“Art as a platform.” is how illustrious tenor and international bel canto star Lawrence Brownlee described one of the many facets of his performing career. True to this statement, North Carolina Opera welcomed Brownlee for the first stop of a seven-city tour, giving the stateside premiere of Brownlee’s own commission, Tyshawn Sorey‘s Cycles of My Being. This song cycle, with texts from lauded poet Terrance Hayes, is a work of art that sparks contemplation and conversation on identity, privilege, and, in Brownlee’s own words, “what it means to be a black man in America today.” Paired with Schumann’s everlasting Dichterliebe, the program made for an interesting contrast, both musically and thematically, showcasing Brownlee’s extraordinary storytelling. What a pleasure it was to witness this intimate art in the midst of Brownlee’s busy opera season that has taken him from Texas to Amsterdam, Germany, Rome, London, and back again!

Schumann’s lieder are known for lyrical melodies, passionate and vivid poetry, and, perhaps most uniquely, a true duet relationship between vocalist and pianist (rather than the typical melody/accompaniment). Pianist Myra Huang drew every ounce of beauty from Schumann’s music (and later, drama, from Sorey’s avant-garde score). Huang is known internationally for her specialty in operatic piano work but also conducts, teaches, and is a recording artist. Throughout Dichterliebe, Brownlee and Huang remained glued together seamlessly through organic rubato. The result was vibrant music as fleeting and ephemeral as the romance described in Heinrich Heine’s poetry.

The sixteen poems arranged in Schumann’s work form an arc not too difficult to understand when reading the text, but Brownlee carried the audience away in the story, allowing listeners to interpret and decipher it themselves, from the transcendent mood of “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” to the dissolution, confusion, and passion that appear in “Ich grolle nicht.” The latter is known for its dramatic vocal leaps and hints of anger, hinting at the despair to come later. Brownlee fulfilled the foreshadowing with aplomb, stringing the audience through desolation and then ways of coping with it – walking in nature, crying, remembering, and dreaming his way through the latter half. The final phrase – “I buried my love / And my pain inside” – was addressed directly to the audience, as Brownlee broke the fourth wall with a determination in his face.

Sorey’s Cycles of My Being saw Brownlee and Huang taking the drama present in Schumann to another level, with avant-garde flair. The opening “Inhale, Exhale” featured freer vibrato and a rumbling piano to portray betrayal, fear, and longing. In fact, most of the six songs have a recitative-like, stream-of-consciousness feel, seemingly improvised from Brownlee’s own thoughts. “Whirlwind” was the most like this, with its constantly shifting tonal center, a tangle that unfolded only with the tenor’s determination. The cycle’s profound resolution, “Each Day I Rise, I Know,” begins with a gospel-inspired cadenza that was simply breathtaking, preceding a song filled with passion.

In true tenor fashion, Brownlee outdid himself with an encore of Donizetti’s jaw-dropping “Ah! Mes amis,” from La fille du régiment, complete with multiple shimmering high Cs that brought the audience to their feet immediately.