• 1900 — 1969
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Baritone John Brownlee is perhaps best known for his participation in the Glyndebourne Festival Mozart productions which began in 1935. Gifted with a sturdy, if not altogether pliant voice, Brownlee proved himself immensely useful at Covent Garden (where he was introduced by fellow Australian Dame Nellie Melba), Glyndebourne, and, subsequently, at the Metropolitan Opera where he sang 348 performances over a period of 21 seasons. At the Metropolitan alone, he performed 33 roles, a testament to the versatility that made him a welcome member of the company even if not a definitive one in any specific part.
Prompted by Melba, Brownlee left Australia to study with French baritone Dinh Gilly in Paris. He made his 1926 stage debut at the Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris as Nilakantha in Les pêcheurs de perles, actually a bass role. That same year, he was invited to Covent Garden to take part in Melba's farewell to the stage, singing Marcello to her Mimì in the third and fourth acts of La bohème. Despite the attention focused on the leading lady, Brownlee's performance was heard with pleasure. In subsequent years, he won praise from London critics for his Mercutio, Golaud, Amonasro, Jochanaan, Rigoletto, and Iago. Several comments were made regarding the "Italian manner" Brownlee was able to emulate. The very particular Ernest Newman described his Golaud by deeming it "as great a piece of work as we have seen at Covent Garden this season. His voice is as musical an organ as could be wished; and he seems to have in addition an instinctive sense of dramatic psychology and an extraordinary taste and restraint."
The fall of 1926 saw Brownlee's engagement at the Paris Opéra where he made his debut as Athanaël in Thaïs during February of the following year, beginning an association that lasted until 1936. During this period, Brownlee began widening his performing territory, ultimately singing in theaters in Antwerp, Brussels, Monte Carlo, and, in South America, at Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Rio de Janeiro.
Brownlee's Glyndebourne years began in 1935 when he appeared as Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte and the Speaker in Die Zauberflöte. In 1936, he returned to portray his manly Don Giovanni and the Count in Le nozze di Figaro. The recordings which were made of these landmark Mozart productions added to Brownlee's international reputation and they have seldom been out of the catalog since their initial release. Brownlee's Don was described at the time as handsome and swashbuckling but a little short of the evil undercurrent which should inform the role.
On February 17, 1937, Brownlee made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Rigoletto, where his tone quality was found dry and undersized for the requirements of the role. He was preferred not in the big roles, but rather in more lyric ones where his trim physique and ease in stage movement created a far more positive effect. Once Brownlee moved into some of his Mozart roles, his true worth as an artist was more generously noted.
Although he sang at Chicago and San Francisco and returned to London for the 1949 - 1950 season, Brownlee based his activity primarily around the Metropolitan for the duration of his singing career. His intelligence and broad knowledge of the classical music industry led to his serving the American Guild of Musical Artists as president from 1953 to 1967 and the Manhattan School of Music first as a director and, later, as president.