Opera houses and concert halls may have been dark for the past year and then some, but tenor Lawrence Brownlee never went silent. He started a video podcast, “The Sitdown with LB,” in which he interviewed other opera-world friends and industry insiders. He continued work as an artistic adviser with Opera Philadelphia, where he just attended his first in-person meetings since the beginning of the pandemic.
Through it all, he got to spend more uninterrupted time with his children (ages 9 and 10) than ever before, he said.
“I [would come home] and be like ‘Wow, she’s 2 inches taller!” said Brownlee, whose command of the bel canto repertoire and passion for bringing Black composers’ work to the stage keeps him jetting around the world nine months out of most years. “As hard as it was to be away from work, I appreciated the time spent with my family to see my kids grow. It’s something that I’ve never experienced.”
The Ohio-born tenor makes his first-ever stop in Worcester this Saturday with “Songs of My Youth,” a new program of his favorite old songs livestreamed from the Jean McDonough Arts Center and presented by Music Worcester. With collaborative pianist Myra Huang, he’ll perform a bouquet of art songs in various languages, excerpts from his first opera roles, and even a few choice classics from “24 Italian Songs and Arias,” a well-worn book that forms the bedrock of many a budding singer’s first lessons. Proceeds will be donated to several local organizations fighting systemic racism and injustice in the Worcester community. We reached Brownlee by phone during a break between meetings in Philadelphia to chat about the program.
Q. You’re planning some spirituals at the end of the concert — are these also songs of your youth?
A. I actually started my musical education in church singing not spirituals but gospel. So when I started classical training, it was kind of my segue into classical music because I had that background. The thematic material is the same, so it was easy to make that transition. These are the first spirituals I ever sung. H.T. Burleigh was one of the first composers I ever looked at.
Q. Also in your youth, you worked as a performer at an amusement park. What were you singing there?
A. Nothing to do with classical music at all! [laughs] I was pulling from my show choir days. I had a background in dancing as well, so it was a fun summer job to be leaning back into some of the things I did in high school. I was studying classical music [at college] and then in the summers I was doing this theme park stuff.
Q. So those are songs from your youth the audience won’t be hearing?
A. Yeah, that right there. I don’t think people wanna see my high kicks.
Q. How were you introduced to classical music?
A. I was singing in choirs — we had a very good music department in my high school in Youngstown, Ohio. And my teacher told me, you know, something about your voice lends itself to classical music. I was like what? OK. So I was invited to be part of a program called Upward Link at Youngstown State University. I took some classical lessons — I’d never taken any classical lessons before. But when I went in there and started singing, there was this gentleman who said, “Oh my gosh, who are you and where are you from? You have an amazing instrument, and you need to be singing classical music.” His name is David Starkey; he actually became my first voice teacher. And he said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do next year, but you should come here and study with me.” And that’s how I began to study classical.
Q. Is that how you were introduced to the Italian songs and arias?
A. Yes, it was him who introduced me. He said that’s the real foundation of it — simple songs to learn the classical technique, so that you’re singing well. You get to understand your voice, and navigate a language that’s not your own. That’s how I began on this journey, with those songs.
Q. How does it feel to be coming back to them now, as a veteran singer?
A. I was told in the beginning, these songs are gems. I sang them with the tools and the education I had. But now what I have, I feel like I can [use] some of the things I’ve learned along the way to bring more meaning to them. I can be much more of an expressive artist.
I’ve been in the business more than 20 years, and I hope I can have 20 more years. I think I’m right in the middle. When people hear me in this concert on Saturday, I want them to feel like they’re listening to someone who has something thoughtful and meaningful to say.
SONGS OF MY YOUTH
With Lawrence Brownlee. 7 p.m. Saturday. $15. Livestream at www.musicworcester.org
Interview was edited and condensed. A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.