already gives you an advantage. Also, since having a higher voice that moves and being able to work in different languages, this opened up many possibilities. I had some people from Italy and learn it with who I got a chance to work with in my studies that directed me in the right way. They told me the repertoire that I should focus on.
In university graduate school, when I was singing operas, most of the things I got a chance to perform on this stage were specifically in this category. I was focusing in on bel canto and the mentors that I had along the way, steered me correctly. When I started going into different arenas, being on bigger stages or more focused areas where people were looking for talent, thankfully I felt like the skills I had been working on had been polished enough that people wanted to take a chance on me. They gave me the opportunity to be successful at higher-level competitions like The Metropolitan Opera Competition, which is one of the most important vocal competitions in the world. For those of you who are not opera lovers. It’s highly visible and all the agents, directors and everyone come to see who’s the next big thing. I was fortunate to be one of the winners of this in 2001. That was essentially the real beginning of my career.
Let’s talk about race because you’re African-American. What is it like? What challenges have you had to deal with as an African-American performer? Especially, as a man who’s supposed to be the romantic lead?
Tenors are always the romantic leads. As an African-American man, I’m not very tall either. I’m about 5’6” or 5’5.5”, but needing to play the romantic lead in a European art form, the origins from Europe. A lot of times when the roles were written, they weren’t written with the person that looks like me in mind. Thankfully, in the beginning of my career, I had people all along who encouraged me and told me that I had to believe in my talent and I was born in meant to saying this. I’ve had some difficulties along the way. I’ve had people even tell me now, that I’ve been fortunate to be successful, that they blocked me and intentionally, made it hard for me because they didn’t believe that I would have a career in this.
Being a child in a family, 1 of 6 kids, our father and mother gave us a great belief in who we were. I had a lot of confidence, but that confidence was always built on hard work. I worked hard and my dad told me a long time ago, “Worry about the things you can control and the other stuff, let it go.” I focused on my acting and my languages, my musicality, my preparation being always on time, being a good colleague and then trying to deliver the music with something special. That has been the thing, regardless of the fact that someone would look at me and say, “You’re a black man. You don’t necessarily fit the mold.” Along the way, working on my acting and trying to be a credible, believable person on stage, that has served me well. Thankfully, it’s been something that has allowed me to go to all the great stages of the world.
I’ve never forgotten years ago. It may have been that time when we first met in Houston that you had worked with my wonderful friend, Edoardo Müller, the wonderful Italian conductor. He had said to you, “You cannot change the color of your skin. You cannot change your height and both of those don’t fit the normal categories. You have to be so good that they cannot use that as an excuse to turn you down.”
He was one of many people that said, “There should be no reason for them not to hire you, because if someone says you’re short and black, but you are coming in and you have a voice that is absolutely for this. You are the best audition of the day, move people to tears. You inspire people and sing this piece as if the composer wrote it for you. There’s no reason.” I worried about those things that I could control and Edoardo Müller was one of the people in the very beginning of my career, who was excited about my talent. He didn’t have to. This is someone who had a big career, but he believed in what it was that I had in me. He wanted to promote that. That’s the thing that I appreciate about many people that are people that have helped me in my career. It was more about me and helping me, uh, get this talent that I was blessed without. Edoardo Müller, Speight Jenkins, Stephen Lord are people that all supported me very early in my career.
International conversation is a big theme of this show. One of the reasons this show is Speakers Who Get Results, is because if you are communicating in order to get a result such as singing and audition, you have to take into account who’s listening and what their expectations are. You’re a big star now, but before you became a big star, what is the difference as an African-American singing in the US and in any of the other countries?
It seems like opera came from Europe. People have a great appreciation of it. In other countries, there’s racism that exists everywhere. There’s something unique about the racism here in America. We could get into that talking about discrimination, police, brutality and many other things. There are higher hierarchal differences or class differences and racism in the UK or in Italy and France and all these other places, but it’s not as much as it is. It seems to be so pervasive here in the United States. That being said, when I go to Europe, especially at the beginning of my career, before people knew who I was, I had my head down and I was forging ahead. I wasn’t paying attention to racism necessarily. It seemed less present than it was in the States in some of these other places. I was focused on trying to do my job well.
In the beginning of my career, I had an agent who said, “Your job is to be hired again.” I went there to the companies, making sure that I gave the best representation of myself, tried to be a good colleague, tried to do what I was hired to do. That’s what I went on. Racism does exist, but it’s a lot more prevalent or it seems a lot more visible here in the States, than some of the other countries that I’ve been to. There are 47 countries in my life. There have been times where people look at me differently. I remember being in Kazakhstan. Someone stopped me in the middle of the airport and wanted to take a picture with me. I don’t think they had ever seen another black person in real life. I don’t call that racism. I think people are fascinated by the fact they see a person, especially from the United States who’s black. I don’t try to focus so much on that.
The lesson then might be to be as good as you can be. How does this fit into how you position yourself? It’s not necessarily racism, but in all of this, what could someone who’s not one of the few singers who can actually manage this repertoire, you’re one of the best of the best, how could an ordinary person take a lesson from your experience in terms of showing up or branding?
My mother is being the best version of myself. Even when I see someone who does the same thing that I do, for me, it’s never a competition. I don’t get jealous of someone else’s success because I’m always trying to perfect who I am as an artist. I can be the best version of myself, but the worst version of someone else. As long as I’m worrying about myself, strengthening the things that I do well, focusing on doing those things is highlighting my strengths and not showing my weaknesses so much, that’s what I think about. That’s what I was do. The best version of myself, try to look at how I can maximize what it is I have and then if you’re competing with yourself, you’re never disappointed. The minute you begin to try to compare what you’ve done to someone else or to try to get on someone else’s level, or to look at their success and coveted, that’s where you start to go wrong. If you can continue to reinvent yourself and to try to keep going with the times, you’ll be the happiest.
That’s a great way to think of it. You see young people come to you all the time, people at the beginning of their careers. Now that you and I have been doing it for a while, I started a little bit before you did, but people come to you for advice, how do you deal with those who are afraid to stand out and disturb things too much? A fear of pushback is what I’m trying to say.You have to be better and learn from situations that are not the most favorable. Click To Tweet
When people even talk about asking questions, the worst question is the one that wasn’t asked. If you don’t try, you’ll never know what you could have done or what you could become. For me, thankfully early on in my studies in my family, I was always encouraged by my parents to try. I’m one of these guys that I think is takes a little bit of effort to do anything. Even as far as like speaking languages and it’s not perfect, but I speak parts of four languages. That was something that I felt like, Rome wasn’t built in a day and it didn’t have to be overnight, but it’s been the collective time of my whole career that I’ve built on these things.
Every time I go back to this country, I should look, be a little bit better. When you think about the pushback and the fact that someone may reject you or someone may think you’re not built for this, I think that’s again, not worrying about yourself, but worrying about others. I’ve tried to spend as little time worrying about other people. People will be there to try to discourage and push you off your path and everything else. I am the most content inside myself, knowing that I gave the effort that because it is in me. I go with the confidence of the things that I’ve worked on, I’ve studied, built, and invested my time in day-by-day, not in five minutes but over the course of my career. I’m not worried about the pushback because I can sleep at night, knowing that I gave my best effort.
I should ask you the lesson you’ve learned from a time when you did a bad performance. We’ve all had the ones where we blew it. Could you talk about that?
I remember not being well one time and giving a performance because in our business, especially as opera singers, we get paid on a per performance basis. If you don’t do a performance, you don’t get paid. Especially, if this is your livelihood, “I have a family, wife and two kids. I still want to do my job and I want to get paid because this is the way we support ourselves.” I remember having a performance that was not good for me. I remember talking to my daughter, she was maybe two years old then. I said something to her, “Daddy was not good tonight.” She said, “That’s okay. You’re still my daddy.” It brought everything into perspective the world still goes on.
It is an art form. For me, I always say it is not about being perfect in a performance. Even though I thought it was bad, there were a lot of people who told me that they could see that I was struggling, but they appreciated my effort. There were some moments that were special because I put extra care in trying to be a better actor or communicator. My voice was not functioning. I was dealing with something. What I learned is that, it’s not that bad. When I think about some things or moments in life that seemed difficult, I remember about many years ago that I lost one of my dear friends to suicide. I remember someone saying about that, “You should never make a permanent decision off of a temporary problem.” When I’m on stage and it doesn’t go, it’s a temporary situation. If I’m doing the things to get better and to get healthier or to have a better next show, this is a temporary thing that my whole life shouldn’t be based on it. I’d let it roll off my back. I have this attitude that the next time I’ll do as well as I can.
One of the things that now at this stage in your career, you have some celebrity and so you are using it. If you have a name, you have a responsibility to use it, to talk about things. Tell us about The Sitdown with LB that you are doing. It’s a fascinating series of conversations.
The Sitdown with LB began out of COVID. We’re all at home, but it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long-time. I get a chance to travel the world, singing in the great theaters of the world. People begin to know who you are. I’ve been reached out by people, young tenors in general, but specifically young African-American tenors or young African-American singers in general. They have the question for me, “How did you make it? How did you become successful? What kept you going when I know that there have been doors slammed in your face, I know that people told you that it was not possible? What was it that drove you to continue doing it?”
When people ask me this all the time, when I was sitting at home in the middle of March 2020 and realizing that all my work for the rest of 2020 might be canceled that I wanted to be productive in some way. I thought it would be a good time to talk to some of my colleagues. I have a group of friends of mine. We talk about the mentors and it’s important that we do that. I started The Sitdown with LB to invite some of my colleagues that I respect and admire, to come and give their own accounts. Coupled with the things that I talk about and to give them some advice so they can navigate their budding careers, how they’re going to proceed in the future. We talk about everything from their life and their careers to discrimination, and even some things that people who are not black would never even think about.
I should point out that all of these guests are African-American opera singers with successful careers.
They are people who’ve been fortunate to sing in different areas too. I had George Shirley, who’s one of my idols. He’s 86 years old and lived through an era when it was probably even more difficult to be successful. He was the first African-American tenor to ever sing on the Metropolitan Opera Stage, which is considered by many of the most important opera stage in the world. He come and talk about our lives in discrimination. We talk about costuming, wigs, perception, international travel, how you’re perceived and many different things. There’s been a lot of positive feedback thus far, thankfully, and I’m having a lot of fun doing The Sitdown with LB.
In terms of costuming wigs, this actually goes to how do you adapt to your situation? This works for speakers as well is, how can you deal with the lighting if the lighting is designed to reflect lighter skin and you’ve got darker skin? How can you show up in a way when you can’t always control what it is? How can you still make sure that people see you?
You have to be better and learn from situations that are not the most favorable. I learned how to do my own makeup many years ago in one of the great divas, Martina Royal, when I was at Indiana University. She sat me down and taught me how to do my makeup. I didn’t know that I would need it so early in my career. I would then travel around with my own foundation. That is the basis of it especially under lights that weren’t made for skin that looks like mine. Black people have many different shades of black. I’m a darker black person, not the darkest and there is a certain amount of red that you have to have underneath your foundation, or else you come out looking like a ghost. I have those things in the past and even I’ve been able to tell a makeup artist here and there who didn’t have the experience of doing makeup for a person that looks like me. They were thankful because they wanted to improve as well and wanted to do their best job. You adapt and make sure you take care of yourself. if I’m there to be the leading tenor, I want to make sure I look the part as much as possible.
I remember seeing Lena Horne in her solo show, The Lady and Her Music back in the early ‘80s. She told the story of being the singer for the movie, Show Boat. She’s saying the role of Julie and Ava Gardner acted it. They were friends and Max Factor had to come up with a different color makeup for Lena Horne, who was a legitimately a movie star at that point, but he called it light Egyptian. It was done to lighten her face and then it was used again in Show Boat to darken Ava Gardner’s face so that Ava Gardner who’s playing a half-black, half-white character of Julie so that Ava Gardner looked more likely Horne. Ava Gardner said, “Lena, why don’t they have you do the part?” In Hollywood, in those days they couldn’t. I want to pursue this a little bit more. We’re recording this in June of 2020, and America has gone through 2.5 weeks of riots and demonstrations against racism, which is suddenly making your The Sitdown with LB very pertinent. Do you have any hopes and dreams for how this can go forward? You’re talking about opera, but in the context of what’s happening in America.
I’ve tried to use my platform as an opportunity to talk to people. I have many friends from many different races and I consider them friends. Based upon the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a lot of people have reached out to me, my Caucasian friends, white friends who wanted to know how they could be better. What I’ve done is restarted a book club that I used to lead another one of my hobbies. We’re going to discuss racism and I’m challenging people to be introspective, to look inside themselves, to begin to tear down these things, because I’m hoping that we’ll make tremendous strides in the future with discrimination, racism and equality.
It’s important for me. I am a musician, but because I get a chance to be visible and it important to a lot of musicians, it gives me a platform to be able to talk about something that I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about equal rights and the fact that police brutality should not be excessive to anyone, especially people of color. This book club that’s supposed to have a discussion coming up, already 300 people have signed up for it. Many people are wanting this. They want to know. They’re reading the book. They’re excited about the potential. Many people have written and said, “I know that I don’t need to say anything. I need to listen and because of what’s been happening I’m ready to listen to you.” That warms my heart and I’m excited about the potential of that.
Lawrence Brownlee is a man of multi-dimensional talents. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to interview you. I had one thought for those of you who are still stuck in thinking of the opera box, being able to use one’s position at one’s status in a company is the functional equivalent of, if you are at sea level or a senior director in a corporation, and you have something to say that sets you up as a thought leader, that is the same status. Lawrence, you are establishing yourself as a thought leader. It’s an exciting phrase. If you haven’t considered applying that to yourself, pocket in the back of your mind. One of these days, you’re going to have to move on to something else, opera being what it is. It’s like sports, after a while, somebody else comes along. We don’t know what’s happening.
We don’t know what the next chapter is.
- Lawrence Brownlee
- The Sitdown with LB
- @LawrenceBrownleeOfficial – Facebook
- @BrownLeeTenor – Twitter
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About Lawrence Brownlee
American-born tenor Lawrence Brownlee captivates audiences and critics around the world, and has been hailed as “an international star in the bel canto operatic repertory” (The New York Times), “one of the world’s leading bel canto stars” (The Guardian), and “one of the most in-demand opera singers in the world today” (NPR). A recent review of his Arturo in I Purtani left a reviewer to write, “If there is a finer Arturo in the world other than Lawrence Brownlee, I haven’t heard him, and I have heard them all.
He has starred in opera companies around the world in cities such as: New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Seattle, London, Milan, Salzburg, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Munich and many more.
A passionate advocate for diversity initiatives, Mr. Brownlee works with companies and engages civic entities in the cities he visits to create programs and experiences seeking to expand opera audiences. He will give a U.S.tour of solo recitals featuring his critically-acclaimed Cycles of My Being, a song cycle that centers on the black male experience in America today, including performances at Shriver Hall in Baltimore and at Gardner Museum Concerts in Boston. Following the successful Lawrence Brownlee and Friends concert at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Brownlee plans Giving Voice at Houston Grand Opera, created to celebrate Houston’s diverse community. A similar concert showcasing diversity and the power of song will be presented in Dallas.
He serves as artistic advisor for Opera Philadelphia where his responsibilities include increasing and expanding audience diversity, advocating for new works, and liaising with the General Director from the perspective of a performing artist. “As an artist, I think it is important that we are actively advocating for this beautiful art form we love so much” said Brownlee, “ensuring that it will be alive and well for many years to come.” Mr. Brownlee also serves as an Ambassador for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lyric Unlimited, and is a Peace Ambassador for a new initiative called Opera for Peace.
Complete bio found here: https://www.lawrencebrownlee.com/bio