entertainment

Star tenor has a new Philly gig (and an Esperanza Spalding work in progress)

Peter Dobrin, Classical Music Critic

Updated: Monday, April 4, 2016, 11:00 AM

Lawrence Brownlee in Charlie Parker's Yardbird.

Lawrence Brownlee caught Philadelphia's attention in 2015 in the premiere of the opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, and now Opera Philadelphia has named the 44-year-old tenor its new artistic adviser.

While continuing his singing career, Brownlee will work on repertoire with president and general director David B. Devan, music director Corrado Rovaris, and others. One of his first projects is to help develop a new opera with jazz musicians Esperanza Spalding and Wayne Shorter that's expected to premiere in 2019. One of his big goals is to show young people in Philadelphia that opera is cool.

Brownlee will also provide perspective on issues of diversity and will help raise money. He talks about what he hopes to accomplish in the job -- and why.

What is the artistic adviser job -- what does that title mean?

The basic idea is to share things I see internationally. I'm performing at Covent Garden, at Munich at the Bavarian State Opera, at Lyric Opera of Chicago, so this is for Opera Philadelphia to know what other companies are doing with their programming ideas, their community programs, and, obviously, being involved with diversity, what they are doing as far as reaching out to other people. Not just African Americans, but my role is to bring in younger people to get more excited, and to be an advocate for new works.

How did your relationship with Opera Philadelphia evolve to this point?

Opera Philadelphia has been very important to me since the beginning of my career, going back to even before I sang here, to when Corrado invited me to La Scala Milan in 2001 to sing The Barber of Seville. It really solidified when David Devan started.

We hit it off right away. It was one of those things that developed naturally. They have been interested in me as a performing artist, and it's valuable for me to be performing in places like Berlin, Zurich, and Paris, and for them to have access to someone in a role performing somewhere else.

In my travels, I get a chance to hear a conductor or see a stage director they haven't had any direct contact with. Or David Devan might say to me, "I've heard a lot about this person -- is he a good conductor? Is he a good colleague?" Or perhaps I hear someone not on their radar, and I say, "David, you have to hear this singer."

What are some of the specific ideas you're talking about in the area of community outreach?

To show other people that opera is cool. I mean, there is a stigma to opera for some people. They think it's for old people or it's just from a European tradition. I think there are misconceptions about opera. I don’t want to take away from what opera is. I don't believe you have to dumb down opera or take away from the true essence for them to be able to appreciate it. I think when you see younger people or a more diverse cast, that is what is going to make people want to come.

One of the things is targeting young African American professionals, people out there who maybe have other interests, but find fun ways to get them together to give them their entrance into opera. They might not want to come to Götterdämmerung as their first opera, but sometimes it might mean a social outing or becoming a member of a club where they get access to artists like myself to make them aware of what I do.

How is the job structured? How much time will you spend here?

With the schedule I have traveling this year, I'll be in Philadelphia from time to time. In addition, I'll meet with David Devan and Corrado in other cities, as well. The job is not just ceremonial. I want to be able to contribute whichever way I can.

Why this, why now -- are you planning to transition into opera administration?

Being 44 years old, I feel like there are still hopefully a great number of things I will do, but you never know what life brings. It could be setting the ground for something in the future.

It seems like the normal trajectory once you are finished performing is a university setting. But this will give me an opportunity to see everything up close and personal. I don't have plans to be a general director. Twenty years from now, perhaps it could be something I would be more involved in, in some capacity, that is more official.

You're going to be fund-raising. How do you feel about that?

What I'll be doing is meeting with patrons and telling them how important it is to have their support. A lot of the time, they give their money and resources and have this disconnect from the artists, but I want to tell them how important it is and how appreciative we and all the artists are, so our art form will continue to thrive and grow.

Peter Dobrin, Classical Music Critic

Read full story: Star tenor has a new Philly gig (and an Esperanza Spalding work in progress)