BY MIKE LEONARD
At age 42, Lawrence Brownlee has been called “one of the world’s leading bel canto tenors,” been nominated for Male Singer of the Year by the International Opera Awards, and, by his own estimation, performed in every great opera house on the planet except two that scheduling conflicts have kept him from. So far.
The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music graduate says he tackled his most unusual challenge this summer in portraying a jazz icon in the world premiere of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, a work co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Gotham Chamber Opera. And he got to do it sharing a stage with fellow Jacobs graduate and opera star Angela Brown, who played the mother of the troubled jazz innovator.
“We both felt we had a special connection that made it easier and more authentic,” Brownlee says. “I felt like there was someone on stage who loved me and cared about me, and it came about because of our close friendship.”
Born in 1920, Parker was known as “Yardbird” or simply “Bird,” and was a pivotal figure in the creation of bebop. He died from lobar pneumonia at age 34, brought on, physicians said, by chronic heroin and alcohol addiction.
Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD is constructed and performed in operatic style, using recurring jazz motifs to place the Parker character in his milieu. “When you think about jazz musicians, they try to use the extremes of their instrument, exploring high and low, fast and slow,” Brownlee says. “(Composer) Daniel Schnyder laid out the same challenge for my voice.”
A demanding schedule has kept the opera star from performing in Bloomington since earning his Master of Music in 2001. “But IU holds a special place in my heart,” he says, pointing to not only the music education that helped make him who he is, but also the college experience that enabled him to direct IU’s Voices of Hope gospel choir and play intramural sports, including basketball, table tennis, softball, and flag football. The Atlanta, Georgia, resident says he still pursues outside interests to balance his music career, including photography and salsa dancing. He and his wife, Kendra, have two children, ages 2 and 4.