Hot baritone: An interview with Steven LaBrie of Il Divo
By Gregg Shapiro
It’s safe to say that not every queer person digs opera or classical music. But those who do border on being cultlike. In a way, the classical crossover genre, which has its roots in the 1980s (remember Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe’s “Barcelona” album), bridged that gap. Performers such as Charlotte Church, Jackie Evancho, Josh Groban, and Andrea Bocelli have found victory in the genre. All-male quartet Il Divo is also one of classical crossover’s greatest success stories. An early 21st century creation of Simon Cowell, Il Divo is still going strong after 20 years. Having survived the loss of original member Carlos Marín to COVID, Il Divo is on the rebound with new, openly gay member Steven LaBrie. A baritone with a long history in the world of opera, LaBrie was kind enough to make time for an interview in advance of the group’s concert tour.
Gregg Shapiro: I’d like to begin by congratulating you on officially becoming the fourth member of the male vocal group Il Divo. As fellow divo Sebastian has said, you are not a replacement, but more of a new member joining the group. What does such an honor mean to you?
Steven LaBrie: Thank you Gregg! As you said, it is such an honor to be a part of such an iconic group that has shaped the world of classical crossover music for the last 20 years. When I first started singing in a serious way, I was about 15 years old and I remember walking through the CD section of a bookstore and seeing Il Divo’s first album on the shelf. I gave it a listen on the headphones at the bookstore and thought, “Wow! What is this?!” Such beautiful music and with four good-looking classical singers! So, I have known about Il Divo my entire adult life and I met David (Miller) in person when we did a concert together about 10 years ago. He invited me to an Il Divo concert and introduced me to the rest of the guys backstage after the show. And when Carlos fell ill and sadly passed away, it was a huge privilege for me to have the opportunity to honor such an iconic artist. And now, as the new member of the band, it’s an honor to carry on the legacy into the 20th year of Il Divo.
GS: How old were you when you discovered that you had a talent for singing?
SL: I have always loved to sing. I don’t come from a very musical family; it was just something innate within me. When I was 11 years old, my elementary school took us on a field trip to see the opera “La Bohème” at the Dallas Opera. I was completely enamored with the music, the singing, the story, everything. I just loved it. I was so moved and when I got back to class, I announced to everyone that I was going to be an opera singer! From then on, I would practice at home after school for hours when there was no one in the house. I loved to practice, and I still do, I would just sing whatever songs I knew at the time. When I got older, maybe around 15, I started taking voice lessons from a retired opera singer who lived in Dallas; he was also a baritone. I learned super quickly. When I started voice lessons, we didn’t jump straight into classical music, we started with singing pop songs and mariachi; I’m half Mexican. It was through singing all the Mexican mariachi songs that I truly found my way into opera. They are full of passion and emotional outbursts, high notes, intimate moments. Mexican music is probably what has influenced me the most musically.
GS: At what age did your rich baritone voice develop?
SL: I was a really early bloomer. When I was 12, my voice changed in two weeks! When I started taking lessons with my first teacher in Dallas, he helped me learn how to open my throat and expand my range. From then on, I have always had a deep, dark voice, pretty much the same one I have now. Of course, things have changed throughout the years. Singing has gotten easier and more natural, and I have a lot more skills than I did then. The thing that remains the same is that I still love singing.
GS: As you said, you grew up in Dallas. Did you participate in musical theater productions while in high school there?
SL: I did! I was in a few musicals in school and in community theater. I did “Damn Yankees,” “Oklahoma!,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and “Anything Goes.” I love musicals. In the summer of 2021, I sang Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” in Colorado. It was my first public appearance since the pandemic started and it was a magical experience. Such a great musical!
GS: Il Divo recorded its new album in Miami. I live in Fort Lauderdale, and I was wondering if you had a chance to explore the gay nightlife scene there and in Wilton Manors?
SL: Yeah, I did! I went to Wilton Manors with a few friends one night. It was super fun. I had a great time. I didn’t have the chance to go out in Miami this time because I was being disciplined so I could sing well in the recording studio, but I’ve been to Miami many times and it’s always a good time.
GS: What can you tell the readers about the song selection on the new Il Divo album?
SL: We have been working on this album for a long time! Before we even started this tour in February, we had chosen the songs that we wanted to record and then we started working with our amazing Grammy Award-winning producer Carlos Lopez in March. We actually had two separate recording sessions because we will be releasing a Christmas EP (“A Merry Little Christmas”) of four festive Christmas songs just in time for the holidays. So, we went down to Miami in April to record those, and then the second session was to record the “Il Divo: XX” album. This new album is ex-ploring some new and modern cinematic sounds, some contemporary songs, some epic classic pop songs, and one original song that was written by Carlos Lopez, Laura Lambuley, and our very own Divos, David Miller and Sebastien Izambard.
GS: Please say a few words about the new Il Divo Christmas EP.
SL: You’re going to love it! It’s festive, nostalgic, and powerful. There is even a new and interesting take that we have done on a classic Christmas song where we have given it a Latin flare. It is sexy!
GS: Beginning in October, Il Divo has a packed tour schedule through late December. Is your partner Adam able to join you on any of the tour dates?
SL: When we finish with our tour in Asia, we will be basing ourselves in New York for a few of the concerts that are in the surrounding states, so I will get to see him then and he will join me for some of the shows in Florida toward the end of the Christmas tour. We will be so far away for most of this tour overseas, and Adam has a super busy fall. He is a very accomplished pianist and works as the artistic director of the opera program at Juilliard and will be playing a show at the Metropolitan Opera on top of concerts that he will be playing this fall. So, he is very busy these next few months as well.
GS: As Il Divo’s openly gay member, do you feel like a sort of ambassador to the community?
SL: When I was growing up, I was taught by society that being gay was the absolute worst curse that could befall any individual. So, I was scared and ashamed and I wished and wished that it wasn’t me. Years later, when I was coming out, a friend of mine who was gay told me that he used to feel that way too, but as he got older, he realized that being gay was a huge blessing from the universe. That completely changed my perspective and I think about that every day. I was bullied relentlessly growing up for being gay or for not being like the other boys, and now looking back, I’ve realized that all of those experiences have made me into a resilient person who is able to step into who I really am in a very public way and not allow criticism of any kind to break my spirit. I still get hate for being gay regularly. But, every time I do, there is an army of loving and accepting people that jump to my defense, and that is a beautiful thing to see. There are people out there who show me so much love for what I do with Il Divo, for my singing and it also happens that I’m gay. And I think that now being a part of so many people’s lives as an artist that maybe haven’t had so much exposure to gay people, and them witnessing the love that I have for my partner and the camaraderie that I have with my bandmates is impactful. In the end, we as humans are a lot more similar than we are different, we are just experiencing the world through different lenses.
GS: Do you have a sense that the other members of Il Divo have an awareness of the group’s LGBTQ+ following?
SL: I have definitely seen people from the LGBTQ+ community at concerts. From my opera career, I know that classical music has a large gay following. And Il Divo is a mix of classical singing with Whitney Houston and Celine Dion songs. How dreamy is that?