Backstory: Lawrence Brownlee

by Fred Cohn.

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Illustration by Gary Hovland
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“WHEN I WAS A YOUNG SINGER, I thought, ‘I want to know at least one person who’s been in OPERA NEWS,” says Lawrence Brownlee. “Then it was ‘I just want my name to be mentioned.’ Then maybe a Sound Bite, then a feature, then a cover.” 

Needless to say, it all came to pass. Brownlee was the subject of an opera news feature in 2008 and two years later made the cover when he starred in the Met’s production of Rossini’s Armida. He has shared his experiences on the Canary Islands in a 2015 “Road Show.”His first profile was a “Sound Bite,” by this writer, in June 2002. 

Back then, the twenty-nine-year-old bel cantotenor, just on the verge of his La Scala debut—his first big international assignment—was brimming with an almost puppy-dog-like enthusiasm for what lay ahead. Now forty-three, Brownlee maintains the same passion for his profession, but his attitude has been tempered by more than a decade of hard work at the top of his field. “I had that bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed attitude back then, because I had seen nothing,” he says. “I still have the zeal, the love for it, but I’m a seasoned veteran now—nothing is going to surprise me.” He mentions a 2012 incident when he was called in from Munich, on a few hours’ notice, as an emergency replacement for a Paris Opéra Barbiere di Siviglia. Enduring traffic jams and airport snafus, he arrived at the Bastille only fifteen minutes before curtain and went on to maneuver successfully through a production he’d never seen, with colleagues he’d never met. “I’m definitely a guy now who takes everything in stride,” he says. “You can bring me the worst, because I’ll be okay.”

James C. Whitson’s June 2008 feature “Amazing Grace” showed Brownlee just as he was about to embark on another life-changing endeavor—marriage. He and Kendra Wilson tied the knot in December of that year; they now live in Atlanta with their two children, Caleb, six, and Zoe, four. He now admits that, as excited as he was at the prospect of becoming a husband, he had no idea in 2008 how demanding marriage could be. “Marriage is something you have to cultivate on a daily basis,” Brownlee says. “Of course, with my career, it’s especially challenging. Anyone who says that marriage is easy in this business is not honest.”

Complicating matters is the fact that Caleb (whom Brownlee calls “my little angel”) was diagnosed at age two with autism. Brownlee has become a spokesperson for the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. “I just want to give my voice to autism awareness—to get the information out and be involved,” he says. “I don’t know the impact I can have, but a lot of people follow people like myself.”

One way that Brownlee knows he has an effect on the world is that he keeps popping up in the pages of OPERA NEWS. “It’s meant a lot to see myself promoted there,” he says. “Now I open the magazine up and I know everybody.” spacer 




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