When University of South Alabama music major Nick Brownlee auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera, he hoped it would take him to New York. And it did. But it also took him far beyond New York. He spent last summer in Beijing, singing at the National Center for Performing Arts.
And just before Christmas, he’s back to Beijing for a repeat performance.
“He has broken into the professional world, which is unusual at the undergraduate level,” said USA Music department chairman Dr. Greg Gruner. “It’s simply fantastic. And to have the opera company invite him back to work again – that’s very significant. It’s a great reflection on him, on his voice teacher Thomas Rowell and on us.”
It’s all part of Brownlee’s unexpected musical journey.
Back in middle school in Theodore, Brownlee had no particular interest in music. “I took music in seventh grade because it was an easy credit and I played football,” he confessed.
But he stuck with it and was invited to be in the Theodore High School chorale in ninth grade.
“I fell in love with music the second semester – that so many people can come together and deliver such a block of sound,” he said. Choir director Karen Combs had an enormous influence on him, and after graduation he enrolled at USA, hoping for a career as a high school choir director.
Brownlee, now a senior at USA, began studying voice with USA Associate Professor of Music Dr. Thomas Rowell, who was struck immediately by his young student’s potential. Among his recommendation was that Brownlee should audition for the upcoming Mobile Opera performance.
“The first opera I ever saw I was in – “La Traviata” – and I didn’t really like it at first,” said Brownlee. “But I watched the final performance from the wings, watched the conductor and the orchestra and all those people on stage and got so involved and so emotional that I woke up every morning thinking about it. That was a Saturday and on Monday I changed my major to vocal performance.”
Last year, as a junior – with Rowell’s instruction and support – Brownlee auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. He won the first round in New Orleans and also the Southeast Regionals, so he was one of 22 selected to compete for five spots in New York.
He didn’t make the final cut, but during the audition process, the competition director had several times mentioned the possibility of singing in China. For the Theodore man who had never left the country, however, that sounded more like a pipe dream than a prospect.
So he was startled when he left the stage after his Met audition to be asked once more if he would consider China. The next day he met with representatives of the Beijing opera and Met officials who play a major role in the program. He would need to travel, to learn new music and to learn Mandarin.
“For years Chinese musicians have been coming to America to get training and learned a Western style of opera, what we think of as the classics – Mozart or Puccini or whatever,” says Brownlee. “They are discovering a love for Western opera, but now the road has been reserved so people go to China to learn Chinese modern opera. In the same way that Verdi wrote in Italian and Beethoven wrote in German, these people are classically training, writing beautiful music, beautiful melodies, plots and staging. It just happens to be in Mandarin.”
In fact, the program-sponsoring Hanban/Confucius Institute supports it partly to help the world learn about Mandarin.
Brownlee was chosen to sing in the modern Chinese opera “Poet Li Bai,” only the second performer in the world to play the title role – and he prepared by working with Chinese bass-baritone Hao Jiang Tian, who premiered the role in the United States and played it here and abroad. Singing alongside Tian was an amazing experience, Brownlee said, only augmented by playing “on the finest stage I’ve ever been on” at Beijing’s National Center for Performing Arts. “Thousands of screaming fans” added to the incredible experience, as did NPR and BBC interviews and a documentary in progress about the first I Sing Beijing program.
Now he’s headed back to China. Ten of the 22 young performers from last summer’s program, Brownlee among them, were invited to return. This time he will sing a duet and an aria in Mandarin. But he has to get back in time for audition season, since he hopes to be headed to graduate school next fall.
Working with Brownlee is in some ways easier and in some ways more challenging for Rowell. The student has what it takes – “like what Michael Jordan was born with in basketball skills” – Rowell said, but providing the best possible instruction for a superb student helps keep a faculty member on his game.
Even a very talented student doesn’t get everything his way, Rowell noted. He didn’t make the final cut at the Met last year. But Brownlee told Rowell that as he left the stage, his accompanist told him not to worry about it, that he’d be back.
As for Rowell, “I fully expect one day to be able to go to the Metropolitan Opera and purchase my ticket and watch my former student sing. I’d love nothing better.”