Acclaimed for his astonishing range and expressiveness in opera, concert performances, and recitals, tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s many honors include being named the International Opera Awards' “Male Singer of the Year” in 2017. In this TIME IN interview, he talks about life during the pandemic, when he's been busy with family, sports, his own interview show, and creating new works with Opera Philadelphia to share the joy of opera with more people.
When the world shut down in March 2020, Larry was nearing the end of a U.S. recital tour, and happened to be between engagements, at home with his family in Florida. Although the pandemic led to cancelled live performances, it didn’t stop his artistic journey.
Among other projects, in May, he began The Sit Down with LB, a podcast over Zoom, featuring interviews with Denyse Graves, Soloman Howard, Angel Blue and other artists about life as an opera singer of African or African-American descent.
In his role as artistic advisor for Opera Philadelphia, he’s been working with General Director David Devan on the company’s new digital channel, which includes programs like Lawrence Brownlee and Friends, and a film version of Cycles of My Being, a song cycle about being a Black man in America.
In November, he and fellow tenor Michael Spyres released their album of Rossini duets and trios, Amici e Rivali. And in December, Larry was on the cover of Opera News.
In October, Larry, in Europe for a recording session met with me on Zoom from his hotel room in Munich to talk about life during the pandemic and beyond.
Here are some edited excerpts of our conversation:
So when the world shut down in March, I guess you had a lot of family time that you don't usually get when you're on the road.
Yes, I have a son named Caleb, who's 10 years old, my little autistic angel, as I call him. And I have a daughter Zoe who will be nine years old. They were happy to have their dad home for awhile.
One of the first things I had to do with my daughter was teach her how to ride a bike without training wheels! There was a young girl on our street who was younger than my daughter who was riding a bike without training wheels. And so my daughter saw her and said, “Okay, Dad training wheels off!” I worked with her for maybe two days; it wasn't even that long. And then she took off.
And just spending time with both of my kids, doing some grilling and cooking and some home activities, I really was a hands-on dad, doing all of the things at home that my wife normally does.
And you have hobbies!
Yes. Many hobbies! Tennis is one of my favorite hobbies. Cycling is another hobby of mine; also table tennis, which a lot of people call ping pong. I love photography. I love bowling. And one of my favorites is salsa dancing.
So I have many hobbies and during this time of the pandemic, I've gotten a chance to delve further into my hobbies, which has been fun.
What do tennis and cycling do for you, vis-a-vis your career, and your life?
Well, there are many parallels in tennis and singing. Tennis is a mental game, but so is singing. And if you think about the fact that we do exercises and vocalises, and we warm our voices up in a certain way, the same thing happens with tennis.
You see even that the greatest pros at the highest level, in Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. And of course, Serena Williams, Steffi Graf on the women’s side. They still go out and they practice. And so when you think about the fact that you can try to get consistency in your tennis game, or in cycling as well, the same type of consistency you can have in your singing.
So they do help me, even with my singing, because I can draw those parallels.
You also have an interview series of your own called The Sitdown with LB, which you started in May.
I started Sit Down because alot of African-American young singers have reached out to me to say, could you give us advice, especially in the midst of this pandemic; we don't even know what's going to happen beyond the pandemic, but we want to get some information that could help us that when we do come out, we can be headed in the right direction.
So I decided to engage many of my friends and colleagues who I have a great deal of respect for, and we discuss issues, everything from lives and careers to discrimination. I focused primarily on African American singers; not just the present stars, but also the stars who had careers in the sixties, seventies and eighties.
There are a lot of things that people are talking about now that they didn't talk about before.
Exactly. We talk about many things: racism, but not only racism, we talk about ideology; about showing up at a theater when you’re not necessarily what the stage manager or stage director had in mind. A lot of us bring our own wigs and makeup, because even if they have the products, they don't know how to use them, because they haven't had the tradition of people who look like us coming into their theaters.
And we've also been able to discuss how all of these people came to music. It's interesting because many of them have a foundation in gospel music or spiritual music. And we talked about performing spirituals. We talked about performing things like Porgy and Bess, which are historically Black, and also not performing them.
We talk about some of the decisions these artists made and how all of them have come to be successful in opera. There are a lot of parallels to draw, but also a lot of differences. So that's been really fun about these conversations.
Have you found yourself surprised by things that you're learning?
Yes. I found some surprises, For example, I was talking to Denyse Graves, who is a bigger-than-life figure. She’s someone who is widely respected, widely known, and appreciated as an artist. And she told me that her public persona is so much different from who she is in real life. She says she's incredibly shy.
Also, when you look at her in pictures and onstage, she is so glamorous looking and never a hair out of place. But she told me, sometimes in the morning, she gets up on her farm, where she has horses and alpacas, and she's doing everything: working in the barns with the animals, weeding, driving John Deeres. No one would ever think Denyse Graves does that, but she does.
And she's an incredible cook. And so after our show, she says, so many people reached out to her about her cooking, and she decided to start her own cooking show on Sunday afternoon, Cooking with Denyse. She’s having a blast.
I think what we're showing is that we are normal people, who we are is so much broader than what people may think. I've always wanted to be the type of person who says, “Here’s what I do,” and then, “Here’s who I am.”
So I want to be the best [opera singer] that I can be. But if you talk to me, Larry, the regular guy, I absolutely love sports. I'm very into American football. I'm so happy that the football season is playing. I'm also into fantasy football. And I spend hours in the week doing research and on the waiver wire and trying to pick a players and trying to find the best match up. And I could talk to someone about for hours about this.
What team do you root for?
I am a lifelong unapologetic unapologetic fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers! That is my team forever. I was born in Youngstown, Ohio, which is about an hour away from Pittsburgh. It’s really equi-distant from Cleveland and Pittsburgh. So half of us like Cleveland and then the smart ones like the Pittsburgh Steelers!
Tell us about your work as artistic advisor of Opera Philadelphia, which is starting a new digital channel.
I love the company. They've been very supportive of me since the beginning of my career. I liaison with their General Director David Devan; I also work with the new works administrator. And they have engaged me in some of the projects I wanted to do.
But another part is doing community engagement, trying to diversify and expand the audience attendance; really to be an “artist in the trenches” as I like to call it, to be an advocate for the opera company, to let people know that Opera Philadelphia wants to be a place for everyone in the city.
So part of the programming for this Opera Philadelphia Channel and the festival is a concert called Lawrence Brownlee and Friends, where I get a chance to bring some of my friends together.
And we do opera, American song and spirituals. We want to show that the people who sing opera can also sing other styles, and we’re not stuffy. We have some flexibility in the opportunity to let our hair down. So Lawrence Brownlee and Friends is a part of that, but also, something called Cycles of My Being, which was a part of the new works program at Opera Philadelphia, and premiered there years ago.
I bring together myself with four other black men and a good friend of mine named Myrah Huang who's a Asian American pianist. This piece talks about being a black man in America.
Is there any favorite music that you have that you relax to?
If I pick up my cell phone or my iPad or iPod, you have everything. Jazz: I am a big fan of Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme. I love the vocal jazz group, Take 6. I can listen to them hours on end. I love Marvin Gaye. I love gospel music: Ricky Dillard, James Hall, a group called Commissioned, Kim Burrell. Gosh, Milton Brunson, love that. But also I can listen to Sting, Dave Matthews Band, and Steely Dan. So I have a very diverse taste in music.
Any activities you think will persist after the pandemic ends?
There is nothing for me that replaces actually being in the place that was meant for the production of live music, in the moment, in that place. I hope we'll all be flocking back to these places, to Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and all the various theaters in the world; people will want to be in the actual venues.
But I think that this pandemic has shown people a lot of things. I think online engagement in the arts will be furthered. I think there's a lot to be learned [from this year], in every aspect of life; that we will be much more plugged in to the possibilities of what we can do remotely.