By the time bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee finishes his second season in LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, he will have appeared in six different productions with the company. His is the robust voice audiences have heard from off stage in Moby-Dick and The Magic Flute and on stage in Madame Butterfly. He’s also the singer they will see in such diverse roles as Colline in the current production of La Bohème and as Cesare Angelotti in next season’s Tosca. While the 2015 Met Council Winner may sound and look at home on stage now, he did not always want to pursue a career in opera.
“I was always into performing, whether it was on the football field – I’m a super sports guy – or in choir,” says Brownlee, who originally wanted to be a choral conductor. That all changed when he had his first opera experience.
Brownlee took a role in Verdi’s La Traviata with Mobile Opera in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. At first, he disliked the entire process of rehearsing opera. Wanting to understand why people love the art form, Brownlee watched the third act of the show from the wings on the final night of the opera’s run. It blew him away. He recalls, “It was all the world’s greatest art forms coming together for this one moment, in Mobile, Alabama, for this one woman, to tell this lofty story, with such honesty. I thought, ‘I get it now.’ I don’t even know if it was a particularly good performance, but for me it was one of those nights in theater when everything seems right. It made me think, ‘Wow, I’m going to be chasing this for the rest of my life.’”
The next day, Brownlee switched his college major to add voice and then later took his first voice lesson. He went on to graduate school and afterwards received acceptance into four prestigious young artist programs, including LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program. He ultimately decided on two, spending his summer as an Apprentice Artists with Santa Fe Opera between his seasons in Los Angeles.
Passionate about LA Opera’s mission and the way it nurtures young artists, Brownlee joined the company’s young artist program two years ago. He speaks very highly of the company’s willingness to push boundaries artistically (staging productions such as The Ghosts of Versailles or the silent film-inspired Magic Flute), but also of the young artist program’s mission.
“I think this program has a wonderful mission statement. We take the best voices we hear. If someone’s German is bad, we’ll fix it. We’re a program,” says Brownlee, who then jumps into a sports analogy to further explain his love for the young artist program. “I think of it as a draft. Do you need to get serviceable players? Absolutely. But what you are really looking for is that person who’s a generation changer and there are only so many of those a year. There are only so many people that can change the way we hear the art form and really make an impact. That’s what I am interested in and that’s why I love this program so much and believe in it.”
Brownlee will return in the fall for his third year in the young artist program, which has been a tremendous experience for him and given him greater confidence in his instrument and work on stage. “I think the biggest challenge as a young singer is just owning your product, knowing that the people around you only want you to get better, and just constantly reminding yourself that you belong in the room.” This is easier said than done, especially when all of LA Opera’s young artists perform on stage with the pros during their tenure.
It’s also this nurturing young artist program coupled with professional on stage experience that makes budding opera stars like Brownlee ready to tackle any role that comes their way. Brownlee has performed some challenging roles to date, including the Speaker in The Magic Flute (which he sang from backstage into a microphone surrounded by other chorus voices), Don Fernando in Fidelio at Santa Fe Opera (he was understudying the role, but ultimately went on for a performance) and Reverend Olin Blitch in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah at Pasadena Opera. The latter especially challenged Brownlee both musically and artistically, as the role is an intense exploration into the mind of a traveling preacher, who ends up assaulting a teenage girl. He recalls, “It was the first time I had a hard time leaving a role at rehearsal. I couldn’t go home alone and spend time with my thoughts. I would have to go see someone and talk to them to wash the role off me every day.” But, he adds, “It was also the most thrilling, exciting experience to play that role and to be that into it.”
Brownlee is currently starring as Colline in La Bohème. It’s a role he recently sang at Atlanta Opera and that’s strikingly different from the intensity of Reverend Blitch. “Colline secretly thinks he’s smarter than everyone in the room,” explains Brownlee. “He thinks he’s read more books and has the most charming joke at the moment, but he’s just as poor as the other three people. He’s inherently self-aware, but denying it at the same time.”
The former footballer will make his Metropolitan Opera debut next season as the First Soldier in Richard Strauss’s Salome. “Salome is one of my favorite operas. It’s 90 minutes of ‘get on the train, because we’re going.’ It never stops and there’s not one empty bar of music.” He also find it exciting to be singing at the Met and being part of the great artistic energy that comes out of New York City. As one of the nation’s rising opera stars, it’s safe to say audiences will see much more of Brownlee in New York, here in Los Angeles and at the many great opera houses of the world.
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