This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
Acclaimed tenor Lawrence Brownlee discusses creating community through online performances in the era of social-distancing.
Wonderful Is Your Name
Anna Heflin: You recently sang in an uplifting online and socially-distanced arrangement of “Wonderful is your name” By Hezekiah Walker with Damien Sneed, John Holiday, Morris Robinson, Bass, and Soloman Howard. Through your livestream concerts and internet presence, is it a goal for you to develop a community of fellow musicians and listeners? If so, what could this community look like?
Lawrence Brownlee: Yes! I had such a fun time collaborating with my buddies on “wonderful is your name”. We all grew up listening to and performing songs of Hezekiah Walker and other gospel artists. The idea was to return back to the music of our youth and to do something unexpected from a bunch of classical musicians. That was great fun. Yes, I like to use livestream concerts and my internet presence to be a part of a larger community of musicians - developing connections and perhaps bringing people over to classical music who otherwise might not listen to it, and I always try to do it with an element of fun and being relaxed.
AH: Does creating music with others digitally (like in “Wonderful is your name”) change how you view the rehearsal process? What, if anything, will this experience bring to your approach of making music in person?
LB: Creating music digitally has limitations. The organic process of “vibing” with your partners is not possible. You have to listen in a completely different way because the rhythm and timing is strict. You must be precise and listen. This will carry over when collaborating in the future to make sure I am rhythmically precise and always listening.
COFFEE AND A SONG
AH: In your series “Coffee and a Song” you share your beautiful interpretations of art-songs. Do you feel that you are able to create a more intimate concert experience for your audience singing from your home over Facebook than you can when performing in a large hall? How has this Pandemic ushered in a return of the “house concert” in the style of Schubert’s day?
LB: The whole idea of “coffee and song” was meant to be done in a relaxed setting; similar to the “Schubertiade”. For myself and my colleagues, it is not necessarily about perfection or production value, but to share our love of music with others. It is more intimate than the recital stage because we are in the comfort of our homes and that provides insight into who we are a people as well. Creating art at home is a very calming thing for me and I enjoy doing it. As someone who does a fair amount of art song recitals, I try to create a comfortable, intimate atmosphere even on the recital stage trying to capture the same essence of singing at home amongst friends.
AH: Has performing over the internet given you a more interactive relationship with your audience? Do you feel more connected to your audience? Do you read comments on your videos?
LB: Performing over the internet does increase interaction amongst my audience. I like reading the comments and sometimes I will engage with people over their comments. It’s nice to see that people appreciate what we are doing, and I do feel somewhat connected to people all over the world.
AH: A common critique of classical music, and opera in particular, is that ticket prices, getting dressed up and opera etiquette (don’t cough, knowing when to clap) keep people from becoming opera fans. Do you feel that this sudden shift from the concert hall to the internet, where many performances are streamed for free and viewers can watch from their pajamas, has the potential to make opera more accessible?
LB: I am not sure that internet concerts by themselves will make opera going more accessible. Youtube has been around for some time now so people have had access to content. I will say the uptick in live streaming and the large number of people sitting at home connected to social media scouring for content might likely come across it sooner. I do hope we can recruit new people who appreciate this art from and be there to take part in live theater when the time comes to reconvene in these fabulous venues. Although theater etiquette may seem somewhat stuffy or constricting, I truly believe that it adds to the beauty of the art form - high class!
AH: One reason that audiences traditionally attend operas in halls is that concert halls are built with acoustics in mind to make a singer sound their best. Is performing at home with audiences listening through their phones or computers a vulnerable situation for an opera singer? If so, could this vulnerability bring you closer to your audience? If not, why?
LB: The beautiful science of the acoustics in these musical venues cannot be replicated at home. They are built to make the natural human voice sound its best without the use of amplification. At home concerts using computers, IPads, and iPhones are such different things altogether that they cannot be compared. What these concerts at home are meant to be are “fill-ins” and serve as an opportunity to have art and produce art until we can return to the venues in which the art was meant to be performed. Creating art at home can bring a closeness to your audience as they can see the organic process of an artist in music making in an intimate, private setting.
American-born tenor Lawrence Brownlee captivates audiences and critics around the world, and has been hailed as “an international star in the bel canto operatic repertory” (The New York Times), “one of the world’s leading bel canto stars” (The Guardian), and “one of the most in-demand opera singers in the world today” (NPR). A recent review of his Arturo in I Purtani left a reviewer to write, “If there is a finer Arturo in the world other than Lawrence Brownlee, I haven’t heard him, and I have heard them all.” He serves as artistic advisor for Opera Philadelphia where his responsibilities include increasing and expanding audience diversity, advocating for new works, and liaising with the General Director from the perspective of a performing artist.