NEW YORK (AP) — The curtain on the Metropolitan Opera stage is about to rise for the 8 p.m. show.
In his dressing room, Lawrence Brownlee dives to the floor in his white undershirt. And the 37-year-old tenor starts pumping push-ups, "to get the blood flowing."
Then it's costume time. He drops his blue jeans — "Do you mind?" — to don the elegant black-and-red, floor-length coat of an 11th century Christian crusader in Jerusalem. His role in Rossini's "Armida" is devilishly difficult, sprinkled with high Cs and even Ds over almost four hours.
At 8:30 p.m., Brownlee strides briskly to the stage wings. "I strike up conversations with some of the chorus, the technicians, the extras — to channel the nervous energy before I step onstage."
And then comes the challenge: singing the romantic lead opposite famed soprano Renee Fleming.
The evening was so exhilarating that one spectator mouthed "wow!" under her breath as Brownlee's voice blended like honey with Fleming's in the rapturous Act 1 love duet.
The tenor made his debut at the Met only three years ago. But he's already a star at the world's biggest opera house.
On Saturday, he and Fleming will again showcase their vocal genius in "Armida" to a sold-out house of nearly 4,000 spectators and broadcast live in high definition to about 250,000 people in more than 1,000 movie theaters in 44 countries. About 7 million more will hear the opera on Sirius XM satellite radio, local stations and live streaming video on the Met website.
In the past half dozen years or so, Brownlee has gone from being a vastly talented but little known singer with a master's degree in music to top stages in leading roles.
"He has a terrific technique, and the color of his voice is so unique that you recognize it instantly if you switch on the radio, exactly as you do Pavarotti or Domingo," says Riccardo Frizza, who conducted the Met orchestra for "Armida."
"That's what makes a singer great, versus someone with a good voice and technique, but you don't recognize the sound. It's like different birds — each one has its own special sound."
Brownlee can deliver the high F — two and a half tones above a high C — in Bellini's "I Puritani." A 20-second YouTube clip is proof of his vocal acrobatics in that single daunting note, part of the moving aria "Credeasi, misera!" (meaning "the poor one believes" her lover, the tenor, betrayed her).
Even Luciano Pavarotti couldn't achieve that; he mostly sang the note in falsetto.
While high notes are thrilling, they're no proof of the artistry that has earned Brownlee major roles in recent years at Milan's La Scala, London's Royal Opera House, Vienna's Staatsoper, Berlin's Deutsche Oper and the Washington National Opera.
When he first stood on the Met stage in 2001, winning the company's prestigious national competition, he looked out at the resplendent red-and-gold theater thinking, "Gosh, this has been my dream for years — to be here." And when he started singing, he says, "I just had the time of my life."
But he also recalls the racism that dogged him as he tried to build his career.
An agent told him that he'd never succeed "because you're short and you're black,'" the 5-foot-6 singer says with a wry smile. Then, when he hoped to be hired by a second-rate American opera company he won't name, "they said, 'We can't, because you're black.'" (The company changed its mind after La Scala offered him the same part.)
One critic wrote of a Boston production of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" that "the worst embarrassment was the tenor, Lawrence Brownlee. Now I don't demand that the tenor look like Brad Pitt, but he shouldn't look like Al Roker, the Today Show's weatherman, or even worse, Oprah Winfrey in drag!"
There have been many singers who weren't tall, including Enrico Caruso. Others carried much weight, such as Pavarotti. "But I am sure that race has been the reason for my not being hired sometimes," Brownlee says.
He persisted, though, remembering his father's words: "Worry about the things that you can control" — like his voice. And hard work to perfect it.
By 2006, with various engagements including La Scala under his belt, he became the first singer ever to win both the Richard Tucker and Marian Anderson awards — opera's version of the Heisman trophy.
Brownlee's Met debut came in 2007, with about 100 friends and family members cheering him in one of his signature roles — Count Almaviva in "Barber of Seville."
For now, he shines as a "bel canto" tenor — meaning beautiful singing — in works by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.
Other than the Boston critic, it's difficult to find a bad review for Brownlee, though he acknowledges his limits.
"I don't have a huge voice, so there are many composers whose works I may never sing — Puccini, Wagner, Strauss," he says.
As he gets older and the voice heftier, he says he may venture into heavier roles. And he's toying with the idea of someday doing pop music.
David Shengold, a demanding arts critic who wrote about Brownlee for London-based Opera, the world's leading magazine on the subject, says that what's most impressive about the tenor's voice is "the ease and the beauty — especially high up."
"He never seems to be working terribly hard to sing those terribly hard pieces of music — it's astonishing," says Shengold. "Very few people can produce that quality of sound up there; you don't get the feeling that something's going to go wrong, that something's going to break."
And then, there are the languages of the lyrics.
Brownlee's Italian diction is excellent, and he speaks it well enough to give interviews — with Mediterranean gusto, his hands suddenly more animated. He also knows French and has taken lessons in German to be able to sing Franz Schubert songs and Mozart operas.
Earlier this year, he filled in for an ailing Juan Diego Florez at the Met in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" — on six hours' notice. He hadn't sung it in almost two years and never this version with new French dialogue, which he quickly memorized.
"I am most inspired by Placido Domingo, who keeps learning new things, and he has been in the business for more than forty years," says Brownlee of the Spanish tenor.
Brownlee, one of six children, grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where the region's steel production, had collapsed. Opera was hardly a priority in the crime-ridden city with rusting blast furnaces turned into "just scrap and rubble," in the words of Bruce Springsteen's song "Youngstown."
As a youth, Brownlee had to sing at a church where the choir director was his father, a GM factory worker.
"I hated it," says Brownlee. "I would have ... the worst feeling in the pit of my stomach all week, if I knew I had to sing solo in church the next Sunday."
But he was a child steeped in music, making drums out of oatmeal boxes and even singing in his sleep. "One night, it was 'Go Tell It on the Mountain' at the top of my lungs — and I never woke up!" he says, repeating family lore.
He also joined his high school choir, though he didn't consider a career until his senior year in a program for gifted music students at Youngstown State University. A coach there told him he had an operatic voice.
"I was not convinced, but I decided to give it a try," he says, first as an undergraduate at Indiana's Anderson University, then polishing his voice as an Indiana University graduate student in Bloomington.
Now, he tosses off the nine high C's in "Fille" that first won Pavarotti fame in the 1960s.
But for Brownlee, fame doesn't mean playing the glamorous opera "divo." He prefers, instead, to fly home just outside Atlanta where his wife, Kendra, is expecting their first child.
And on his private Facebook page, "Bio" is followed by four words: "I am just Larry!"
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