Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Meet Our Singers: LAWRENCE BROWNLEE, Tonio

Superstar tenor Lawrence Brownlee is a great friend of Seattle Opera. One of the most accomplished alumni of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program, this amazing singer is in demand the world over, wherever bel canto is performed. We’ve had the great good fortune in Seattle to hear him in operas by all three of the great bel canto composers: Rossini (L’italiana in Algeri and Il barbiere di Siviglia), Bellini (I puritani), and Donizetti (Don Pasquale and now La fille du rĂ©giment.) We checked in the other day and chatted about this particular role, about his relationship with fellow Seattle Opera YAP Alum and co-star Sarah Coburn (the daughter of our regiment), and about the future of the Young Artists Program.

Lawrence Brownlee singing "Pour me rapprocher"

Thanks for joining me today, Larry! Let’s talk about high notes. Should we be impressed by anyone who has the ability to sing 9 high Cs in a row?
Ok, now, I’ve done this aria, “Ah, mes amis,” for many years, and yes, people are fascinated by the fact that there are 9 high Cs. But I actually sing roles with more than that in a single aria—I think Le Comte Ory has 11 in one aria, and Zelmira has several high Ds. But people know this one, and it can be impressive; but the more difficult aria is the second act aria, “Pour me rapprocher de Marie,” which has a high C# and which has challenges of line, legato phrasing, breath control, all those things.

Sarah Coburn and Lawrence Brownlee at Daughter of the Regiment rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

That second act aria, that’s the one that’s going to make you cry. Or at least it should, as opposed to “Ah, mes amis,” which is just a guy who’s all “Woo-hoo! I’m happy, happy, happy!”
Right, he’s exuberant. But the thing is, if you have a high C in your voice, the way that aria is written, it’s not such a difficult feat. With “Pour me rapprocher,” it is difficult really to SAY something.

Lawrence Brownlee at Daughter of the Regiment rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

What does it feel like, to nail “Ah, mes amis?” You must have that moment of: “All right! I did it!”
You pace yourself from the beginning so you can build up to that moment, because you know that a lot of people who are coming to Daughter of the Regiment are coming to hear whether the tenor can sing the 9 high Cs. So you want to try and deliver something that’s exciting and full of energy. You have to have a cool head and a warm heart, and hopefully it comes off without a hitch.

Lawrence Brownlee (Almaviva), Sarah Coburn (Rosina), and David Hogan (Ambrogio) in The Barber of Seville, 2011
Alan Alabastro, photo

The last time you sang for us, you were Rossini’s Count Almaviva—masquerading as a poor student, a drunken soldier, a conniving music teacher, and finally revealed to be a haughty nobleman. Tonio is a much, much simpler character. How do you make him three-dimensional?
This character can come off as a bit of a buffoon. I just try to make him sincere. He really is in love—if you think of what he does, the great lengths to which he goes—he joins an army, and not even his own army, all for a girl. Think about that. Patriotism, love for your own country, is so important...and yet because she’s made this promise that she wouldn’t marry anyone that wasn’t a part of the regiment, he sacrifices all that stuff to be close to her. And the tragedy is that when he does that, the minute he says to Sulpice and the regiment, “You have to let me marry her,” he’s told that she has to leave. So you make him feel those emotions sincerely: the excitement and the loss.

That’s so interesting how he switches national allegiance—in our production he’s a French guy who becomes an American soldier...
That’s right, you renounce who you are, in order to be with this girl. It’s that important to him. He’s not a coward. He’s come to this camp, in the beginning, he’s all alone; they think he’s a spy. But he’s not hiding anything. In fact he blurts out, “I love you! I came here to be close to you!”

How often have you played this role?
I think I’ve done it 6 or 7 times. I’ve done the Laurent Pelly production at the Met a few times, set in World War I; I’ve done it in Hamburg, in Cincinnati...

Have you and Sarah Coburn sung this together before?
No. This is the first time we’ve done Daughter of the Regiment.

Alex Hajek (Sulpice), Sarah Coburn (Marie), and Lawrence Brownlee (Tonio) rehearse Daughter of the Regiment
Alan Alabastro, photo

But you’ve done other operas with her, such as Barber of Seville here in 2011. And you go way back with her. Casting back, if you can, to 2002 in Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program...how are you both different?
Ah, but I actually met her in 2001. We met at the Met Auditions that year, we were both two of the ten finalists. How have we changed? We’ve grown. It’s wonderful to watch her grow as an artist. She knows I’m a great fan of her singing. And her career is going very well, she’s worked with important people at all the right places. And I think she is a great musician. We have a very close relationship, we’re regularly in touch, talking about things, from parenthood to politics. I’d like to think that she treats me as a bit of a big brother, even though I’m not!

And have you also learned about yourself, watching your own growth and career reflected in Sarah?
I think so. The more you respect someone, the more you realize what you’re doing yourself. That respect or admiration says something about what you offer as a singer.

Now as you know, Seattle Opera was happy to announce that we balanced our budget last season; but one of the keys to fiscal stability has been this hiatus for our Young Artists Program. What advice do you have to the new General Director, in terms of the next step with that on-hiatus program?
As a former Young Artist, I find that the program is of course extremely close to my heart. I came here in the fall of 2000, and the relationships I made in the program have been so important to me—with Speight, with Perry Lorenzo, Kathy Magiera, Dean Williamson, Chuck Hudson, and so many other people. Some of the people have changed, but a lot of them are still here, which says a lot about the culture of Seattle Opera. And this Young Artists Program has done a lot to launch many people’s careers, people who are now working around the world. It’s sad to see it go. It’s part of a vision for the future of our art form, so I certainly hope that’s still part of what Seattle Opera does.

Lawrence Brownlee (Lindoro) in The Italian Girl in Algiers, 2006
Rozarii Lynch, photo

When you were in the program, in 00/01 and 01/02, the big production was always over in Bellevue. In the last few years, that switched to giving Young Artists more opportunities on the mainstage.
Yes, like when we did Barber of Seville two years ago, and Daniel Scofield was Fiorello and Adrian Rosas was the Sergeant. Having traveled to lots of companies with Young Artists Programs, yes, people do that all the time. Andrew Stenson, who’s doing the other performances of Tonio here, is a Young Artist at the Met right now, and is singing roles at the Met. They trust these people, and invest in them—with the best stage directors and conductors, on one of the best stages in the world. It’s a mark of the faith they have in these young singers, that they can put them in front of the public. I think that opportunity is necessary, to attract the highest caliber young singers. I certainly gained enormously from having such opportunities, as a Young Artist.

Norah Amsellem (Elvira) and Lawrence Brownlee (Arturo) in I puritani, 2008

Is Daughter of the Regiment a good opera for kids?
I think it’s a great opera for anybody. It’s something people can easily follow; it’s light enough, you’re not going to go home depressed. This is an opera where you can go away humming the tunes. The costumes and dancing and chorus and everything that’s going on is captivating, and I think people will say, “That wasn’t fluff—that was good, clean, honest fun.”

Have your kids heard any of this opera?
My kids are very little; my son is 3, and my daughter is not yet 2. But we played a clip of this opera for my son, a little video of me singing the high Cs in Berlin. He was fixated on it, and—we have a video of his reaction, too, it’s really cute—he turns to my wife and nods his head, as if to say, “That was okay. I approve!”

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