‘Two Tenors’ Engage in a Duel of the High C’s

Lawrence Brownlee talks about his duo program with Michael Spyres singing Rossini at the 92nd Street Y on October 27

| 20 Oct 2021 | 10:14

In the twentieth century, the music world experienced a Rossini Renaissance that broadened our perception of Gioachino Rossini from the facile composer of the comic opera “The Barber of Seville” and the “William Tell Overture” (of “Lone Ranger” fame) to a seminal genius in all operatic genres who paved the way for Romantic grand opera in the 19th-century. The operas Rossini wrote for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples established him as the number one opera composer in the first quarter of the 1800’s. Rossini’s Neapolitan operas revolutionized Italian Opera and also established the tenor (not the castrato or contralto in male guise) as the male protagonist and equal of the prima donna.

The virtuoso tenors resident in Naples during Rossini’s time included the brilliant Giovanni David of the soaring, androgynous falsetto high notes and the darker, more baritonal tenor Andrea Nozzari (the first Rossini Otello). These contrasting tenors appeared together in the Naples premieres of Rossini’s serious operas flanked by tenor colleagues Manuel Garcia, Sr. and Giuseppe Ciccimarra.

The American tenors Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres have been dazzling audiences abroad and in Philadelphia with joint concerts celebrating the tenor solos and duets that Rossini created for these great singers. Last year, the pair released a compact disc “Amici e Rivali” of Rossini tenor arias, duets and trios on the Erato label to unanimous critical acclaim. The “Two Tenors” plan to recreate their Rossini triumphs onstage and on disc with a recital program at the 92nd Street Y on October 27 with pianist Myra Huang, including extended scenes from “The Barber of Seville”, “Otello” and other Rossini operas and songs.

Lawrence Brownlee took time from his busy schedule to share his views on Rossini, tenor singing and his friend and rival Michael Spyres.

How has Rossini shaped your career? What are your feelings about him as a composer?

Rossini has been very important for me and my career. His works have been the vehicles for the most important debuts from La Scala to the Metropolitan, to Covent Garden and all the big stages. Having performed more than 15 different roles of Rossini, I feel like I understand the style. He did change my concept of the tenor voice. I think Rossini broadened the idea of what a tenor is. I know that it is a rarefied voice type that requires the ability to sustain a high tessitura, to be flexible, to be elegant, and to be able to show the bells and whistles of a voice. I’m so thankful that I have this voice that lends itself to Rossini.

How did you two meet?

Michael and I met years ago at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival at Bad Wildbad, Germany. We were both there taking part in different things: Michael was doing the title role in Rossini’s “Otello” and I was singing Lindoro in “L’Italiana in Algeri.” When we met at that time we had heard of one another and had a sense of mutual respect, but we were watching one another from afar. I admire Michael’s musicality and heart when he sings. He not only just has the voice, he is a very musical and expressive person. He’s very knowledgeable and knows a lot of the historical traditions of performance practices in the bel canto style.

How did the idea of a “Two Tenors” concert/CD come about?

Fast forward many years, I saw all the successes that Michael was having and he had followed my career. Someone contacted me to do a concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. They said “We’d like to have you, but maybe we could pair you with someone else?” and I was like, “Well, what about Michael Spyres?” Or they mentioned Michael Spyres and I said it was a great idea. We wanted to sing together.

Fast forward again to 2017, we got to do our joint concert. We decided that since Michael is a real baritenor with a voice very similar to Andrea Nozzari and I have a voice that’s similar to Giovanni David, we could program some of the great tenor-tenor duets that Rossini wrote that are rarely performed. To be honest, it’s very hard to find a real baritenor, there are so few. I mean, Michael can sing lower than some baritones and higher than some sopranos! He has an extensive range that he, in a homogenous way, puts it all together with great artistry.

We programmed Rossini Arias and Duets for the concert at Amsterdam and we had such a fun time. We wanted to bring our highest level of artistry. It was great respect for each other’s talents and just enthusiasm. It went well and the public really responded to it.

As we were bowing after we finished our duet from Rossini’s Otello, “Ah! Vieni, Nel Tuo Sangue” at the end of the concert, I said if the audience wants more let’s go back and do it again as an encore because the audience just went wild the first time we did it. So, we came back and we did that duet again. Someone in the audience filmed it and uploaded it on YouTube and it went viral. People were pretty crazy about this!

So that gave me the idea: I went to Michael about us doing an album of the tenor-tenor duets of Rossini and he of course said he would love to do it. And so that was really the beginning of the idea for “Amici e Rivali.” Regarding the title of “Amici e Rivali”: I was sitting home one day and thinking some of the characters are friends and some of them are rivals ... so “Amici e Rivali” became the title of the album.

Both of you have new cd releases out: you have a new complete recording of Bellini’s “I Puritani” on the Delos label and Spyres released a solo album “BariTenor” on the Erato label last month. Are you planning more joint concerts in the future?

We are! We want to do more and more and hope to do more albums. Every concert that we’ve had thus far at the Concertgebouw, in Puerto Rico, Philadelphia and in Ravello this year, they all have been so well received. The audiences have been so enthusiastic that we feel that we have something. We hope to do more of the concerts together and also other projects. Just getting out there to show our love for music, our camaraderie, our friendship and respect for one another.

For more information and tickets for the 92Y concert: https://www.92y.org/event/lawrence-brownlee-and-michael-spyres.

Information about the “Amici e Rivali” CD is available here: https://www.warnerclassics.com/release/amici-e-rivali