When one sees photos of baritone Steven LaBrie, it’s not clear as to whether you’re looking at a movie star, a professional body builder with a magnificent physique, or a male model. His swarthy good looks and build get almost as much attention as his voice. Critics seem to use the same catchwords time and time again when describing his singing, such as “excelled,” “superb,” “standout,” “radiant baritone,” and “vibrant, manly baritone.” Who is this guy and how has he become perhaps the hottest operatic property to hit the scene in some time?
“I was born and grew up in Dallas, Texas,” LaBrie shares. “I was always a quirky and super-sensitive kid growing up, which made me an easy target to be bullied by other kids in school.” But one day when he was about 10, the school took a field trip to see Puccini’s La bohème. It changed LaBrie’s life.
“When we got back to class,” he says, “I announced to everyone that I wanted to sing opera one day. From that point forward, I put all my focus toward singing and practicing.” He admits that opera and his innate love for music “gave [him] strength and the ability to disconnect from reality”—a welcome necessity from, no doubt, a turbulent adolescence.
When LaBrie started taking voice lessons as a teen, he remembers his teacher sending home some CDs of baritones Leonard Warren and George London. “They blew me away! They were the first operatic recordings I heard,” he says.
Pretty soon he was singing Mexican music. “My mother is Mexican, and my father is American,” he says. He would travel around Dallas with “various Mariachi bands. I still include Mexican music when I sing concerts and recitals. The music is very operatic vocally and dramatically full of passion.”
When high school ended, LaBrie found himself at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. “I’m the youngest person to have ever gone there,” he recalls. “It was a very challenging environment both musically and emotionally. I did, however, meet an amazing coach, Laurent Philippe, who took me under his wing and taught me to read music. I was not able to read a note when I first got there, and now I am able to learn modern music and read notes and rhythms easily.”
For LaBrie, he maintains a healthy and positive attitude regarding the teachers, coaches, and singers who have influenced his career. “[They] helped push me and reinforce ideas that I’ve carried with me from early on,” he says, “which is openness and freedom of mind, heart, and body. A freedom of breath and openness in the body that allows for a full and spinning sound.”
Aside from Warren and London, LaBrie acknowledges that opera greats Ettore Bastianini, Lawrence Tibbett, and Robert Merrill were also instrumental in his development. “Their voices are so colorful and so full and free,” he says. “All of these great baritones have influenced me to find my own voice and to embrace the color of my sound.”
As for the YAP scene, college education, or competitions, LaBrie has his own opinions. “I don’t think that YAPs or college conservatories are necessary to train singers,” he says. “They could potentially provide experience and definitely connections, which are necessary for this business. But the way to learn in this career is by doing. Learning technique in a room with a teacher is essential, but I believe that there is nothing more valuable than finding your technique and using it to express onstage while performing. That’s where you really learn your craft.”
LaBrie has received awards and placed in many competitions, including the George London Foundation and the Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition. “Competitions are necessary in this career,” he says. “However, there is a big difference between someone who can stand and sing two arias and someone who has the potential to learn and sing a role onstage with all the complexities of acting, staging, feeling, orchestra, etc. Sometimes those are one in the same and sometimes not. There are some very successful singers who never won one competition and some that won tons.”
LaBrie, now in his 30s, has no shortage of performance opportunities. In the 2018–19 season alone, he appeared in The Barber of Seville with Tulsa Opera, L’elisir d’amore with Opera Omaha, and La straniera with Teatro Nuovo, in addition to concerts and recitals. “The U.S. is full of amazing opera companies that do great work,” he says. “I only wish that there were more performances, especially since the theaters in the U.S. are so big. But, truly, I have worked with some regional companies that put together an incredible cast, wonderful director [and] conductor, and have a great orchestra with first-rate performances.”
LaBrie doesn’t believe in limitations in his professional life. “I personally am striving for an international career and have made it to Canada, Mexico, and Asia,” he says. “Europe is next!”
Aside from his singing, LaBrie got into physical fitness training 10 years ago. “What I’ve realized over the years is that fitness is exactly like singing,” he says. “It requires technique, discipline, and consistency to see growth. It’s also a journey where there is no arrival. You always have to keep moving forward to see results.”
LaBrie is also an openly gay man and acknowledges that changing times have made it easier to be accepted and embraced by the arts community and public. “There have always been challenges associated with being gay,” he says. “Luckily, I’m in a field that is super accepting, and people are allowed to be more open.
“It was scarier at the beginning when I was convinced that being gay would limit my potential. But I don’t think that is the case. Growing up in Texas, like many places, there is an ingrained homophobia within society, which teaches that gays are inherently bad. It just takes time to realize that these ideas were invented and perpetuated by fearful people and that being gay is a blessing. It gives me a different perspective on life and the world that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and for that I am grateful.”
LaBrie’s partner, Adam Nielsen, is also in the business and an extremely accomplished pianist and sought-after accompanist. “He is a vocal coach at Juilliard and on staff at the Met as a pianist,” LaBrie says. “He is also a solo performer with orchestras and in recitals and has performed with many accomplished singers and has [also] been an accomplished chorus master. He is truly the best of the best, and I’m super lucky to have him as a partner and as a collaborator.”
In closing, I asked LaBrie to tell me something about himself that perhaps others didn’t know. “Something that I would share with people that they couldn’t know by just meeting me is that I’m really sensitive to how others are feeling and their happiness and needs,” he says. “Probably a by-product of being bullied as a child, I always like to make sure everyone feels included, respected, and important.”