What friends are for

Opera Philadelphia presents ‘Lawrence Brownlee & Friends in Philadelphia’

4 minute read
Spreading interpretive wings: Lawrence Brownlee performs in the inaugural offering from the Opera Philadelphia Channel. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier.)
Spreading interpretive wings: Lawrence Brownlee performs in the inaugural offering from the Opera Philadelphia Channel. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier.)

Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O felt like a tradition from its first outing, appealing equally to local music lovers and aficionados from around the country. When September came and went without this year’s planned festivities, the absence was palpable. But thanks to the Opera Philadelphia Channel, which launched with Lawrence Brownlee & Friends in Philadelphia, the company maintains a fine alternative to in-person staging.

Like every performing-arts organization, Opera Philadelphia needed to adapt to the realities of the current moment and remain relevant until live programming is once again possible. In the spring and summer, it released several archival productions through YouTube—largely new works premiered within the past several years, which highlighted the company’s risk-taking reputation. Now the Opera Philadelphia Channel will provide new streaming content at least through the end of the 2020-2021 season.

Successful partnerships

The channel’s first offering builds on one of the company’s most successful artistic partnerships. Lawrence Brownlee, a virtuosic American tenor most closely associated with the bel canto repertoire, has spread his interpretative wings with Opera Philadelphia in recent years. He gave a sensitive, moving performance in the world premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird back in 2015, embodying the legendary jazz musician. In 2018 he premiered Tyshawn Sorey’s searing Cycles of My Being, a song-cycle on the psychic weight of racism in American life.

Brownlee had been slated to perform a joint recital during this year’s Festival O20 with tenor Michael Spyres to promote the pair’s forthcoming album, the cheekily titled Amici e Rivali (Friends and Rivals). Instead, he shares the digital stage with three sopranos who have strong local connections: Karen Slack and Sarah Shafer, both Curtis graduates and Pennsylvania natives; and current Curtis student Lindsey Reynolds.

The program bridges opera, lieder, spiritual, and popular song. Brownlee functions as both a collaborator and a curator, interviewing his colleagues (with masks and behind plexiglass) in between musical selections. He brings the same easy warmth and charm to these interactions as he projects on stage—one wishes we still lived in the age of televised variety shows, as he would be a natural host. It was also wonderful to hear Slack, who grew up in North Philadelphia, recount her many musical memories of the city.

Buoyant, elegant, cheeky

Each of the participants brought something special to the table. Brownlee unleashed vocal pyrotechnics in “Allegro io son,” from the Donizetti rarity Rita, and sang Jacqueline Hairston’s arrangement of the spiritual “My Good Lord Done Been Here” with a bright buoyancy. His rendition of the standard “It Had to Be You” had supper-club elegance.

Shafer’s “Laudamus te” from Mozart’s C-minor Mass lived up to her descriptor for it—it was ebullient—but I preferred her lighthearted approach to the Gershwins’ “Fascinating Rhythm.” Slack rendered Alma Mahler’s “Die stille Stadt” with pleasing simplicity and astonishingly clear German, and Reynolds found fresh sparkle in the Victor Herbert chestnut “Art Is Calling for Me.” Together, Slack and Reynolds gave a moving account of “Watch and Pray,” in a two-person adaptation of Undine Smith Moore’s setting by Myra Huang. (Huang, Brownlee’s regular accompanist, provided able support throughout on the piano.)

Finding fresh sparkle: soprano Lindsey Reynolds joined Lawrence Brownlee and others. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier.)
Finding fresh sparkle: soprano Lindsey Reynolds joined Lawrence Brownlee and others. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier.)

The evening ended with a round-robin rendition of “Anything You Can Do” that gently poked fun at tenor arrogance and featured some tongue-in-cheek updated lyrics. Opera singers appropriating musical theater can sometimes be an awkward proposition, but Brownlee, Reynolds, Shafer, and Slack all have big personalities that suit this kind of material.

The future of live music

The entire endeavor spoke to the current moment. It was heartening to see Brownlee, a leader in his field, share the stage with colleagues who might not be as well established in their careers. In an arena as male-dominated as classical music, the presence of four women artists performing the work of many women composers was a necessary corrective. And within an industry that has not always been hospitable to people of color, it felt right to now see a diverse group of artists thriving together, in service of a program that gives Black American music equal standing with Mozart and Massenet.

The performance also testified to the strength of Philadelphia’s classical-music scene. Each of these singers have given sterling performances in recent seasons, from Shafer’s standout Iris in Opera Philadelphia’s Semele to Reynolds’ vibrant turn in Curtis Opera Theatre’s Albert Herring, which I saw just a week before COVID closures began. Slack’s alumna recital at Curtis as part of last year’s Festival O19 was an overwhelmingly beautiful experience. Their collaboration here gives hope for what awaits in the future of live music.

Image description: A photo of opera singer Lawrence Brownlee singing onstage. Both of his hands are spreading out in front of him, palms first. He’s wearing a gray suit with a fancy sheen and a black bowtie. There’s a plexiglass barrier beside him.

Image description: A photo of opera singer Lindsey Reynolds singing onstage. Her eyes are closed and she’s smiling while she sings, her hands lifted up on both sides. She’s wearing a satiny sleeveless patterned brown pleated dress. Behind a plexiglass barrier, a pianist plays, wearing a facemask.

What, When, Where

Lawrence Brownlee & Friends in Philadelphia. Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Lindsey Reynolds, Sarah Shafer, and Karen Slack, sopranos; Myra Huang, piano. Opera Philadelphia. Streaming through May 31, 2021, on the Opera Philadelphia Channel. The event is available on a pay-per-view basis ($20) or with a season pass ($99). https://www.operaphila.tv/

The Opera Philadelphia Channel offers closed captions.

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