By Heidi Waleson
NEW YORK – Cycles of My Being, given its New York premiere on April 24 at Zankel Hall, checked a lot of important boxes. The tenor Lawrence Brownlee, best known for his high-flying renditions of bel canto showpieces, wanted to artistically explore and acknowledge something completely different from his opera house day job – the real-life experience of being a black man in America today, subject to aggression, hatred, incarceration, and death. The result is Cycles, written by two other black artists, composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes.
The work’s five poems – “Inhale, Exhale,” “Whirlwind,” “Hate,” “Hope,” and “Each Day I Rise, I Know” – are based on Hayes’ forthcoming collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. They are complex and compelling expressions of what that experience feels like for Hayes. Sorey, intriguingly, set the cycle for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano in addition to voice – the same instrumentation as Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which was written in a World War II German prisoner-of-war camp. All the instrumentalists were black men, with Sorey conducting; Hayes read an excerpt from Sonnets before the piece began.
Brownlee will repeat the song cycle in a recital at the Gilmore Festival in Kalamazoo, Mich., on May 1.
I’m all for art grappling with serious modern themes, but overall, the musical setting of Cycles of My Being worked so hard to give the poems additional weight that it pushed them beyond directness and frankness into brutality and ponderousness. Sometimes, you felt the point: in “Whirlwind,” the slow piano accompaniment and text setting seemed to physically restrain the singer, who says, “Lord, I’m trying to break free” – it’s the opposite of a whirlwind.
But “Hate,” which was slow and repetitive with instrumental drones in the background, overdid things. That may have been the idea – the text states baldly “You don’t know me. Still you hate me” and more of the same – but this Brechtian assault on the listeners went on too long. Furthermore, the vocal line was slow and stentorian through most of the piece, a choice that didn’t display Brownlee’s gifts. It was only at the beginning of the final poem that Brownlee got to move his voice around, in a quasi-gospel style, with the instrumentalists singing backup, which provided some variety and relief. The cycle made its case, but without attempting to draw the audience in.
Brownlee opened the evening with Schumann’s Dichterliebe. This rendition felt like an outline – all the notes nicely in place, but with the colors not yet filled in. Brownlee’s silvery sound didn’t take on the warmth and woundedness that these songs require, though there were glints of drama in “Ich grolle nicht” and lively energy in “Aus alten Märchen winkt es.” Myra Huang was the effortlessly eloquent pianist.
Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for The Wall Street Journal and writes about the performing arts for a variety of U.S. and international publications.