The star tenor will perform the title role in Seattle Opera’s production of “Count Ory,” Rossini’s uproarious and lascivious final comedy.
He’s in demand around the globe, a favorite of music lovers at the most prestigious venues for classical music.
But Lawrence Brownlee reserves a special fondness for Seattle.
“This is a place that’s very dear to my heart,” the tenor remarked just a few days after rehearsals had begun for “The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory,” the comic opera by Rossini that opens Seattle Opera’s new season Aug. 6. He’s in town to perform the title role.
‘The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory’
by Gioachino Rossini. Aug. 6-20 (Lawrence Brownlee performs Aug. 6, 13, 17, 20; Barry Banks sings Ory in the alternate cast.) McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$272 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
Brownlee, 43, refers to his return to the Seattle stage as “coming home.” Ever since he began his association with the company in 2000 as part of the Young Artists Program, Seattle Opera has been “very important to me for the advancement of my career,” he says.
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Former general director Speight Jenkins became an early champion, casting Brownlee in bel canto roles that showcased his phenomenally agile, elegant tenor.
It’s a voice ideally suited to Rossini’s challenges, according to Giacomo Sagripanti, who will conduct “Count Ory.” The title role, he says, “requires all the features of which Larry is a master: vocal agility, lightness, sense of the phrase, thrilling high notes, and a wonderful and elegant musical sensibility.”
“Count Ory” dates from 1828, when Rossini was writing for the Paris stage and is based on a farce set in medieval France.
Through a tangle of disguises — including abundant use of cross-dressing — the lecherous young Count Ory and his retinue make advances on a group of women whose husbands and protectors have headed off to fight in the Crusades.
“It’s much naughtier and cheekier than the better-known ‘Barber of Seville,’ ” says Australian director Lindy Hume, who was invited by general director Aidan Lang to introduce “Count Ory” to Seattle audiences. “There’s a very interesting tension between Rossini’s gorgeous, lush and elegant music and the action, which is incredibly bawdy. Rossini is playing with ideas of gender fluidity and the notion of a false prophet.”
Hume found echoes of the opera’s sensibility and its “faux-medieval setting” in the films of Monty Python and the “Black Adder” series. “It’s about having fun with the sexually charged setup Rossini has given us.”
“Playing Count Ory is such an opportunity to have fun,” Brownlee says. “He’s someone of privilege who knows he can get away with anything.”
Soprano Sarah Coburn will make her role debut as Countess Adèle, Ory’s object of desire. “There’s lots of fast singing, vocal fireworks, and great ensembles,” she says. “But what stands out for me about the character is her flamboyant persona. It’s so much fun to use the voice as a tool to create the character.”
Ory demands the light, high tenor for which Brownlee has become famous, but in recent years he’s also been branching into other areas. The singer is especially proud of creating the title role in last year’s world premiere of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” a new opera composed for him by Daniel Schnyder. In April, he reprised the role at the iconic Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Another project, the album “Spiritual Sketches,” involved new interpretations of spirituals, for which Brownlee drew on some of his earliest musical experiences singing in a church gospel choir with his family in his native Youngstown, Ohio.
Last December, Brownlee returned to this material for a special recital he gave with the jazz pianist Jason Moran in the crypt of the historic Church of the Intercession in Harlem.
Brownlee says that he felt the need to respond with his art “to the senseless tragedies that are happening right now,” referring to the violence that has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. “It was a very emotional experience: recording in the church crypt and feeling the weight of the parishioners who lived through some of the horrors of our history.”
What solace can art offer in times like these? “Many say that sports is a good unifier. With art, I think the same thing is possible,” he says. “Art is very important for the morale of people, especially in a time of great uncertainty. It can be the elixir that heals.”