James M. Brown: singing in the stratosphere and loving it

When James M. Brown was a child, he sang in the chorus at church, never realizing that someday his future would involve pursuing a unique niche in the world of classical music.

After age 8 or so, Brown’s interests veered away from singing, he played percussion and euphonium in band, and he thought about someday earning a music education degree and teaching band. But in his sophomore year at Scarborough High School he once again discovered his passion for singing, joining the chorus and performing in musicals.  

He began taking voice lessons with USM School of Music alumna Sara Sturdivant, who was the first to discover Brown’s unique vocal talent.

“We weren’t exactly sure where my voice was – it didn’t sit well in either of the traditional male ranges – tenor or baritone.” When he worked on “Sebben Crudele,” a popular Italian aria performed by both men and women, they discovered his true strength was in his middle/upper voice and it all clicked into place, Brown was a countertenor.

The dictionary definition of a countertenor is a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of the female alto or mezzo-soprano. Although the vocal production of a countertenor is not the same thing as singing in “falsetto” – the pop equivalent of this voice type is often compared to the vocal range of Adam Levine or Prince.

VIDEO: James M. Brown's audition reel

Back in the Baroque period or earlier, men who sang in the higher range, were typically castrati, something Brown said with a laugh, would not be at all acceptable today. The the fashion of the times didn’t allow for most women to perform on stage in public, so the female roles were often played by the castrati. Therefore, Brown said, there are quite a few roles in early opera that are written for a countertenor, and that, along with more contemporary music that’s now being written for the voice type, is where his niche lies.

"I had to make this choice of, 'Do I try to make this tenor thing and not sound OK?' or 'Do I choose to be a countertenor and be the voice I should have been in the first place?" Brown said.

Brown recently played the role of Arnalta in a production of “The Coronation of Poppea” by Monteverdi, performed by USM’s Opera Workshop. Arnalta is a Poppea’s nurse, and she is a female character.

Of his performance, Allan Kozinn, music reviewer for the Portland Press Herald (and formerly of the New York Times) said, “Several singers were exceptional, and worth keeping an eye on... James Brown as Arnalta, Poppea’s nurse, produced a fully supported tone and brought a measure of subtlety to his singing and acting.”

View a video of an interview with the cast of Poppea here

Stating that he’s comfortable performing a wide range of roles, Brown said conveying a story is the primary thing that drives him in his pursuit of a music profession.

“I love to make an audience feel engaged,” he said. “I don’t even mind people laughing at me – I can be an opera clown – as long as I can make people feel something, I feel I’ve done my job.”

Having taken some lessons with her prior to pursuing his college degree, Brown chose USM primarily because of Ellen Chickering, his current voice teacher. He said, “Ellen is a wealth of knowledge and I truly wouldn’t be able to do what I do without having her as my mentor.”

He said people don’t often realize the work that goes into a voice major – he’s studied foreign languages, taken four semesters of piano, four semesters of music theory – something that helped tremendously with learning the different tonalities in works he’s performed from modern composers. And he works at really digging into a role, something his teachers at USM have encouraged – doing the research to find out the background of the characters, or discovering the context for the time period of the oratorio piece or art song he’s performing.

As an undergraduate vocal performance major at USM’s School of Music, Brown has been able to learn full roles in opera, not only singing Arnalta in “The Coronation of Poppea,” but also Queen of the Fairies in “Iolanthe,” Lichas in “Hercules” and Gherardino in “Gianni Schicchi.”

A participant in the concert scene in New England, he has sung Bach’s Erbarme dich, mein Gottat at the White Mountain Arts Festival and Britten’s Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi with the Portland Rossini club where he was described as "a countertenor with a pleasingly warm, powerful tone…" by Kozinn in the Portland Press Herald.

Brown was recently was a prize winner at the annual 2016 Young Stars of Maine Bay Chamber Concerts competition and performed a concert at the Rockport Opera House in Rockport, ME. 

After graduating, the next step for this high-flying vocalist is to head north – Brown will be attending McGill University in Montreal. He was inspired to go there because they have a well-integrated program that will allow him to pursue Early Music as well as opera roles – they perform a fully staged Baroque Opera every year. But he also he speaks conversational French and fell in love with the city’s blend of old-world Europe in a modern city.

As Brown furthers his education, and continues to find his voice in the world of music performance, he is secure in the knowledge that he has found his place, singing in the stratosphere. 

Video: James M. Brown's audition reel

Read more about James Brown here in a Q&A by the American Journal.