The crowd for a recent Saturday evening performance of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at Caramoor Center for Music and Arts, in lush Katonah, N.Y., was older and whiter even than a typical audience at the Metropolitan Opera (and that is pretty darn old and white).
The opera’s star, a young black tenor named Lawrence Brownlee, was singing the role of Nemorino for the first time. “About 10” was the estimate of the number of black people in the audience he gave to The Observer later in an interview; the theater seats 1,700.
This summer, Mr. Brownlee and an assortment of incredibly lovely, down-to-earth singers are performing L’elisir and Rossini’s Semiramide (on July 31), with Will Crutchfield conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. It’s an almost all-American crew; of the 10 major roles in the two operas, nine are being filled by Americans, including Mr. Brownlee, who is appearing in both.
Part Epcot Center, part the old Getty, Caramoor is a hodgepodge of Moorish and Italian, medieval and Renaissance. There are imported period rooms in the main house, a sunken garden and an old pet cemetery, courtesy of Caramoor’s founders (and the property’s original owners), Walter and Lucie Rosen. It is a place where the well-heeled opera lover (someone, say, in the market for a $30 million estate in nearby Bedford Corners, advertised on the second page of the program book) can relax for an evening, picnicking with real glassware in the idyllic dusk.
Caramoor is an escape, but it also allows singers to be heard by people whose opinions matter; Sarah Billinghurst, one of the artistic executives at the Met, is quoted in the program expressing her “professional interest” in the place. “In fact,” she goes on, “the Met has engaged people after hearing them at Caramoor.” Vivica Genaux, a well-known mezzo-soprano appearing as Arsace in Semiramide, got her big New York break at Caramoor in 1996. It is simultaneously picnic and audition, low- and high-pressure.
Mr. Brownlee wore Nikes, cargo shorts and a pink button-down to an interview at his press representative’s apartment on the Upper West Side the Monday following his L’elisir performance. He did not dispute this critic’s assessment: very pretty, slightly listless, refined of voice (a good thing), and refined of manner (not so much).
“You always look and you think, ‘There are things I could have definitely done better,'” he said. “I’m trying to do this thing where I learn to be content with it. I don’t think that it was awful. I feel like I have a lot of place for growth in the role, especially it being outside of what I normally do. … I really enjoyed Saturday night, I enjoyed it and I’m excited for the next time I get a chance to sing it. … You step back and you say, ‘O.K., I did what I did, I’m happy, I’m content with it, I’m not thrilled with it.'”
Mr. Brownlee wasn’t too pleased with his slightly tentative rendition of the deceptively simple opening aria, “Quanto e bella.”
“You come out there and it’s so hard to get started,” he said. “Some of the ornamentation didn’t sound quite as spirit-filled, quite as sparkling as I wanted it to.”
But he was happy about his duet with the quack doctor, Dulcamara. A middle-class kid from Youngstown, Ohio, he sees a lot of himself in the country bumpkin Nemorino.
“I’m a regular guy, I don’t take myself seriously at all,” he said. “People ask me all the time, ‘Can I add you on Facebook,’ and I say, ‘Sure.'”
But the tuxedo he wore for the semi-staged concert performance of the opera, and the newness of the role, manifested themselves clearly. Mr. Brownlee may well grow into it, though it lies a bit lower than his touchstone parts, like Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia.
It’s certainly a better fit than Rossini’s Otello, which, he says with a smile, he got offered mostly “because I’m a black guy.”
“I know there are jobs I haven’t gotten because I’m black,” Mr. Brownlee says. And he notices when his audiences are all white, which happens a lot, especially in Europe but at places like Caramoor, too.
In Vienna, he was bought out of a contract and replaced with a tall Spanish guy when the director had a “different idea” of the part.
But he also claims a degree of colorblindness; after his time in a diverse show choir in high school, he’s never really noticed being the only black guy in the room.
He wants to be the Almaviva or Nemorino who happens to be black.
But there were some awkward moments in L’elisir as he competed against the tall white guy for the tall blond girl, and when Nemorino enlists in the army to get some quick money, his rival, who enlists him, says, “I’m pleased to have acquired you,” which made me cringe.
Rubbing his arm, Mr. Brownlee says, “I can’t make this come off.”
There are things he can do, however, and those he does do. He has lost 30 pounds in the past two months and aims to lose another 10 to 15.
Yes, it is over for the fat lady who sings. At a time when stage directors and the “theatricality” of productions have unprecedented priority, it’s a common (and mostly accepted) fact that singers, particularly women, lose parts if they’re perceived as too fat.
For Angela Meade—who shares the Caramoor stage with Mr. Brownlee this summer, singing the title role in Semiramide next week—losing the weight is not as easy. “The size thing,” as she calls it when she brings it up, is for Ms. Meade something like what race is for Mr. Brownlee: the factor that hasn’t prevented success but that persistently and quietly takes away opportunities.
Ms. Meade has been at several auditions in the past six months where people have said that they want to cast her but claim that she’s not “right” for the production; it pisses her off, since she feels can move as well anyone, and is hugely confident in her vocal gifts.
It seems that her voice arrived fully formed, needing upkeep but no real technical training. Thus far, it has always been there for her, every note, and of Semiramide she says, very pleasantly, “I don’t want to sound full of myself, but there aren’t any parts of it that I’m terrified of,” even though it’s one of the biggest roles in the repertory, accounting on its own for 100 minutes of notoriously difficult music.
Mr. Brownlee and Ms. Meade, radiant and charming and full of gossip and easy laughs even when talking about the frustrations of losing a part due to factors beyond their control, are in a strange moment of their careers. They are busy with work, in leading roles at the world’s major venues, but they’re not household names, even in opera-going households. They both hover just behind more prominent singers.
Mr. Brownlee denies living in the shadow of Peruvian star tenor Juan Diego Florez, even though “people compare our voices. All. The. Time.” Jay Nordlinger’s praise of Mr. Brownlee in The New Criterion was: “Man cannot live on Juan Diego Florez alone,” which was telling.
But, shadow or no shadow, he still has to cover for, and sing second cast to, Mr. Florez, who he admits “puts butts in the seats,” and Mr. Brownlee hasn’t sung in several major American houses because they’ve chosen to engage Mr. Florez instead (for example, Mr. Florez was chosen over Mr. Brownlee for La Fille du Régiment in San Francisco).
As for Ms. Meade, who made her Met debut stepping in for an ill soprano in Ernani, other than a single performance at the Met next season as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, she will be covering Renée Fleming in the company premiere of Rossini’s Armida (which will also star Mr. Brownlee; Ms. Fleming hasn’t done the difficult part in well over a decade, so Ms. Meade better be ready). Ms. Meade still has to make the audition rounds at houses (she’s not yet always approached for engagements, but “that’s right around the corner”) and still does a lot of competitions.
So have Ms. Meade and Mr. Brownlee “made it” yet?
“Sometimes I pinch myself,” Ms. Meade says. “I wanted for so many years to sing a lead role at the Met, and here it is, so I don’t know what to do now. I mean, I guess to sing all over the world, at all the big houses, and that’s starting to happen.”
Mr. Brownlee seemed at a loss for words, then settled on a definition based on longevity: He would love to sing as long as Domingo has.
In a slightly different boat is Vivica Genaux, another Caramoor singer this summer, who shares with Mr. Brownlee and Ms. Meade a mostly esoteric repertory but doesn’t suffer from even the potential liabilities of race or size; she is petite and white, with big, inquisitive eyes.
Even though she says that it’s “not a matter of making it, it’s a matter of walking the walk, following the path,” she also admits the truth: “I can do whatever I want to do now.”
Free from covering, auditions and competitions, she may not have the name recognition of Cecilia Bartoli, but she is enough of a draw to push companies in the more obscure directions she prefers.
Unlike Mr. Brownlee, who’s adding Nemorino and some Mozart parts, or Ms. Meade, who sees herself as essentially a Verdi soprano, Ms. Genaux has no real desire to do mainstream roles; if anything, she wants to delve even more into the nooks and crannies of the baroque. She doesn’t have Ms. Bartoli’s pressures, but in the 13 years since her Caramoor debut, she’s gotten what any self-described “control freak” would want: freedom, “wiggle room.”
Thirteen years from now, will Larry Brownlee and Angela Meade have the same?