Was it inevitable that Youngstown, Ohio native Lawrence Brownlee would devote himself to music?
“Well, with a father who is a singer and a choir director, and a mother who is a singer, music was always around me,” Brownlee says. “So although I didn’t know it early in my life, later it seemed to be the natural thing to do.”
And so, encouraged by his parents, Brownlee started out quite young singing in the church choir.
“But I didn’t want to do it. I hated it,” he says. “To think about having to sing in front of all the people in my church made me sick the whole week before. I was just so shy.”
Clearly, that shyness faded away as Brownlee grew to adulthood.
“People seemed to respond to my voice in a very positive way,” he says. “Eventually I became involved in a program at Youngstown State University for gifted music students.”
Today Brownlee is a superstar, a tenor who has sung in front of millions all over the world. And on Friday, Nov. 20, he will be in the critically-acclaimed “Cycles of My Being.” With music by Composer-in-Residence and MacArthur Fellow Tyshawn Sorey, and lyrics by MacArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes and Brownlee, the piece makes its streaming debut on the Opera Philadelphia Channel.
In a poignant new film, the timely production explores the realities of life as a Black man in the United States today through musical cycles.
And due to a high profile of incidents of police violence against Black Americans in recent months, Brownlee says he believes that in 2020 the piece is especially relevant, and that in 2025 it will probably still be so.
Brownlee, himself, while not facing violence, has had to face discrimination in the world of opera.
He says, “I am sure that my race has been the reason for my not being hired sometimes. But over the years I’ve had so many important people in my life tell me to focus on the things I can control. Yes, I know I have difficulties and challenges to face because of the state of the world. Being a Black man in America, I know at times I’m not getting the same opportunities as someone who doesn’t look like me may be getting. But what I’ve always tried to do is focus on my craft, focus on my message, and focus on the person that I am.”
Brownlee continues, “I know that race has played a part in my career in the sense that some of the things that were probably meant for me I didn’t get a chance to do and enjoy. But thanks to all the positive people in my life who have pushed me to believe in myself and my talent, I’ve been able to focus on that instead of my race.”
However, he acknowledges, sometimes when one door closes another one opens.
“I remember one time being ready to do a role when someone said I just wasn’t right for the part, which is code for the fact that I am Black,” Brownlee says.
Dejected at the loss of yet another opportunity, he started to leave when he received a better offer.
“A contract from the Paris Opera Company came in so I didn’t have too much time to be upset, especially being given an opportunity to sign a contract that was more lucrative and higher profile than the one that I was just removed from,” Brownlee says.
So looking on the brighter side, he says over the years he’s sung in every important opera house throughout the world, and the offers continue to come his way.
As for young, upcoming Black singers, Brownlee says to “worry about the product. I feel as though the product is the thing that rises to the top. So, again, if the door you’re knocking on just won’t open, turn around and knock on another door. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. And it works.”