American bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee has emerged as a Wagnerian to watch—and hear.
Photographs by Darío Acosta
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik
IT’S LATE FEBRUARY in New York City, and Nicholas Brownlee is in the offices of OPERA NEWS to discuss his work in the operas of Wagner, a composer who is appearing with increasing frequency on the Alabaman bass-baritone’s schedule. In November and December 2022, Brownlee sang Hans Sachs at Frankfurt Opera, his home theater. In early February, he took on Wotan in Das Rheingold at Dallas Opera; in July, he sings the title role in a new staging of Der Fliegende Holländer at Santa Fe Opera. Brownlee’s imposing six-foot-three-inch physique is aptly scaled for Wagner, but what is most striking about him, at least offstage, is the joy with which he speaks about his work; few singers talk about opera with the sunny, expansive enthusiasm Brownlee does.
Now in his early thirties, Brownlee has built his repertoire cautiously, a strategy that seems to be paying off. “I’m in a Fest house in Frankfurt, and I just signed there for two more years. I really like the Fest system. I’ve got that blue-collar energy to me. I love going to work every day, going to the canteen for beers after rehearsal that are, like, pennies on the dollar. That’s an energy I really love—and I love being able to see my daughters every day and to see my wife every day.
“But the big benefit of the Fest house is that we do twenty-three productions a year in Frankfurt. And so, I sit with my opera director and Bernd Loebe, the intendant, and they will say, ‘Okay, sure, you’ll sing Jochanaan for sure, Macbeth maybe. But what about this run of seven Leporellos? Do you want to do those?’ And I jump at keeping a lot of that repertoire in there, which I’m able to do in this unique situation. But for the most part, when I’m out guesting, it’s for this big stuff. And—this is crass to say, but we should talk about this business as a business more—it makes more sense for me, when I do have to leave Frankfurt, to do a gig that pushes my career forward in a specific way, and is more lucrative.”
© Monika Rittershaus
© Monika Rittershaus
Brownlee consults with his voice teacher, Stephen King, his manager, Nathan Wentworth, and his wife, American mezzo Jennifer Feinstein, about what roles to accept when. “Iago is a role I want to do so bad—it’s incredible. I have an offer for three years from now, and it’s a tough decision. You have to think, ‘Is this a thing I can do?’ I just sang Wotan in Dallas. I couldn’t have sung Wotan three years ago as well as I sang it last month. This whole business, this whole career, is about betting on yourself. You’ve got to know when to put all your chips in and when to hold some back. I sang Hans Sachs [in Frankfurt] at thirty-three. We looked it up—I’m the youngest Sachs to do it in a major house in Europe in a new production in about 100 years. But there’s a reason thirty-three-year-olds don’t sing Sachs—it almost killed me. But by the grace of God, I made it through—that and because I was doing Meistersinger in a house where, as a Fest artist, I have all the protection in the world, and everyone knows I can get it across the finish line. And I was doing it with Sebastian Weigle, who is the best Wagner conductor in the world, in my opinion, and who has done Meistersinger a million times.
“Nobody told me not to do it, but I got a lot of ‘Nick! Are you super sure?’ and ‘Hey, Nick, have you looked at Act III?’ and that type of thing. But I had looked at it and studied it and knew it was low, and that the challenge would be a stamina thing. I’ve never had issues with stamina, just with higher tessitura stuff. I’d love to sing Rigoletto, but I never will. It’s just too high! But Meistersinger was a case where I had to trust my gut. And that comes from being just a nutcase about opera. Opera isn’t just my job—it’s my only hobby!”
© DarÍo Acosta
BROWNLEE, WHO SANG in his high-school choir, entered the University of South Alabama in Mobile intending to become a conductor. One of his voice teachers, Thomas Rowell, recommended that Brownlee be in the chorus of Mobile Opera’s Traviata. “It paid $500, which was like a million dollars to me then. So I said, ‘I am in.’ So my first rehearsal for the chorus was right after he throws the money at her, and that chorus is fiendishly difficult—[SINGS] ‘Oh, infamia orribile tu commettesti’—and breakneck fast. I was way out of my element, and I hated the rehearsal process. Like anyone with insecurities, I thought, ‘You’ve made a terrible mistake.’ But that’s when my opera lightbulb moment happened.
“The final performance was a Sunday matinée, and I thought, ‘There’s got to be something to this if 2,000 people are paying to watch it.’ So I sat in the first leg of the wings and watched everything. Jane Redding, a great regional soprano, was the Violetta. And when she sang the ‘Oh gioia!’ moment, I could see the conductor, and he’s kind of crying, and into the music, and everybody onstage is going crazy, and Alfredo is just begging for her, and I was completely distraught. I’m sitting in the wings, a distraught person—my life really did change in that moment. That was Sunday afternoon. The next Monday, I changed to a double major in performance. About eleven months after that, I was in the semifinals at the Met. It was crazy.”
Brownlee went on to Rice University for his graduate degree and then was an Apprentice Artist at Santa Fe and a member of the young-artist program at LA Opera. He won the zarzuela prize at Operalia in June 2016 and made his Met debut the following December, as the First Soldier in Salome. “Singing First Soldier at the Met, I was getting paid more money than I ever thought I would see on a check with my name on it. And my parents were here in New York to see the show. Everything was right. But when I went off the stage after First Soldier, and everyone’s continuing to sing the opera, I had this feeling of ‘I still want to be out there. That’s what I want to do!’
“I’ll be the first to tell you, I love opera more than I love singing. I’m just glad I sing well enough to be around opera. I tell people all the time, you have got to decide what’s going to make you happy—and then do it. That’s why I went to Germany. Because in America, it takes a long time for people to start trusting you with bigger assignments—and I don’t know that that’s wrong. But in Germany, there’s an insane number of opportunities to sing. In my first Fest house, in Karlsruhe, I was doing about sixty or seventy performances a year for three years.”
During his twenties, when he was singing small roles in big places and big roles in small places, Brownlee was diligently studying the repertoire he believed was his destiny. “I believe you can’t just hit thirty-three, thirty-four and then just decide to sing big rep. You have to be slowly working on it the whole time, while you’re actually singing onstage the more appropriate stuff for you at that age.
IT’S NOT SO MUCH ABOUT THE VOICE—IT’S ABOUT THE BRAIN.
“That’s how you feel really prepared, and how you are ready to manage all the stuff that comes with singing. It’s not so much about the voice—it’s about the brain. Our second daughter was born this year, on January 10 in Dallas, and I started rehearsals at Dallas Opera on January 15 for my first Wotan. My amazing wife was preparing Adalgisa for the Met just after giving birth. We also have a five-year-old daughter. So I was getting sleep in little stints—not perfect conditions. But I have worked and waited so that I can do this job under any kind of condition.”
© DarÍo Acosta
© DarÍo Acosta
DOES BROWNLEE BELIEVE that the Wagner repertory presents special challenges to a singer? “You have to be O.K. with it not going right all the time. As a singer, that’s a really hard lesson to learn. If I go to a performance of Elisir, I’m expecting style and polish from everyone. But in Wotan, if you miss one of the big Fs, you’ve got to forget that mistake—you’ve got more Fs coming. When I was coaching Sachs with Weigle, I kept apologizing for my mistakes—I’m an apologizer—and he said, ‘It’s your first Sachs. You’ll get what you get. And then in your next one, you’ll get even more.’ That’s the thing about Wagner—Wagner is a lifetime pursuit.
“There are two ways to take that. You can take that as a huge burden, but I believe it takes the burden off me. If I sing Dulcamara in Elisir, I know it has gotta be tight in every measure. But in Wagner performances, we are all in this together. It’s what makes it so difficult, but it’s also what makes it so beautiful.”
© Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera
© Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera
The Dutchman in this summer’s Holländer will be Brownlee’s second Wagner role at Santa Fe Opera. In 2022, his Kurwenal in the company premiere of Tristan und Isolde was called “a revelation” by OPERA NEWS’s Fred Cohn. Brownlee was encouraged by the Santa Fe audience’s response to Tristan. “It was so unbelievably well received, which was a testament to the cast and to a lot of things,” he says. “The company is now putting a lot of planning forward in the Wagner direction. Santa Fe works so well for these longer, bigger, denser operas.
“You can never truly get to the bottom with Wagner. And I’ve always been okay with that. In the rehearsal room in Dallas with Rheingold, we had to stop ourselves a lot and admit, ‘Maybe that question doesn’t have an answer right now.’ And that, to me, that’s where art lives. Art lives between this world of everything being completely justified and this is the right way to go, and a completely gray area. Wagner created such a specific world, especially with the Ring, that there is no real right answer—there’s just that production that day. And that gives you so much space as a performer, as an interpreter, as a true artist.
“In standard-rep characters, like Méphistophélès, there’s a lot of color. It’s very interesting. But whether you’re in horns or not, you kind of know what to do, you know? But with Dutchman—that is such a richly textured character that gives you so many choices. Does he actually ever want to be with Senta? Does he enjoy going onshore every day? Are people inherently incapable of unconditional love? All these big, human questions that philosophers have been trying to answer since we started thinking about these things are all there in Wagner. And that is just thrilling—a thrilling thing to be a part of.”
© Darío Acosta