Lawrence Brownlee thinks of himself as a regular Joe.
He grew up in a solid, working class household in Youngstown, Ohio, the fourth of six children.
Brownlee's dad worked at General Motors’ Lordstown assembly plant. The family was involved in their church. They were salt of the earth Midwesterners.
“Anyone who wants to talk football with me, I am that guy,” Brownlee says proudly.
Brownlee may love the Pittsburgh Steelers, but there's a big difference between him and most other football fanatics: Brownlee is one of the world’s leading bel canto tenors.
An opera singer.
Former Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins called Brownlee one of the top two or three bel canto singers in the world; Brownlee's vocal range is wide, and he can sustain the long lines of high notes found in works by the 19th century opera composers Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini.
These days, Brownlee regularly performs those works in some of the world’s great opera houses -- New York’s Metropolitan Opera, La Scala in Milan, the Paris Opera — but as a kid, he didn’t know much about opera. In fact, even though his father directed the church choir, Brownlee wasn’t into singing.
“I did not like it, that’s the honest truth,” he confesses with a laugh. “I love instruments, and I play several, but I was very shy about singing.”
By the time he reached high school, though, Brownlee had joined the show choir. That’s where he got the first inkling that he might have what it takes to make it as a classical singer.
“After a recital,” Brownlee explains, “a gentleman approached me and said, hey, you have something special there!”
Brownlee thought the man was nuts. But the chance encounter sparked his curiosity.
As an undergraduate student at Anderson University, Brownlee pursued voice lessons. He went on to post-graduate studies at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.
Decades later, he still bristles that his first choice school, Julliard, didn’t even offer him an audition.
That rejection may have helped prepare the singer for the challenges he faced early in his career. Brownlee is a self-described short, African American man -- he didn’t always fit the image of the leading man that many opera companies had in mind.
The singer won them over with his voice.
These days Brownlee, his wife and their two children make their home base in Atlanta, although the singer is on the road 9-10 months a year.
In August he returns to Seattle Opera, where he’ll perform the title role in Rossini’s opera “The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory.” The city holds a special place in Brownlee’s heart; in 2001 he was chosen for Seattle Opera’s competitive Young Artists program, and in 2008 the company named Brownlee Artist of the Year.
Although Brownlee’s talents are in demand around the globe, when Seattle Opera calls, he responds.
“They saw something in me they wanted to promote, that they wanted to invest in,” he says. “So I come back to Seattle often, because for me, it’s home.”
You can see Brownlee in "Count Ory,” August 6-20 at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall.