Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tenor Brownlee Shows Race No Hurdle To His Career

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee is rising fast in the opera world. He has a terrific voice and amazing technique. Here is a fascinating article about him, not least because of the gobstopping racism Brownlee has encountered during his career. Mind you, this didn't happen fifty years ago -- this nonsense is still going on today.

But [Brownlee] also recalls the racism that dogged him as he tried to build his career.

An agent told him that he'd never succeed "because you're short and you're black,'" the 5-foot-6 singer says with a wry smile. Then, when he hoped to be hired by a second-rate American opera company he won't name, "they said, 'We can't, because you're black.'" (The company changed its mind after La Scala offered him the same part.)

One critic wrote of a Boston production of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" that "the worst embarrassment was the tenor, Lawrence Brownlee. Now I don't demand that the tenor look like Brad Pitt, but he shouldn't look like Al Roker, the Today Show's weatherman, or even worse, Oprah Winfrey in drag!"

Seriously, WTF?!? Are these people still living in the nineteenth century? Oy vay.

This reminds me of something that happened here in Kansas City about twenty-five years ago. The New York City Opera came to town with Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. In this production, Figaro was performed by a bass-baritone who happened to be black. This bothered neither me nor my friend Claudia nor, as far as I could tell, anyone else in the audience. But the critic at the time for The Kansas City Star just couldn't get past having a black man playing a traditionally "white" role, and spent a couple of paragraphs of his review complaining about it. The Star received quite a few letters from opera patrons criticizing the reviewer's idiotic comments, but the best letter came from a representative of the managing agency in New York that was handling the New York City Opera's national tour. This gentleman succinctly discussed the suspension of disbelief required by many, many aspects of live theatre and particularly in opera, starting with age differences in the cast (he mentioned having often seen Le Nozze di Figaro done with a Figaro who was much older than the singer performing Marcellina, Figaro's mother) and moving on to travesti roles, which are male roles played by women. And then this gentleman totally pwned the reviewer by reminding him of one of opera's most famous travesti roles, Cherubino, in the very same opera where the reviewer couldn't quite get his head around a black Figaro.

The Kansas City Star, to its credit, let that reviewer go when his contract expired.

Anyway, check out the article about the talented Lawrence Brownlee and listen for him on the Sirius radio Met Opera broadcasts -- I have Armida on the radio right now!


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