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Arts Desk

Bass-Baritone Eric Owens: Not Taking Anything For Granted

EricOwens.jpg
Bass-baritone Eric Owens

 

Eric Owens has come a long way from Philadelphia's Central High School. This once-fledging oboe player has evolved into a bass-baritone who has opera productions built around him. One is Opera Philadelphia's current Don Carlo, where he's singing the role of lonely, powerful King Philip, but took time to share trade secrets with The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns.

David Patrick Stearns: That's how the Metropolitan Opera is used to hearing Eric Owens - in the role of Alberich in Wagner's Ring Cycle - which is typically cast with some of the biggest voices on earth. Owens is one of them, though his secret to being heard in cavernous theaters is not trying so hard.

Eric Owens: As soon as you think you're making a big sound, you're cutting it off. You're not trying to control something, but guiding it along. When you're a young singer, you think I'm going to do this. But it's like holding water in your hands.

DPS: In his mind, he's not singing Wagner but Handel and Mozart with the precision and detail that implies. That's only one way that Owens has survived in the high-fatality world of opera. A hearty man who can barely speak a few sentences without laughing, Owens seems not to take things personally. Some African/American basses/baritones have wondered why none of them have had careers like, say, Leontyne Price. Owens doesn't go there. 

EO: Everything worth something is going to be difficult. People ask me if I've been denied a job because of my color . I don't know. They aren't going to tell ya. My thought is that there's always room at the top and you get your craft to the point where you can't be denied.

DPS: Part of that craft is having more of everything in reserve. When not in opera he might be heard singing dense, brainy, less-than-crowd-pleasing Hugo Wolf songs. While some singers scrimp on rehearsals after becoming famous, Owens has worked towards a true rapport with Opera Philadelphia Music Director Corrado Rovaris for Don Carlo.

Corrado Rovaris: You go to another level - much, much deeper.

DPS: The ascent has been slow for Eric Owens. He started with oddball projects such as the Michael Daugherty opera Jackie O in which he played Aristotle Onassis. Now, he's graduating to the next level. Instead of singing Alberich, he'll be Wotan in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's Ring Cycle. He's also singing more Verdi, partly because he knows his shelf life with that composer is limited.

EO: You have to spin out those long lines and a lot of times it hangs out in the upper-middle part. And that legato is relentless. After the Confutatis in the Verdi Requiem, it feels like you've done 200 sit ups.

DPS: Amid all of that work, where does all of his humor come from? 

EO: The day is coming when people aren't going to want to hear from me. That's how life is. So I'm going to enjoy the hell out of whatever it is I'm doing at any given moment.

DPS: Even when charting the dark waters of Verdi's Macbeth, you hear that in his voice.