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Bel canto tenor debuts in Santa Fe Opera

Joyce DiDonato as Elena and Lawrence Brownlee as Uberto rehearse a scene for the Santa Fe Opera production of “La Donna del Lago.” (Courtesy of Ken Howard/the Santa Fe opera)
Joyce DiDonato as Elena and Lawrence Brownlee as Uberto rehearse a scene for the Santa Fe Opera production of “La Donna del Lago.” (Courtesy of Ken Howard/the Santa Fe opera)
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Lawrence Brownlee with renowned mezzo Joyce DiDonato

SANTA FE – When Lawrence Brownlee was a young boy in the blue-collar bastion that is Youngstown, Ohio, whenever an opera singer appeared on TV, he changed the channel.

Now a bel canto tenor in demand from London to La Scala in Milan, Italy, Brownlee is singing the role of Uberto in Gioachino Rossini’s ode to the Scottish Highlands “La Donna del Lago.” The opera pairs him with famed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in his Santa Fe debut.

The football-loving star who grew up singing gospel music in church doubles as a disc jockey in his hometown of Atlanta when he’s not jet-setting from the Met to Paris.

“As a kid, I was quite shy,” he said, relaxing in the Santa Fe Opera cantina. “I didn’t like (singing) at all. It embarrassed me. Sometimes the minister in church would say, ‘You’re going to sing on Sunday.’ I would have a knot in my stomach all week.”

He really didn’t understand why something that came so naturally to him engendered such praise.

“Someone told me a long time ago, ‘Your career finds you,’” Brownlee continued. “I originally wanted to be an attorney. They got to dress up. They were articulate and they had interesting jobs.”

Then the release of the first “Three Tenors” CD showed him that operatic singing could be cool.

Countless voice teachers, recitals and victorious contests convinced him to continue, despite that startling humility. Now he’s known for scaling the high-altitude notes of Rossini.

The woman The New Yorker called “perhaps the most potent female singer of her generation,” DiDonato imbues a seemingly effortless grace with a deep intelligence. The 1995 Santa Fe Opera apprentice originally wanted to teach music, not sing it. “La Donna” marks her fourth main stage role at the Santa Fe Opera.

“It was going on stage” that changed her mind, she said. “On stage, I felt just 100 percent at home. I’ve never had stage fright; I get excited.”

As challenging as Rossini’s score is, singing his music is still a thrill for her.

“What he asks of the voice is super human and Olympic,” she said. “When I look at the score, I think, ‘Oh, this is unsingable.’ There’s a very visceral satisfaction and joy in accomplishing it.”

DiDonato plays Elena, the mythical Lady of the Lake of Sir Walter Scott’s poetry, an Arthurian legend seen through 19th-century eyes. Rossini was the first composer to mine Scott’s poetry for operatic gold, with the glories of bel canto soaring.

The libretto is set to a Scottish Highlands backdrop, where clans wage war with King James’ partisans who are determined to unite and resist the English.

“Even though it’s dramatic, there’s joy to the music,” DiDonato said. “You see the audience moving and dancing and singing. It’s very hard to stay still.”

Elena’s father has betrothed her to Rodrigo, chief of the Highland clan, but she loves another.

“She’s sort of a mysterious creature who people have talked about for a long time,” DiDonato said. “It’s a man’s world; she’s the only female around. She’s more like a free spirit or hippie. She keeps talking about her desire for peace.”

The king, disguised as Uberto, falls in love with Elena.

“He’s heard about this mystical woman of the lake,” Brownlee said. “It’s the classic struggle of love and duty. She’s the daughter of a rival clan.

“The hardest part for me is to portray this character so that he can be among the people,” Brownlee continued. “He’s mastered the art of blending in.”

Rossini’s score is not for cowards, both Brownlee and DiDonato said.

“The music is quite difficult,” Brownlee said. “It’s high, it’s florid, it’s very active. It’s very virtuosic. You can’t just phone it in.”

The two singers are reprising the roles that drew raves at London’s Royal Opera House. The London Times said, “You would be mad not to queue from dawn to see this show.”

DiDonato has said of her colleague: “His natural instrument is incredibly beautiful.”

“He would be good with anybody,” she added. “We have the very same ideal – we want to be the best singers we can be.”

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