On Friday, October 23, 2020, Opera Philadelphia launched their new Operaphila.tv channel with Phillip Todd’s beautifully produced video of Lawrence Brownlee and Friends in Philadelphia recorded at the Wilma Theatre. Mr. Brownlee’s Friends format is a program of vocal music which starts with serious classical songs to outstanding arrangements of spirituals to sassy Broadway show tunes. The result is a highly entertaining hour and twenty-five minutes of song with pianist Myra Huang, who seems equally at home playing Massenet or Victor Herbert.
Mr. Brownlee interviewed each of his guest performers about the pieces they chose to perform, their careers, and how they are dealing with the ban of live performance.
Soprano Sarah Shafer sang “Laudamus Te” from Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, soaring easily to high notes and dropping with ease to a resonant low register. Her facility for Mozart made it clear why she had chosen this piece. Ms. Shafer’s voice is light and she sings with clarity and focused tone. Her voice was at her most powerful when she sang “The Year’s at the Spring” from Three Browning Songs, Opus 44 by Amy Beach. Her version of “Deep River,” a traditional spiritual arranged by H. T. Burleigh, seemed pale in comparison, but Mr. Brownlee made it clear he believes in diversity and expanding his audience, so I immediately thought of a paraphrase of Langston Hughes’ famous poem, I, too — she sings America, too.
Soprano Lindsey Reynolds has a rich and flexible voice and her acting and simple gestures are graceful and expressive. She phrases in her own style and when she sang “Je suis encore toute étourdie” from Manon by Jules Massenet, she took those magical micropauses that show effortless musicianship and which Ms. Huang followed as if they were of one mind. Although not all of her high notes were prepared and focused to my liking, especially in Nadia Boulanger’s setting of “La mer est plus belle” by Paul Verlaine, there is no denying Ms. Reynold’s talent. Her flair for comedic drama was so much fun in the Victor Herbert selection “Art is Calling for Me” from The Enchantress that I played it several times, thrilling with the ease with which Ms. Reynolds effortlessly tosses her staccato notes into the stratosphere.
Soprano Karen Slack has a rich and soulful voice. Although her rendition of Alma Mahler’s “Die Stille Stadt” from Fünf Lieder was beautiful, I preferred her high notes in her performance of “Il est doux, il est bon” from Hériodade by Jules Massenet. Her rising notes in John Carter’s Toccata “Ride on King Jesus,” Cantata for Voice and Piano seemed natural and easy. Her duet with Ms. Reynolds in the traditional spiritual “Watch and Pray” arranged by Undine Smith Moore and Myra Huang was heart-rending. Ms. Slack let her voice rise through chromatic scales and soared to a high C as quietly as possible.
For me, however, the highlight of the recording was Mr. Brownlee’s performance of Clara Schumann’s “Liebst du um Schönheit,” Opus 12, No. 4. His German is clear and fluent and when he sings, he sounds as if he is just expressing his own emotions rather than singing a text by Friedrich Ruckart. He is a master of the Romantic style and German. But lest you think that is all that he has up his sleeve, listening to him sing the Gaetano Donizetti “Allegro io sono” from Rita will show you just what Ms. Huang meant when she said it was “like champagne.” Mr. Brownlee was lively and fun in his traditional spiritual “My Good Lord Done Been Here” arranged by Jacquie Hairston, but he cannot turn off his crisp diction which sounds too stiff for a spiritual. It is hard for opera singers to sing popular music, yet that gives the effort a certain charm. I was not taken by his singing of “It Had to be You” by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn but was delighted by the finale “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun with the three sopranos challenging Mr. Brownlee in a hilarious musical battle.
In his interview with Myra Huang, Mr. Brownlee explained that they had taken pains to make the concert inclusive and having the popular music and spirituals made the performance both exciting and uplifting. Having seen and admired Ms. Huang as a collaborator for a long time, the interviews gave me a chance to hear her delightful peals of laughter when bantering with Mr. Brownlee and gave me a more complete picture of her warm personality.
The production, sound and lighting were ingenious. All the interviews were conducted with plexiglass shields and the camera caught reflections of the speakers and scores creating a fluid musical background for each interview. There are also several excellent views of Ms. Huang’s graceful hands at the keyboard including their reflections on the shiny black Yamaha grand.
Although seven months ago, I would not have imagined that a recording could have advantages over a live performance, now I can see how a production of this quality does have its pluses. First of all, as a critic, I was able to listen to the entire concert just to take notes, marking where each interview and song began so I could find each one if I wanted to hear them again. Later, I had the luxury of sitting back and listening with my partner and enjoying the music. (Two different experiences, I am afraid to say!) Although we don’t have fancy sound equipment, we had excellent sound quality by hooking up my small MacBook to the stereo speakers.
Subscribers will have access to the videos on Opera Philadelphia’s Operaphila.tv. until the season ends in May 2021. Upcoming premieres include Verdi’s La traviata starring Lisette Oropesa on Friday, Oct. 30, and Tyshawn Sorey’s Cycles of My Being on Friday, Nov. 20, with plenty more to come through May 2021. For more information on how to subscribe, see operaphila.org/howtostream.