The Metropolitan Opera’s stratospheric tenor Lawrence Brownlee and Lyric Opera of Chicago’s formidable bass-baritone Eric Owens, both major stars with significant Philadelphia connections, share the stage Friday in a joint recital that, no surprise, sold out weeks in advance at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.
But then there’s the curiosity factor. Two such different operatic voices have rarely been created — or heard on the same stage. How could they go together?
“Somehow, there’s something about the inherent quality of our voices that works together,” said Brownlee. “And I can breathe more easily when I know I don’t have to carry the whole concert.”
“It’s one of the rare times when a singing artist gets to be their own artistic director,” said Owens. “We thought it would be great to do some opera together, and the more popular stuff on the second half is where we have a good time.”
The program features two operatic duets, from The Elixir of Love and The Pearl Fishers, with plenty of solo moments mixed in — which is to be expected with two artists whose careers take them very separate ways. Craig Terry accompanies them on piano.
In fact, the 17-city tour for the Brownlee-Owens recital seems to have happened despite themselves. The pair sang a handful of concerts in the Midwest in 2017 that prompted any number of inquiries.
The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, which is presenting the Perelman concert, was among the first. (There is a waiting list for seats, and it’s not unusual for some to open up.) The recital travels up the road to Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center on Sunday; some tickets are still available.
With two such busy singers, how could a tour be scheduled?
“The calendar gods smiled on us,” said Owens.
The PCMS concert is one of the more intimate venues, and it promises to be a lovefest given both singers’ Philadelphia ties.
A Philadelphia native, Owens, 48, graduated from nearly every distinguished music institution in town (Settlement, Temple, Curtis), and will balance his busy opera schedule while co-directing the Curtis Institute vocal studies department starting this year. He’s also on the board of directors of the Grammy-winning choir the Crossing.
Brownlee, 46, now based in Niceville, Fla., premiered Charlie Parker’s Yardbird and Tyshawn Sorey’s Cycles of My Being with Opera Philadelphia. He also holds the position of artistic adviser on matters ranging from repertoire to community outreach.
Their careers intersected early on in Italian opera buffa. It’s possible only they remember.
“We were in Boston in [the Rossini comedy] L’Italiana in Algeri. It was two nights after George W. Bush was elected for the second time [in 2004] and beat the senator from Massachusetts [John Kerry],” Owens recalled. “The audience was in no mood for comedy.”
Though Brownlee is still the go-to tenor for early-19th-century bel canto comedy, he is also the lynchpin in lesser-known, more serious operas, such as La Donna del Lago that require extra stage presence.
Owens has escalated to the kind of Wagner and Verdi roles demanding Shakespearean authority, such as King Philip in Don Carlo and Wotan in the Ring cycle.
Critics have remarked in these joint performances how well Owens lightens his voice to blend with Brownlee’s. Owens says it’s no big deal.
“The demands are different, of course, but ultimately, when I’m singing Wagner, I’m not trying to make my voice bigger ... it’s very similar to me singing Mozart,” said Owens. “The only difference is when I’m singing something really high, I might spend more time warming up.”
Proof of that is the forthcoming Bridge-label recording of The Last Sorcerer, a chamber opera by Pauline Viardot in which Owens scales back into a lyrical parlor voice that shows no signs of Wagnerian overuse.
He continues singing a wide range of repertoire, having just finished Porgy and Bess in Amsterdam last month. “It’s just that the Wagner gets more notice,” Owens said.
They’re two of the most amiable singers in the business. “Larry is one of those people ... you could drop him anywhere on the face of the planet and within an hour, everybody would want to get to know him better,” said Owens, who could also be describing himself.
Also, both have a strong sense of musical citizenship. Having control of the spotlight means using it for higher purposes.
By singing spirituals in the second half, Brownlee isn’t simply following in the footsteps of Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and others.
Spirituals contain some of the finest melodies ever written, and Brownlee feels a sense of mission about them. He’s particularly fascinated by the music’s basis in pentatonic scales associated with Japanese music.
The music also allows singers to reveal their personal selves and encourage improvisation that wouldn’t work in opera.
“They have this idea of freedom,” Brownlee said. “If you want to linger on a particular note or give some finesse to a part that’s more meaningful to you ... those things can fall on the ear of the listeners. You can feel somebody else’s journey when you sing it.”
Owens moves toward that musical first cousin, gospel, in the song “Peace Be Still” — with the words, “I don’t want to be afraid every time I face the waves” — that Brownlee says is a personal highlight in the concert
And in that company, is it any surprise that, several programs ago, Owens opted to cut the 1960s sentimental curio “Roses and Lollipops”? “Just look at the words and you’ll see why we changed it,” Owens told a Fort Worth audience. (“Bring her nice things, sugar and spice things,” for one treacly example.)
That slot is now filled by “Some Enchanted Evening.”
Lawrence Brownlee and Eric Owens