n the summer of 2004, an unknown African-American tenor starred in Cincinnati Opera’s production of The Daughter of the Regiment, best known for the killer aria “Ah! Mes Amis!” with its nine high C notes. Lawrence Brownlee made it sound effortless, spinning off octave jumps with crystalline purity and laser-like accuracy. When he finished, there was a split second of silence verging on disbelief — followed by pandemonium.
Now one of the world’s most sought-after tenors, Brownlee returns to Cincinnati to perform in Mendelssohn’s grand oratorio “Elijah,” the concluding work in this year’s May Festival.
Brownlee’s gleaming tone and extraordinary command of coloratura singing have propelled him into a select group of singers who specialize in bel canto, a style demanding precise execution of often florid passagework. Oratorio singing requires additional skills, says Brownlee, who appeared last year with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, yet another killer solo with stratospheric high notes.
“Elijah” is Brownlee’s May Festival debut and features two gorgeous arias for the tenor.
“I sang it years ago at university,” he recalls, “And this will be my first chance to work with (longtime May Festival director) Maestro (James) Conlon, which is an honor. It’s such beautiful music with lush Mendelssohn harmonies.”
Brownlee is even more thrilled to perform with friends like mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe and Chinese bass Shenyang, saying, “I’ll have the best seat in the house. It’s great to be a spectator, too!”
In the years since his Cincinnati Opera appearance, Brownlee racked up rave reviews, prestigious honors, a debut at the Metropolitan Opera and appearances in two Met Opera HD simulcasts.
When asked if he entered college to pursue a professional music career, Brownlee’s chuckle morphs into laughter.
“I took music classes but the plan was to go to law school,” he says.
That changed when his voice teacher at Anderson University entered him in a national singing competition.
“I remember winning my category for whatever year I was at the time,” Brownlee says. “And then they announced that I was the best overall singer — out of 300 or 400! My response was ‘What?’ ‘Me?’ ”
Other responses were even more positive. Brownlee recalls that later that day, a voice teacher told him, “ You have a real gift and you have to pursue it.”
“So I thought if it doesn’t work out,” the singer recalls, “I can still go to law school.”
That remained a possibility after Julliard declined to hear him audition, but Brownlee decided to apply to Indiana University’s acclaimed Jacobs School of Music where he spent the next four years in a master’s program.
Inspired by the Three Tenors (Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras), Brownlee wanted to sing the big dramatic roles “but someone took me aside and said, ‘No, your voice is too light for that. You’re a bel canto singer.’ ”
Brownlee quickly learned to appreciate the vocal riches in Bellini and Rossini whose works lack the recognition enjoyed by Verdi and Puccini operas.
“When I realized that there aren’t a lot of people who have the ability to sing this kind of music,” he says, “I thought maybe I should go after it full-fledged.”
That he did, graduating from IU in 2001, the same year he won the Metropolitan Opera Council’s National Audition award. But neither guaranteed success — even after he won the Met audition, naysayers told him he’d never have a career because of his height and his race.
“One of my first voice teachers told me, ‘Look, because you’re short, you’re African American and you’re a tenor, you have to be something special. You have to work harder, you can’t be over-prepared,’ ” Brownlee says. “So I make a point never to be late, never to be unprepared and always to be a good colleague.”
That work ethic paid off with his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2007, in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, a performance broadcast live on Sirius/XM satellite radio. It was a thrilling performance and a triumph for the Youngstown native and his entire family, who were in the audience along with his high school music teacher, his first piano teacher and his girlfriend (now wife) Kendra.
Brownlee plans to take time off this summer for the birth of his second child in Atlanta and then he returns to a packed schedule, including more appearances at the Met.
LAWRENCE BROWNLEE performs in “Elijah,” the May Festival’s concluding concert, Saturday at Music Hall. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.