A discussion on the intersection of arts and social justice
BY SYDNEY JOHNSON STAFF WRITER
On Monday, March 1, a livestreamed panel discussion featured Lawrence Brownlee, one of America’s foremost modern opera singers, in conversation with Patricia Miller, director of Vocal Studies at Mason. The idea of change and having more diversity within the arts world, specifically the opera community, was a top priority in the discussion.
This talk was part of Mason Arts at Home’s “The Artist Activist: Centering Black Voices,” a series featuring renowned artists to distinguish the intersection of the arts industry and social justice movements.
Brownlee has collaborated with world-renowned musical groups including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and has performed at festivals at Baden-Baden and Salzburg. He is also a vocal activist for racial justice in the classical music community.
Brownlee grew up in Ohio with five siblings; his mother was a church choir director and his father was the soloist. They inspired him and his siblings to immerse themselves in the world of music. “You got in where you fit in,” Brownlee said.
Singing was not Brownlee’s plan at first, but through the encouragement of those around him, he started singing in church and school choirs. Those were the first steps that helped him get into show choir and find more opportunities to sing with others.
“My entryway into music was through school and church,” Brownlee said. As a senior in high school, he took voice lessons and started to imitate the voices he heard from Italian opera singers.
This unique and sudden change of voice started to pay off with standing ovations at every show he performed, and he soon knew that he wanted to start looking for ways to start his career in classical music.
Being a Black tenor in an environment that lacked diversity was an important point that Brownlee and Miller discussed. The importance of his platform as a lead role singer, coupled with being seen as competition by those who doubted his talent, revealed the ways race played a significant role in the development of his career.
“There were detractors and people who felt the need to block me from my path. In fact, I had an agent earlier in my career that actively tried to block me,” Brownlee explained. Nonetheless, these kinds of discouragements from individuals around him only pushed him to try harder.
The COVID-19 crisis raised another set of challenges: The pandemic was extremely detrimental to the artistic world and the opera community, as it brought all in-person performances to a halt.
Virtual events in accordance with COVID-19 protocols were introduced to opera singers as a way for them to continue their career and keep making connections with their audience. Brownlee saw this as a wonderful opportunity for him to continue growing as an artist.
“I traveled actively before the pandemic but because of it, it changed everything,” Brownlee explained. His identity as an artist is tied to traveling and singing to audiences across the world. The struggle to maintain the synergy between himself and the audience was discussed during the panel.
As an artist, Brownlee wants people to examine his art and talents through his own lens of creativity. By making sure that the music can speak to his audience, he can inspire those who wish to begin working with classical music to start.
As an activist, he wants to make sure the platform he has is firm, and to be conscious of the climate that he and his colleagues work in.