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MAY 16, 2021 — As a high school student in Youngstown, Ohio, two of Lawrence Brownlee’s teachers told him they thought he “had a voice suited to classical music,” he recalled.
He was selected for a program at Youngstown State University while still in high school that consisted of singing lessons every Monday night, culminating in a recital.
After the recital, “there was a standing ovation from the audience,” Brownlee said. “I thought, ‘Hey, perhaps there is something to this classical music thing.’”
Brownlee is now one of the world’s leading opera tenors, hailed by The New York Times as “an international star in the bel canto operatic repertory.” He has a tenor voice that comes across with both gravitas and subtlety along with a masterful range. He is also known as a voice for activism and diversity in the industry.
He’ll be revisiting some of those early years of musical discovery while visiting Worcester to debut a new recital program titled, “Songs of My Youth” at 7 p.m. on May 22, performed live from the BrickBox Theater at the Jean McDonough Arts Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, and live streamed online by Music Worcester. Brownlee will be accompanied by pianist Myra Huang. Tickets are $15 at musicworcester.org.
Music Worcester will be donating all ticketing proceeds from the recital to the Worcester Black History Project, OurStory Edutainment, and Worcester Black Heritage Juneteenth Festival.
This program will include selections from the book “24 Italian Songs and Arias,” a starting point for many classical singers, as well as Schubert, Strauss, Mozart, and Weill, in addition to a selection of spirituals. Brownlee will also provide commentary and anecdotes.
“It’s a program of firsts for me — repertoire that got me going, put me on the map,” Brownlee said. Furthermore, it is “things that I love to sing; a very personal recital; one I’m looking forward to sharing. I think my excitement and enthusiasm will be apparent from the stage.”
His performance will also be one of the first in the new BrickBox Theater — “the first person from Ohio to sing there,” he joked during a recent telephone interview. “I’m looking forward to it. Any of us who are artists — we’re looking forward to taking the stage again, even if it’s virtual,” Brownlee said.
After high school, Brownlee was an undergraduate student at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. He was still taking voice lessons and took part in a tri-state singing competition.
“I remember going to this competition. I was taking it somewhat seriously, but I had my mind open to what the possibilities might be. I was fortunate to be the winner in my category,” Brownlee said. “After that, I said, ‘OK, I need to be serious.’ I decided I wanted to pursue this whole-heartedly.”
He went on to postgraduate studies at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. But after the standing ovation at the high school recital and success at the tri-state college competition, another key moment was when he won a Grand Prize in the 2001 Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions.
“That was one of the most important things,” Brownlee said. “It was highly visible. Many things happened as a result of winning that.”
He was featured in The New York Times, and agents and directors “heard the name for the first time, perhaps. It was important for that reason,” he said.
An agent sent a tape of the competition to La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy. “I went there and auditioned, and they gave me a job on the spot. That competition opened many doors for me and that essentially opened my career.”
In 2006, Brownlee won two prestigious awards — the Richard Tucker Award and Marian Anderson Award. The next year, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut.
In addition to appearances in operas at major European and American houses, Brownlee has given numerous solo recitals, including “Cycles of My Being,” a song cycle that centers on the Black make experience in America today.
“He is just a wonderful opera singer. People in the Brown and Black community like opera. [The concert] is an opportunity to do a little bit of a stretch and make it more appealing, more accessible to people. I can’t wait to hear him.”
Excerpt from the Worcester Telegram, Worcester, Mass.
Anderson University is on a mission to educate students for lives of faith and service, offering more than 60 undergraduate majors, 30 three-year degrees, 20 NCAA Division III intercollegiate sports, alongside adult and graduate programs. The private, liberal arts institution is fully accredited and recognized among top colleges for its business, computer science, cybersecurity, dance, engineering, nursing, and teacher education programs. Anderson University was established in 1917 in Anderson, Indiana, by the Church of God.