By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Lawrence Brownlee is at the top of the opera world.
He has sung in the world’s greatest opera halls and continuously draws acclaim for his voice. He’s in constant demand and maintains a busy global travel schedule.
But there is one thing he’s never done: Sing an opera as a professional in his hometown of Youngstown.
That will change this week.
Brownlee will star in Opera Western Reserve’s production of “The Barber of Seville” on Friday at Stambaugh Auditorium.
In the hierarchy of opera companies, OWR is a minor entity that cannot attract world-class talent such as Brownlee. Therefore, the company has been justifiably abuzz ever since it announced Brownlee’s upcoming appearance a year ago.
But Brownlee is equally excited about his hometown debut. It’s something he has always wanted to do.
Regardless of how high he rises, it seems the East Side native — and East High graduate — can’t forget the people who helped him on his way.
Performing at Stambaugh Auditorium, he said, is one way for him to give back to his hometown and also inspire young performers here.
Brownlee also is eager to sing for the people who knew him before he became an opera star, and he’s humble about the opportunity.
“I don’t like to put so much on who I am,” said Brownlee, in a phone interview from his Atlanta home, “but I have done some important things. And these are the people who started it, and challenged me and supported me and pushed me to be the best I can be, the people who were important in my training early on, to my musical development. I am very much looking forward to coming back to the people I love.”
Brownlee was quick to give credit to Carol Baird, founder and director of The Youngstown Connection, as well as a host of his instructors at Youngstown State University.
The Youngstown Connection is a song-and-dance troupe that draws talent from the city’s high schools.
Brownlee views his time with it as not only the start of his performing career, but his introduction to the entertainment industry and his first real peek into what the future could bring.
“I was fortunate to be one of the members of the [inaugural] group of the Youngstown Connection,” he said. “Dr. Baird exposed me to the world at large.”
The student troupe will have a small role in “Barber of Seville.”
“[Baird] had an idea to put them in the first scene,” said Brownlee, who made sure it happened. “They will play street musicians in the scene, in which I am serenading Rosina. They have great enthusiasm, and I’m glad for it.”
Brownlee will also teach a master class at Youngstown State University. The class, which is free and open to the public, will be at 5 p.m. Thursday at Bliss Recital Hall, inside Bliss Hall, on Wick Avenue.
“I went to YSU for only one year, but the instruction I got there got me going,” said Brownlee. “It’s a way for me to give back. Students may think that they won’t have an opportunity to get out and do important things, but I am here to tell you that you can.”
He also holds degrees from Anderson University and Indiana University.
Brownlee and his wife have two small children — a son, age 2, and a daughter who just turned 1. He returns to Youngstown today, where his parents still live, for a week of rehearsals before Friday’s performance.
He sang with the Houston Grand Opera earlier this month and with the Philadelphia Orchestra last weekend. After Youngstown, he will head to Europe for performances in Prague, St. Petersburg and Vienna.
In landing Brownlee, Opera Western Reserve knew it was imperative to produce “Barber of Seville.” That’s because Brownlee has become closely associated with the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini’s comic opera; it melds perfectly with his voice and he has sung it many times. He’ll sing it again Friday.
“It’s been the role of so many of my important debuts around the world,” said Brownlee. “At every important theater around the world, it has been the vehicle.”
He explained why he started singing the role and how it has become so special to him.
“When I finally figured out what type of role to sing, which composer, the first piece presented to me was the first aria in ‘Barber of Seville,’” he said. “My teacher said [my choice] should be that piece, and it has been that piece that I’ve taken around the world — Vienna, Japan, New York, you name it. I feel I know it pretty well, and I love singing it.”
Brownlee just turned 40 and plans to sing the role for a long time. “Tenors start to hit their stride at 40,” he said.
But he also keeps an eye on the future to determine what roles will best suit him.
“Voices mature as you get older,” he said. “Overtones and colors change. So one of the things I want to try in the future is to look at other composers and roles. You have to grow and stretch yourself.”
Opera Western Reserve’s production of “The Barber of Seville” is being directed by David Vosburgh, with Susan Davenny Wyner as musical director.
The cast also includes Randa Rouweyha of Youngstown as Rosina. Rouweyha, a graduate of YSU’s Dana School of Music, currently lives in Washington, D.C., and has sung with the Washington National Opera. Friday’s performance will also be her hometown debut.
Also in the cast are area professional singers Brian Keith Johnson as the title character, Figaro; Jason Budd as Dr. Bartolo; and Timothy J. Bruno as Don Basilio. Opera Western Reserve young artists Diana Farrell and Robert Pierce will appear as Berta and Fiorello, and local actor Tom O’Donnell will perform the mime role of Ambrogio.