An Interview with Gwendolyn
Opera Is What I Do!
Gwen is a native of Memphis Tennessee, the daughter of Mrs. Lovie and the late Rev. Fred Brown. She is the eldest of three (sisters Aretha
and Felicia). Gwen developed her passion for music at a very young age while singing spirituals in her father’s church and singing in the
choirs at Carver High School. She earned her undergraduate degree in Music from Fisk University. She began her Master studies at the
University of Memphis but finished at the American Conservatory of Music. In between her completing her graduate work, she trained as part
of the young artist programs of Des Moines Metro Opera and Lyric Opera Chicago. Gwendolyn sang in the chorus at Chicago Lyric Opera for
several years. She retired from the chorus, so that she may begin her career as a principal solo artist.
Gwendolyn’s most recent performances include premiering as the lead character in the new works The Canticle of the Black Madonna and
Crescent City. Her signature role as Maria in Porgy and Bess (Gershwin) has made her one of the most sought after artists to perform the role.
She has performed for some of the top opera companies including Chicago Lyric Opera, Washington National Opera and Seattle Opera and
with symphonies in the United States as well as in Germany, Italy, Spain, Amsterdam and Brussels. Now, Gwen is bringing her talents on
stage here in Madison. Gwendolyn Brown is a featured an artists with Madison Symphony Orchestra. Ode to Joy - Bernstein’s Serenade and
Beethoven’s choral Symphony No. 9 under the direction of Conductor John DeMain in the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s final performance of
Interviewing Gwen was more like girlfriend-talk; we have always remained in contact over the years. We reminisced about the days old on
campus. Every student is required to learn the school song. One day we were gathered on the Oval learning the school song when a rabbit
came out the bushes and scared us all, we spoke of various professors and staff we know have since passed on or retired, pledge season
(she a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, and I a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority) and how we covered for one another from the big
sisters, the block parties and the parties in the gymnasium, the spontaneous step shows, being mooned by Vanity 8 while looking out the
window of our Crosthwaite dorm, the group of men who playful called themselves the Battle Rams, the spades games, partying on the roof of
Shane Hall at graduation, and of course, her senior recital when she performed Carmen. Myrtis and I sat in the back of Fisk Chapel hollering,
screaming and jumping up and down. We spoke of these things with much laughing, but laughter became melancholy and teary-eyed when we
talked of our dear friend Dr. Myrtis Lynn Strong-Hubbard whom we lost in an automobile accident in 2001. The following is an excerpt of our
Q: So, Gwendolyn, Opera is what you do. Tell me why did you chose Opera?
A: Since when do you call me Gwendolyn? (She said chuckling).
Q: You are Gwendolyn for purposes of this interview! (We both laugh) Come on now in all seriousness...
A: Well, in actuality I didn’t choose opera. Opera chose me. I originally wanted to sing gospel. But, I found that my voice was not suitable to
the aggressive style of gospel music that I grew up listening to; I realized that my voice lent itself to more classical variations of gospel. My
voice teacher in high school, Yvonne Hull, told me that my voice is more suited to classical music. But, it was Ms. Valijah Bumbulis, my voice
teacher at Fisk who really heard what my voice was capable of and that along with her strong influence much helped me realize that I need to,
at least, explore opera.
Q: Who were the influences in your life?
A: My undergraduate voice teacher was the strongest influence in my life and career. I also had the support of my former Pastor – the late
Elvesta Robertson, Jr. When he found out that I was accepted in the young artist program at Lyric Opera of Chicago, he told me leave
Memphis and go to Chicago. Supportive friends especially those in my profession have influenced me to keep going and have convinced me
that I do have what it takes to continue. My current Pastors Drs. Curt and Linda Stennis have been there to impart so much love and hope in
my life. I’m quite blessed to have many influences.
Q: Who was greatest your role model? How in turn do are you giving back to others or be a role model to others?
A: My strongest role model has been my mom. I have seen her in her most sick state take care of and support the family, as well as, take care
of neighbors and members of the church. Her tireless efforts to make things right for us (she and her sisters) were remarkable. I took all my
mom did for me for granted when I was younger, but I realize now that I am older that she worked hard for me to be who I am today. And, I
certainly thank my mom and her mom for the contralto voice that I have.
As far as me being a role model, I'm quite humbled that others look up to me. I think what drives me is that I have become strong due to my
varied experiences, and I identify with many of the things that others are going through. I continue to press towards my dreams no matter the
obstacles or the odds may seem to be against me. How I give back is simply by being approachable and honest and transparent with my life
Q: Where have you performed and what was your favorite role(s)?
A: I performed many places including Portland, Seattle, Iowa, Connecticut, Amsterdam, Germany just to name a few. My favorite roles include
Maria from “Porgy and Bess,” Marie Laveau from the opera “Crescent City.” Well, when I think about it, pretty much every role I have done so
far is my “favorite role.”
Q: What role would you like to perform?
A: I would love to perform the “contralto trifecta” of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” – Erda, Fricka and Waltraute and to perform Ulrica in “Un ballo in
maschere” (Verdi) and also “Adzucena” from “Il trovatore” (also Verdi). But, I really love creating new roles in new operas. I think I will be
more known for that.
Q: What places have you enjoyed performing the most?
A: I enjoy performing mostly at Lyric Opera of Chicago; it’s my home. I have enjoyed performing overseas especially in Amsterdam and
Germany. But, what makes all of my travels and places I have performed wonderful are the people I have met and the colleagues that I admire
so much. We have become friends and admirers of one another. So, I have enjoyed performing everywhere I have traveled thus far.
Q: How does opera fulfill you and is it only opera?
A: Opera and classical singing is my gift. It is what my voice does the best. I believe that “fulfillment” happens when you are actually carrying
out one’s purpose on this earth. Opera is one of those things that I am purposed to do. I am also an ordained minister. I love counseling,
mentoring youth, and helping others which also brings me great fulfillment. Truly when one is doing exactly what they are meant to do, they will
Q: What type of music you enjoy listening to?
A: I listen to Contemporary Christian, Gospel music of the ‘60s, 70s and the “gospel choir movement” of the 80’s; old school country music of
the 50’s to the 80’s; old school rhythm and blues of the 60’s and 70’s; and pop particularly of the 70s and 80s. I also love Big Band music of the
40s and the “Hit Parade” era of music of that same time.
Q: Tell a little bit more about your background and childhood?
A: I always have had a love for music since I was a kid. I would watch variety shows back in the day and I will even create my own little
programs when I was playing pretend. I always loved performing on stage and being able to be in front of an audience. But, for a long time, I
didn't think I had neither talent nor have the chance to do it. I didn’t realize I had a gift from God although others told me I did. But I believe the
one thing that made me realize that I had a gift was when I truly heard myself sing and I didn't sound like anyone else. My voice has always
been darker, thicker, bigger, louder, and a lot more mature than others my age even when I was in college. When I heard another contralto’s
recording - Marian Anderson - I realize that our voices were somewhat similar. It was only when I did my research that I realized that a
“contralto voice” is the rarest of the female voice types. That is when I truly realized I actually had a special gift from God. He gave me
something quite unique and very distinct.
Q: If young people are interested in opera, what is the best way to explore it?
A: Get some experience in high school by singing in choirs and studying voice. Listen to YouTube videos, recordings and also go to see opera
live. I believe young people need to see opera or classical music vocal performances live to really get a good idea of the professionalism
necessary. They should start taking voice lessons at an early age so that their voices will begin the maturing process required to be an opera
singer. It is quite important to choose the right college. Most colleges have music programs, but not every college focus on opera or musical
theatre. Most elite young artist programs judge the students by the schools they attend. I firmly believe that students who go to the better
schools of music have a better shot in this kind of career, but in everything perseverance, a strong focus as well as a natural gift will take a
budding opera singer far, just as it did me.
On Tuesday, May 5, 2015, at 5 p.m., a free and open reception is being held in Ms. Brown’s honor at the Urban League of Greater Madison
located at 2222 S. Park Street, Madison WI 53713 in the 1st Floor Conference Room sponsored by Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho
Sorority, The Urban League of Greater Madison, The Goodman Library, Madison Network of Black Professionals, NAACP of Dane County and
the Capital City Hues. Gwen will be performing and be available for questions.
In addition, The Goodman Library has the Black Divas of Opera on display which will feature Gwendolyn amongst other Black great female
opera singers such Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Martina Arroyo, Kathleen Battle, Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman.
As part of Alpha Alpha Delta Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. Adopt-A-School Program, Gwen will be a guest presenter at Aldrich
Middle School in Beloit, WI on Wednesday, May 6, 2015, where she will perform and give a mini-educational workshop to music students
introducing them to world of opera.
You may see Gwendolyn perform in Ode to Joy with Madison Symphony Orchestra Fri., May 8, at 7:30 p.m.; Sat., May 9, at 8 p.m.; and Sun.,
May 10, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Tickets ($16 to $84 each) are available at www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets or you may contact
the Overture Center Box Office (201 State Street) or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.
By Theola Carter
If anyone had said to me 31 years ago that my college roommate would call me and tell me that she would be
sharing her musical talent in Madison Wisconsin, I probably would have responded “yeah right.” Well, fast-
forward from those days on the yard at Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee, and
this is the present situation.
The first time I heard Gwendolyn Brown sing was at our freshmen year talent show when she wowed the audience
when she song Amazing Grace. Now, if you know anything about an audience of African-American students, you
know that 1) we know good singing when we hear it, and 2) you better not come on stage perpetrating because if
you do, you will not hear the end of it. Years later at a reunion or alumni function, someone inevitably will recall
the event and get everyone busting a stich. Needless to say, during her rendition, the gymnasium was still and the
audience captivated. When Gwen exited, she left the crowd up on its’ feet shouting and screaming!
At that moment, I thought to myself, “That girl got some cords on her.” None of us was surprised when she was
selected to be a member of the world renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers. Those days, where the warm and genial
setting sun lights up the hills with mellow hue, we shall always cherish and remember them ever so fondly.