Tenor Lawrence Brownlee talks return to live theatre, Blacks in classical music

WNO “Come Home: A Celebration of Return”

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Lawrence Brownlee and Pretty Yende in “Come Home: A Celebration of Return,” which runs at the Kennedy Center until Nov. 14. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
mgreen@afro.com

On Nov. 6, the Kennedy Center’s Washington National Opera (WNO) opened its doors for audiences and performers alike to “Come Home.”  Celebrating the return to live opera and the life and contributions of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Come Home: A Celebration of Return,” is a show featuring an array of excerpts from operas that focus on liberty and artistic idealism and will be at the Kennedy Center until Nov. 14. The show features opera singers: Pretty Yende, Isabel Leonard, Lawrence Brownlee, Alexandria Shiner, David Butt Philip and Christian Van Horn. Brownlee spoke to the AFRO about his return to live theatre, the activism he has been up to and the need to normalize more people of color in classical music.

With the dangers of the COVID-19 preventing live performances, Brownlee shared his excitement about returning to the Kennedy Center stage for the appropriately titled, “Come Home,” shows.

“Nothing replaces live theatre.  Nothing does.  So to be in this space and to share this communal appreciation of art- it does something to me,” Brownlee said.  “I never get on the stage trying to be perfect, I try to think about creating special moments. It’s about trying to touch someone’s heart, so for me, during this pandemic, we were on a diet, not to have that, and you suffer from not having [live theatre]- you’re malnourished in a sense.  So to be able to be back in a space, where people just are clamoring to just experience the production of live art in a space that was intended- it means so much to me.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic kept Brownlee out of live performance venues, he used his voice to advocate for more people of color in classical music.

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“We got an opportunity to lend our voices to a conversation that was long overdue.  At this point in my career, I’ve been in the career for 20 plus years, a lot of the people who are the administrators and people calling the shots are our friends from university, or people who we performed with that are now in administrative positions.  They have wanted to take on this conversation for a long time, but it was the right time.  The George Floyd [case] was kind of like a catalyst for us and the pandemic forced us to sit still and see all of this,” Brownlee explained on AFRO Live.  “To have that conversation and to be one of the ones who has been eager to discuss these sorts of things, it was very important to me.  I’ve taken part in conversations, I moderated a book club talking about racism,  and I did some other things on social media just to discuss those things that are very important to me.”

Lawrence Brownlee in “Come Home: A Celebration of Return,” which runs at the Kennedy Center until Nov. 14. (Courtesy Photo)

“It is important to understand the inequity we have in society in general, but also the gross inequity we have in opera,” Brownlee continued.  “I’m happy to say that we’ve seen some movement, and I’m challenging my friends to make it something that doesn’t have a short shelf life, but it just becomes the norm.  We think about equality, we think about inviting more people into the room for these conversations and discussions so it is just the norm.”

Now that he is back on stage, Brownlee is enjoying watching the artistry of his diverse colleagues featured in “Come Home.”  He said between his fellow performers slaying the stage and the larger purpose of the performance- to remember the life of Justice Ginsburg- audiences are truly in for a treat at the Kennedy Center’s “Come Home.”

“Hearing my wonderful colleagues- and they are singing it down. They are really doing a great job.  All of them are bringing their unique experiences and energy,” Brownlee said.  “It provides for a wonderful, wonderful evening of music and also… celebrating a tremendous, tremendous life that we lost not too long ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was, I’ve considered, a friend of mine and we’ve spent time together over the years and getting a chance to share the stage with her at Washington National Opera.”

While Justice Ginsburg has been championed for a number of efforts such as her focus on women and reproductive rights, she also contributed greatly to the world of arts.  She actually was in the 2016 Washington National Opera production of “The Daughter of the Regiment.”

“That was one of many opportunities that I’ve had to spend time with Justice Ginsburg, because she loved music and art so much.  We talked about many things.  I got a chance to meet her late husband, so [“Come Home”] is meaningful to me because I was involved in her celebration of life, and just to be able to appreciate her for her contributions to society, and to law, and to women’s rights, but also to the arts means a lot to me,” Brownlee said.

“I can think of no organization better suited to present such a tribute concert than Washington National Opera,” said James Ginsburg, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s son. “I greatly look forward to seeing these tribute performances by some of my mom’s favorite singers.”

As part of the opening night event, which also kicked off the 2021-2022 Washington National Opera season, the Ginsburg family donated the Justice’s piano, costume from “The Daughter of the Regiment,” and personal opera recordings and memorabilia.  The Kennedy Center also announced that the Washington National Opera rehearsal studio in Takoma Park will be renamed to “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Studio and Music Library.”

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of the greatest advocates for our art form,” said WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. “She also made all of us better artists through her high principles and inspiring way of living. With her in our audience, we wanted to do our best to elevate ourselves to her level. Thanks to this gift of her piano, WNO artists are connected to her passion and legacy as they prepare for roles and future careers for generations to come.”

Performances of “Come Home: A Celebration of Return,” which also commemorates the life of Ginsburg, runs until Nov. 14.  For more information on “Come Home: A Celebration of Return,” visit https://www.kennedy-center.org/wno/home/2021-2022/come-home/.

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