Opera stars Lawrence Brownlee and Eric Owens came together at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton on Feb. 24 to perform a unique collaboration.
Bass-baritone Owens, who is known as an interpreter of classic works, was joined by Grammy-nominated tenor Brownlee as they performed an array of work from opera music to gospel songs along their 12-city tour.
“For me, this concert [tour] is a lot of fun,” Brownlee said. “More than anything else, it’s about having fun. For Eric and my friend, Craig Terry, who is the pianist – a phenomenal pianist – it’s about having fun. The fact is, we have done this many times before and there is such an infectious energy that spills over into the audience. Everybody always comes away saying that they have had such a great time and we love that.”
Brownlee and Owens have known each other for close to 20 years.
“We have known each other before in our small fraternity of opera singers and an even smaller circle of opera singers of color,” he said. “So, we have had a mutual respect for each other for a long time.”
Brownlee, who is a bit younger than Owens, saw him perform and thought highly of him before formally introducing himself.
“When we finally got together, we said, ‘Hey, let’s do something together,’” he said. “So, we sang a couple of operas together and we thought it would be a good idea to do this recital of varied styles of music together. We have done this [about] five times and it’s been pretty successful thus far, and we are happy to share that to other audiences around the world.”
Brownlee, a native to Youngstown, Ohio, has been involved with music since he was a boy.
“I started in music as a kid,” he said. “My parents were involved in music at church and there was always a reason why that I have had a love for music. I grew up in a family who was involved in instrumental music. Even in school, I was in show choir. Someone in high school told me that they thought that I had a voice the world needed to hear.”
Brownlee eventually went away to college to become a lawyer, but soon realized that was not the path he was destined to take.
“[I thought] that I would be a lawyer in the beginning, but a lot of people encouraged me that probably was not my best choice because I have a master’s talent that should be shared with the world,” he said. “I believed them, so I started pursuing music and here I am today.”
Brownlee was named the Male Singer of the Year in 2017 at the International Opera Awards.
“That confirms that I made the right choice,” he said. “If you think about the fact that I have had the opportunity to perform on pretty much the world’s greatest stages. I say that because I am fortunate. People have felt that my voice was important. I have been invited multiple times to all different theaters and I always appreciate the opportunity [to perform]. But for me, this made it clear to me that this is what I should be doing in my life.”
Brownlee spends his free time as an artistic advisor to Opera Philadelphia, a company dedicated to propelling the genre of opera music into the next generation.
“Opera Philadelphia is a company who has been very supportive of my career since the beginning,” he said. “Because they have the art and the desire to serve that community, I have been engaged as me being an artist, and reaching out and trying to work on education and an initiative for diversity to get people of all different races into theater.”
Brownlee enjoys singing for younger audiences and feels sharing his voice for a younger group can help keep opera alive.
“I sang [recently] for a group of kids, ages ranging from 6 to 14, I believe,” he said. “Those kids are usually the most enthusiastic audiences, so just to feel like there will be a future of our art form around. Hopefully people will grow a greater appreciation and become supportive of our artform.”
Brownlee also feels opera should be shared with everyone, not just children, but people of all different backgrounds.
“As a person on the stage, it’s nice to see people of all different races – especially African-American – being in the audience,” Brownlee said. “This is not exclusive, but more inclusive. We work with the community by having different events. We try to get feedback from different groups, and we say we want to be an artistic group who serves this community, a very rich and diverse community. I am happy to be a part of exposing this great art form to all different races.”
Brownlee, who performed a solo show at the McCarter Theatre Center last year, enjoyed his period in Princeton.
“I had a good time there and I had such a supportive audience,” he said.
For more information about the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, and to learn more about upcoming shows, visit its website at www.mccarter.org.