There’s nothing quite like pulling 5 Gs on the race track then hitting the stage to belt out your best notes in Tristan und Isolde. No, literally, there’s not. Still, Mobile, Alabama-based vocalist Nicholas Brownlee knows this better than anyone. The bass-baritone singer might have taken over the role of Kurwenal in the Santa Fe Opera’s rendition of the Wagner show this summer, but unlike his fellow vocalists—at least as far as we know—Brownlee races cars in his spare time. And though it’s tragic you’ll have missed your chance to hear him sing this season if you haven’t already attended the classic tale of love gone awry, Brownlee tells SFR he’ll be back for a different production next season. Before he left, though, we learned how driving can be like opera and why we all should sing more often. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
Opera and racing seem at first like two worlds unlikely to cross. So how did they cross for you?
It’s funny, because at the beginning of my opera career, I was hesitant to say I was actively racing, because they seem diametrically opposed. But during my studies, I was actually encouraged. I’m passionate about telling people these things aren’t that far away from one another. That feeling of being about to sing, put up or shut up, is the same when I’m about to race. Opera gives me the same high as racing does. Opera is considered fancy, but at its core it is visceral and human, like racing is. I’ve grown up in both worlds at the same time. My dad drove race cars, and much like F1, NASCAR was invented as an advertising ploy for big cars in America. I did NASCAR-sanctioned events all throughout the Southeast. If you wanna be cool in elementary school, get picked up by a race-car with your dad. My weekends were just spent exclusively at race tracks. Next weekend [in Mobile] I’m going to race. I’ll be in Zurich, prepping for a show, but I’ll get a call from someone [from Alabama] about racing and car problems. So I’m stuck between these two intense, niche worlds.
You say opera is an athletic art. That’s not something many people would think about. What do you mean by that?
When you walk into the Tristan und Isolde room, it’s like walking into a locker room. Singers can be 6 feet tall, big and broad because it takes so much body. The way we use our body, the way that we breathe and throw ourselves over the stage, it’s an incredibly athletic event. If I could take every person in the world who says opera isn’t athletic to watch Tristan und Isolde, they’d break a sweat just by watching. It’s a fully focused event.
People say racers aren’t athletes, but they are pulling 5 Gs. It’s about hand-eye coordination, how you carry your body. I’m 6′ 3″, I’m not small. It’s much more about the non-traditional athleticism—bravery, guts. When you go into an opera house you’ve got to know that in five hours, you’ve still got to be the best singer on the stage. To me, that is athleticism. Opera, and this is why I freaking love it, is both athleticism and art. It’s heavy lifting. But you get to say these words, play with colors, you get to say the Tristan words in a new way. I don’t get to look at sculptures and re-arrange. But with opera, I get to say the words in a different way than [they have been said] in 150 years. How cool is that?
Should opera be as accessible as race car driving, or is the perceived exclusivity something that enhances the art? Should there be a larger effort for the masses, like there is for racing?
I had a preacher tell me once that, ‘I want you to come into church wearing whatever you have. I don’t care if you’re in shorts and a t-shirt.’ But eventually, because of your respect for the nature of it, you’ll want to match the level of intensity on the stage. And that’s stuck with me for a very long time. The exclusivity bothers me. We can’t go into high schools cause of that? We lament that we have a grim and dying audience, but to be honest, it’s a renewable resource. What we need to do, in my opinion, is dig down deep and throw money at things—quality things—to bring this into high schools. It’s not just fun. It needs to be in the fabric of the community. Get someone explaining in front of kids how dope it is: ‘Here’s why Lebron would’ve been a great opera singer.’ It’s always been a European import, but it doesn’t have to be. We need to find a way to make it our own, make it more than just a European import—like a French restaurant you go to every three years. The Santa Fe Opera is one the weirdest, coolest and most awesome places to do opera in the world. It’s what they are willing to take a chance on doing. They have incredible investment, and the investment is what I’m here for. If we had more of that, opera could be a thing everywhere.