Simon McBurney’s new production of Die Zauberflöte, on at the Met through June 10, begins with Lawrence Brownlee as Prince Tamino alone on stage getting assaulted by a serpent. The stage is mostly empty and unpainted. The serpent is projected onto a giant screen, behind which Tamino writhes in terror. After fainting from fear, Tamino is saved by the servants of the Queen of the Night who kill the serpent. They then violently disrobe an unconscious Tamino and argue over who among them gets to become his lover.
The production engages live handcrafted special effects and zany audience interactions to recreate the frisky dynamics of the 18th-century singspiel, or German light opera. With its blank canvas stage and DIY effects, the production might seem like a no-budget avant-garde staging that’s been writ large at the Met. Birds are represented by pieces of paper. Papageno clinks out a melody with celery sticks on liquor bottles. This is on the same stage where earlier this month a live horse was employed in Aida.
Brownlee’s performance as the stricken, lovelorn prince is impressively windswept. He flickers balletically in virginal white across the stage, he dives into the orchestra pit. He endures trials, blockades, manipulation and assault. Arguably the least insane character in the frenzied fable, Tamino is like the audience’s avatar, guiding us through Mozart’s chaotic picaresque. Papageno’s straight man, the Queen of the Night’s naïve hero, Pamina’s tormented lover and Sarastro’s somber protégé: Tamino is the life raft we cling to in the opera’s tumultuous waters. Die Zauberflöte is like a snapshot of 18th-century male insecurities in the face of female power, and Brownlee is a faithful conduit for the tender and demented stew of emotion engendered in that space.
“Tamino was the very first role I ever sang in opera,” Brownlee told Observer. He had sung Tamino before he had ever even seen an opera. “Simon McBurney challenged me. He talked about Tamino being someone who was arrogant, full of himself, and had to learn to be humble.” Tamino, a child of privilege tossed into the deep end of an epic adventure, earns the temple of the sun when he conquers the feminine chaos of night and all of nature’s elements.
Mainly known as a bel canto tenor, Brownlee is working somewhat outside of his strengths in Die Zauberflöte. Without a conduit for his dazzling top notes, he leans powerfully into acting and movement in his performance as Tamino, guiding the audience admirably through one of opera’s most anarchic plotlines.
“I like to be challenged,” Brownlee said. “Anytime I go to a role my whole thing is to be an empty palette that the stage director and music director can make something with, along with my knowledge now.” With twenty-five years in the business, Brownlee brings an enormous amount of experience to his roles. “I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of this craft,” he said. “But I need to have an out-of-body experience in the sense that I don’t just rest on what I know. I like someone to untap some potential in me.”
Tamino is like an empty vessel as he guides the audience through the struggle between light and darkness in Die Zauberflöte. It is in a similar role as a conduit and guide that Brownlee approaches his new album, Rising, released on June 2 by Warner Classics for Black History Month. Conceived in 2020, during the coronavirus lockdown, he sees the album as a way to create a space for young composers in classical music. His voice plows the furrow down which he leads new audiences to diverse new music.
“We all endured the George Floyd situation,” Brownlee said. “I remember being in that space and talking to my colleagues, people asking me questions about Black artists, Black composers, people having space and an opportunity to operate in what their gifts were.”
Knowing that he would be performing a program at Carnegie Hall this year, he took that as an opportunity to bring young Black composers into some of the most privileged spaces in classical music. In Rising, composers Jeremiah Evans, Carlos Simon, Damian Sneed, Shawn E. Okpebholo and Joel Thompson are paired with authors from the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes. These composers are side by side on the album with Margaret Bonds and Robert Owens, 20th-century Black composers who have passed away and who knew and composed for some of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance.
By combining contemporary with historic composers, Brownlee told Observer that he hoped to contribute to the canon of songs and to increase what is out there that comes from Black composers. He also looks to change the perceptions of works by Black composers and to broaden their adaptability.
“A lot of people think that music written by Black composers is only for Black singers. I don’t agree,” Brownlee said. He hopes that the album presents the music in such a way that the songs seem like they can be sung by anyone.
Brownlee’s voice guides us through a varied assortment of musical styles in Rising. The songs sound like they exist in the same canon if not the same style. This variety was deliberate on Brownlee’s part. He compares the variety of styles to the multiplicity of Black experiences.
“The beautiful thing about this is that the program is so diverse. That’s what I love about it because obviously we, as Black people, are not a monolith. We have so many different influences. So many of these composers are influenced by gospel, some by Strauss, some by jazz, some by pop… there isn’t any throughline other than the fact that I said I didn’t want this album to be just about our struggles, but our triumphs, our joys, our inspiration.”
This same diversity Brownlee sees as intrinsic to the Harlem Renaissance itself—also by no means a monolith. He compared contemporary composer Damian Sneed’s The Gift of Song on Rising to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and notes its Latin influence. Much like the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, the composers on Rising were influenced by New York City’s staggering diversity. Rather than give the composers on the album thematic or stylistic restraints, Brownlee said that he gave them a sense of where his voice sits and then mostly let them do as they liked.
A passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in classical music, Brownlee’s interest in expanding Black voices in his field has led him to speak widely on racial justice and diversity initiatives. Rising, as well as his 2018 album Cycles of My Being, both encounter the Black experience in America: the struggles, inspirations and joys of African Americans.
As Simon McBurney’s Die Zauberflöte draws new audiences to Mozart by employing ancient staging techniques and effects, Brownlee leans into his classical training and the legacy of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance to draw a new audience to contemporary black composers. These new composers, he told Observer, “stand on the shoulders of composers who came before them but they all have something to say.”