In Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, the plot centers on the two best friends, Nadir and Zurga who will always be together — until the priestess Leila arrives and both fall in love with her.
The rarely performed opera has some wonderful music, especially the duet between the male leads which in this case in the Houston Grand Opera production about to get underway will be the international stars Lawrence Brownlee as Nadir and Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga.
"Nadir is a hunter, a warrior, someone who believes in friendship. He's very much a friend of Zorga and these two gentlemen are really committed to being friends except that something gets in the way and that something is Leila (Andrea Carroll)," Brownlee says. "I think he's someone who was very committed to the vow he made to his friend but the power of love is too strong."
Asked why this opera isn't done more often, Brownlee says part of the reason is the libretto which isn't as strong as Bizet's music. "There are a lot of things that are unclear which in a way is good because it lends itself to interpretation but it confuses you, based upon what we're given. It's something we have to make sense of," he says. In most operas he's been in, everything is spelled out. "This one there's a lot of question marks. When we first start the story we don't know why Zorga is being elected to be one of the leaders of the Pearl Fishers. We don't know how long it's been since Zorga and Nadir have seen each other. Why'd they leave each other."
Still, he says, the music is spectacular, in an opera where the chorus under the direction of Chorus Master Richard Bado plays a central role. "I had done it once before in concert in Copenhagen a few years ago," Brownlee says. "I thought it would be fun to explore something outside of my normal repertoire of bel canto.
"Bel canto is singing a lot of high fast notes with a certain amount of velocity, quickness. It's a different style. Bizet is an expansive, harmonic orchestration — dense you know — and I don't have a heroic voice but this opera is written in a way that my voice would work in it. I think my voice lends itself to be able to sing some of the high, floating type, what we say is mixed-voice, the style is sung and performed."
Brownlee grew up involved in music. His father directed the choir at church and his mother sang solos. At first Brownles, one of six kids, was more interested in musical instruments than singing. His first instrument: the drums, which he played at church. He went on to take up the electric guitar, the trumpet, the bass guitar and a little bit of piano, he says.
"I was shy about singing, I didn't like it. It made me nervous." But friends told him "the girls think you're cute if you sing," and he reassessed his priorities. Still, before he entered college he was thinking about eventually going into law school. While a senior in high school he became part of a program for gifted music students and as part of that, performed in a recital at the local college. ("Not really knowing what I was doing. Just kind of faking what I thought an opera singer sounded like.") The audience loved his performance. "There was a gentleman who approached me. 'Who are you, what are you doing? I'm a voice teacher at this school and you absolutely have to come and study voice with me.' He really made me feel like I would be doing a great disservice if I didn't study with him. So I decided to go ahead and see what music had for me."
And although he was approached about other forms of singing — musical theater among them — Brownlee says he likes opera best. "I just thought there was something about the expressivity of the voice that is in classical music. The combination of the orchestra and the language and what the classic voice can do is just unique and special."
Along the way, he's picked up other languages. He speaks Italian fluently, German and French at what he calls "a pretty decent level." Explaining why this was so important to him, he says:
"Language was one of the things I thought was important for me at the beginning of my career. Being an American singer, Americans are expected to not speak anything except for English. And I remember being in Germany one time and I was in the cafeteria in Hamburg, Germany and there were about eight people at the table. Everyone was speaking in German except for me. So what began to happen is they all changed to English for me. And I remember sitting there thinking 'I hate the fact that they're doing that for me. I don't want to be the weakest link of this show.'"
His study and experience has helped him in his stage performances as well, he says, making it easier to correctly pronounce the words his singing — this time in French in The Pearl Fishers, the opera composed 12 years before Bizet wrote Carmen. "The music is gorgeous," Brownlee promises. Now it's Houston chance to hear it on stage.
Performances are scheduled for January 25 through February 8 at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays, Saturday and Tuesday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Sung in English with projected English translation. For information call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25-$270.