Vocal versatility at its finest: Brownlee & Owens in concertReview
As an opera fangirl who resides in a state with only a couple of opera companies, I have resigned myself to the fact that seeing my beloved art form on a regular basis will inevitably involve a bit of a commute. When I learned that Lawrence Brownlee and Eric Owens would be performing in Iowa City as part of their recital tour, I knew they would make the two hour drive worth my while. Seated precariously close in the second row, I probably had a dorky, star-struck look plastered on my face as I took in the high caliber classical singing. (Hopefully the sight of me geeking out wasn’t too distracting for them.)
Who doesn’t want to witness the tenor doling out high C’s like they are one of Oprah’s favorite things?
I fully anticipated stellar singing from Brownlee and Owens, but their programmatic choices were equally brilliant. The first half of the recital was dedicated to operatic arias and duets - featuring fan favorites, of course, as well as a few refreshing surprises.
I mean, we all obviously expected to hear Brownlee sing his show stopping rendition of “Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête,” because who doesn’t want to witness the tenor doling out high C’s like they are one of Oprah’s favorite things? (You get a high C! You get a high C! Everybody gets a high C!) However, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Brownlee’s take on “Il mio tesoro” from Don Giovanni. Bel canto is the singer’s bread and butter, so an aria by Mozart was such a treat, especially with the agile instrument that is Brownlee’s voice.
Owens, on the other hand, is best known for heavier, dramatic repertoire, in particular operas by Wagner and Verdi, but the bass-baritone demonstrated tremendous vocal adaptability by singing lighter pieces by Mozart and Donizetti. I would never have imagined Owens in the role of Figaro, but after his rendition of “Se vuol ballare,” I would kill to see him cast in Le nozze di Figaro. His comedic sensibilities were a highlight of the evening, both in and out of character, and I enjoyed watching the singer flex his funny bone in a way that he cannot in his typical, darker repertoire.
There was an unmistakably strong bond between Brownlee, Owens, and Terry, made apparent by the frequent hugs and handshakes throughout the evening.
I expected both Brownlee and Owens to excel at their signature arias, but I was caught off guard by the fact that they could sing such a wide range of styles and nail each and every one of them. Vocal versatility at its finest.
The stamina of these singers was astounding. To perform numerous challenging arias and duets with only short breaks between is a testament to their prowess as artistic athletes. It was inspiring to watch these opera stars cruising through a technically impressive program. They made it look effortless, but I know that behind that facade are years of hard work.
The second half of the program featured American spirituals, musical theater, and gospel songs, and both Brownlee and Owens clearly have a love for these down to earth genres. It did not come across as two opera singers performing outside their wheelhouse but rather two friends singing music that speaks to them personally. The repertoire featured a healthy mixture of well known favorites as well as lesser known pieces, ranging from solemn and reverent to humorous and hopeful.
Clearly, they all love what they do, and their enthusiasm was infectious.
I also have to give a tremendous shout out to the pianist, Craig Terry. Aside from playing challenging music in a plethora of styles, Terry wrote the arrangements for many of the musical theater numbers and one of the spirituals for the recital. There was an unmistakably strong bond between Brownlee, Owens, and Terry, made apparent by the frequent hugs and handshakes throughout the evening. It was an absolute joy to watch these three musicians having fun on stage together. Clearly, they all love what they do, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the tradition and elitism of opera, and we forget what is fundamentally important about music.
Thank you, Larry, Eric, and Craig for reminding me that music should be as joyful as it is beautiful. (I like to pretend that we are on a first name basis…) You made this opera fangirl very happy!