By DAMIEN GETER
Despite being one of the world’s leading operatic tenors, as an African American man, Lawrence Brownlee is not immune to racism. “I feel it every day,” he told Oregon ArtsWatch. “I see signs all of the time.” Brownlee noted that even though he has sung in all of the major opera houses of the world, when he walks out of the opera house and onto the street, people don’t see him as an opera star. Instead he experiences the prejudices many black people suffer from on a daily basis; someone might clutch a purse more tightly, or walk with a slightly brisker step. “The experiences of my life inform my performance. I have a responsibility to talk about it.”
He’s also singing about it in Portland Wednesday night, when Friends of Chamber Music brings Brownlee and pianist Myra Huang to perform a new song cycle that explores some of the challenges and hopes of what it means to be black in America. “This [piece] means everything to me,” Brownlee says.
A champion of bel canto repertoire, Brownlee will take a break from the operatic stage to present a recital of two notable works: Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) and Tyshawn Sorey’s Cycles of My Being. Separated by over 170 years, both compositions touch upon themes that were relevant then and now – love, hate, rejection, and hope. And he believes both will continue to be relevant for years to come.
“America, do you love the air in me, as I love the air in you?” In that line from Cycles of My Being’s opening song, “Inhale, Exhale,” the narrator expresses a different type of unrequited love than that expressed in Dichterliebe’s romantic longings. The cycle challenges its audience with the question — what causes one to hate? And it makes visible America’s passive, systemic racism that is not overt, but is no less biting.
In spite of this, hope prevails in the final song, and the promise of a new day brings forth an optimism that fuels the will to continue to live in a place where, Brownlee says, “there is a system that is set up we were not meant to benefit from.”
Premiered in February, Cycles of My Being was created from the minds of two MacArthur Fellows – poet Terrance Hayes, and composer Sorey, a jazz percussionist who draws inspiration from a wide array of genres including, but not limited to jazz, dance music, Anton Webern, and Robert Schumann.
Cycles of My Being is deeply personal for Brownlee. Hayes’s 2014 poems explore some of the hard truths of what it means to be a black man in the United States. The fourth song, “Hate,” states “Your contempt for me does not allow you to see me for who I really am.”
One of Brownlee’s goals in the performance of this piece is to take control of the conversation. When he performs in an opera, Brownlee studies the role he plays to empathize and express the character’s feelings and perspective. But in Cycles, not only does he empathize with the narrator, he is the narrator who speaks from the I perspective.
Sorey’s song cycle will be the lesser known of the two on the program. Based on sixteen poems from Heinrich Heine’s Lyriches Intermezzo, Schumann’s cycle, composed in 1840, is a standard in the lieder (songs) canon.
Performing a full song cycle in recital has been a longtime goal for Brownlee, who’s known especially for his performances of operas by Rossini and Bellini. He chose Dichterliebe because of the range of emotions the narrator experiences as he professes his admiration to his beloved — only to find that love is not returned. “[The music] tells the story for us,” Brownlee said as he described the expressive sentiment of Schumann’s music.
A recent gig in Munich, Germany at the Bayerische Staatsoper, where he sang the role of Ein Sänger in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, afforded Brownlee the opportunity to immerse himself in the language and the nuances of singing lieder. He’s constantly studying text painting, coloring, and the partnership of the voice and piano, with new revelations happening along the way. After familiarizing himself with some of the great lieder singers like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Fritz Wunderlich, Brownlee recognizes that there are many great interpretations of Schumann’s classic, but he’s most excited about exploring and contributing his own.
“This is the beginning of a journey,” he says. “My interpretation will be different ten years from now, even six months from now. I’m excited about what it will become.”
He’s just as excited about the new music he’s singing in Portland and around the country. Brownlee serves as the artistic advisor at Opera Philadelphia (which co-commissioned Cycles with Carnegie Hall), where he advocates for new music. For him, bringing to life new works like Cycles of My Being is a way to keep classical music moving forward, and also an avenue to tell the varied stories of the world’s diverse people.
“People many years from now will pick up this piece and say ‘these are the same questions I have too’” he says — much like how performers and audiences ask the same timeless questions and relate to the same themes that Dichterliebe poses almost two centuries since it was written.
Lawrence Brownlee and pianist Myra Huang perform at 7:30 PM Wednesday, April 4 at Lincoln Recital Hall. Tickets available at the Friends of Chamber Music website.
Damien Geter is an opera singer, composer, and educator based in Portland.