John Brownlee was born into a musical family: his father sang, and taught John to play the cornet, which he played in the Geelong Municipal Band. After completing his education at Osborne Naval College however, he studied accounting as well as singing; but when only twenty he won the vocal section of the South Street Eisteddfod at Ballarat. As a result he became a pupil of Ivor Boustead, moved to Melbourne, and there began to sing in concerts. Boustead arranged for Brownlee to sing for Dame Nellie Melba, who, greatly impressed, insisted that he go to Europe for further study.
At the start of 1923 Brownlee set sail for England where Melba had arranged for him to study with the eminent baritone Dinh Gilly, who taught in both London and Paris. Gilly was an ideal teacher, having himself been a pupil of Antonio Cotogni. He passed on to Brownlee the classic Italian method of voice production together with the key elements of the French style. Brownlee later moved to Paris, where he met his future wife, an Italian countess; they were married in 1928. During 1926 he began to appear in operas mounted at the weekends at the Trianon Lyrique in Montmartre, making his début as Frédéric/Lakmé.
Melba heard Brownlee sing once again and immediately invited him to take part in her farewell performance at Covent Garden on 8 June 1926, singing Marcello in Acts 3 and 4 of La Bohème. He made his début at the Paris Opera in 1927 as Athanael/Thaïs, remaining under contract there until 1936. In addition to singing in Paris, Brownlee toured Australia with the Melba-Williamson Company during 1928, and appeared at Monte Carlo and at Covent Garden in 1930, where Ernest Newman highly praised his Golaud/Pelléas et Mélisande. Other rôles which he sang at Covent Garden included Amonasro/Aida (with Eva Turner), Mercutio/Roméo et Juliette and the title part in Rigoletto. He was to return there each year between 1934 and 1937.
By now Brownlee’s international career had begun to take off: he sang in Barcelona during the 1930–1931 season (Amonasro, Hamlet) and at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires in 1931 (Lescaut/Manon, Alfio/Cavalleria rusticana, Golaud). He moved across to the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1934, singing in Tosca, Le Roi d’Ys and Les Pêcheurs de perles, and also appeared at Orange and in Egypt. During the second season of Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1935 he made his first appearance there, as Don Alfonso/Così fan tutte. Brownlee’s elegance as a singer was preserved for posterity through HMV’s recordings of the Glyndebourne productions of this opera and of Don Giovanni, in which he sang the title rôle.
It was in the title rôle of Rigoletto, in 1937, that Brownlee made his first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, where once again local critics were highly enthusiastic. He remained with the Met for twenty years, singing thirty-three rôles in over 500 performances; many of these interpretations have been preserved in ‘off-air’ recordings of the Met’s Saturday matinée broadcasts. In addition to singing in New York, Brownlee also sang with the Chicago Civic Opera and the San Francisco Opera. After World War II, he returned to Covent Garden and to Glyndebourne (singing the Count/Le nozze di Figaro at the Edinburgh Festival) in 1947, and to Australia in 1952, visiting New Zealand as well.
Although Brownlee’s performing career came to an end with his retirement from the Met in 1957, he had been head of the Voice and Opera Department at the Manhattan School of Music since 1953, becoming director of the School in 1956. From 1958 onwards he worked there tirelessly, teaching, directing school stage productions and leading a significant fund-raising campaign.
An extremely versatile singer, Brownlee had a repertoire of over ninety rôles in opera, operetta, oratorio and musicals. Although best-known for his supremely elegant Mozart singing, of which his Don Giovanni is a superb example, he was also very much at home in the major baritone rôles of French and Italian grand opera, in which he combined vocal authority with a compelling stage presence.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers).