INTERVIEW: Eric Owens
Fisher Pavilion, Seattle
Bass-baritone Eric Owens’ appearance as Wotan in Seattle Opera’s Aug. 28 Welcome Back Concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre will be multiply eventful. It is his SO debut among a stellar cast of other notable Wagnerians. Just as significant, the exciting outdoor event, at Seattle Center's Fisher Pavilion Lawn, with Seattle Symphony Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot at the helm, will be the first live post-pandemic opening for the company.
The two-time Grammy award winning Owens has a CV on the world stage that would be the envy of many opera singers in his fach. He champions both the classical/romantic repertoire and new music: from Mozart and Beethoven to Verdi and Gershwin, the Met Opera to Chicago and Santa Fe, playing heroes, villains, and everything in between.
Erica Miner: Welcome to Seattle! Is this your SO debut?
Eric Owens: Yes, and it’s so exciting. Seattle Opera is a company I’ve admired for so long. It will be so nice to be performing there.
EM: And what a way to make your debut, as Wotan.
EO: Yes! Thought it will be quite different in a concert version, and also not the full opera. They have made alterations and cuts to accommodate the time and space requirements. Still, it’s so exciting, a role I very much enjoy doing. With wonderful friends of mine singing (Angela Meade, Brandon Jovanovich, Raymond Aceto, Alexandra Lobianco), that really makes it special. I adore Christina Scheppelmann, and so admire her for making it happen.
EM: Have you sung with any of these singers before?
EO: I’ve sung with Brandon. I know Angela very well, though I’ve not sung with her before.
EM: And you and they are all great in Wagnerian roles. Let’s go back in time a way. What was your journey to the opera stage?
EO: [Laughs] Oh, wow. I started taking piano age 6 at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. While I was there, I found myself listening to singers and got interested in the operatic voice. Then I listened to recordings, especially, Luciano Pavarotti’s I Puritani. That especially inspired me. I also learned to play oboe at age 11, which I did for quite a while, eventually becoming a professional at age 16 freelancing in Philadelphia. I began singing in my high school choir, and the director noticed something worth pursuing, so he gave me solos and I started taking voice lessons senior as a high school senior. I studied as an undergrad at the Boyer College of Music at Temple University and did my grad work at the Curtis Institute. After that I was a Young Artist at the Houston Opera Studio and my career launched from there.
EM: Did you find that your study of the oboe helped with your breath control as a singer?
EO: They’re so different. With the oboe, it’s a question of getting rid of enough air. Before you take a breath, you have to exhale get rid of bad air. That of course is not the case with singing. So, one didn’t necessarily help the other.
EM: You have quite a history with Wagner operas: Chicago, the Met. Tell us about those.
EO: I sang Wotan in Chicago, all 3 Ring operas. Alberich in the Met Ring and also Hagen in the Met Götterdämmerung. So, I’ve sung in all 4 Ring operas. I also sang Flying Dutchman with Washington National Opera.
EM: You are quite the Wagnerite.
EO: It’s funny because some Wagner I really love to sing. I’ve been fortunate enough to sing all 4 Ring operas.
EM: Which you could say are the pinnacle of his works. Do you plan to perform more Wagner in the future?
EO: There are some Ring cycles in my future, though I can’t yet say which companies, since they haven’t been announced. I’m also going to sing King Marke in Tristan.
EM: That’s a whole other level.
EO: Isn’t it! I see Wagner like Bach. The music is so emotional, so ingenious, without advertising that genius.
EM: In both, the emotion is deep underneath, and they were both such geniuses.
EO: Yes. You can look at them in terms of being mathematicians, but the music is not so cold.
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EM: Which Wagner roles would you most love to play?
EO: I would love to play Amfortas in Parsifal. I’ve sung that part in concert and would love to do it onstage. The music speaks to me, the depth of his despair. The way it’s written grabs your heart and takes you on this journey.
EM: The ultimate thing, Wagner’s final glory of a masterpiece. You’ve performed both on the opera and concert stages. What are some of your most memorable appearances in either or both?
EO: In concert, I had an amazing experience in the staged St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic. We performed it in Berlin and then went on tour with it to New York and London. The piece is incredibly powerful. It speaks to me. The whole experience was a tremendous gift. Those are events I’ll never forget. On the opera stage, a L’Incoronazione di Poppea with English National Opera was in ways the pinnacle experience of my career. Everyone in the cast was totally at the service of music, the drama. We all were there for everyone else.
EM: Who conducted?
EO: Harry Christophers.
EM: He’s a Baroque specialist?
EO: Yes, he is.
EM: Sounds like a win-win.
EO: The Baroque is my favorite musical period. I’m not necessarily known for performing it, but I love the music and spend a lot of time listening to it.
EM: Your experience with contemporary opera is quite extensive. Describe some of the highlights.
EO: The highlights are especially when the piece written for me, like John Adams’ The Flowering Tree, which premiered in Vienna, and the world premiere of his Doctor Atomic at San Francisco Opera. At the Houston Opera Studio, every year a new piece is written for the members. I remember Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Jackie O by Michael Daugherty. That was very early on in my career.
EM: It must be exciting to do a work that no one’s ever heard before.
EO: There’s a certain responsibility, but also a level of comfort. No one can compare you to anyone else! But to have a chance to work with the composer, learn what they meant by the music. I would kill to have conversation with some of the long-gone composers. It’s such a gift to have the composer right there.
EM: Tell us about serving on the Board of Trustees of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, and Astral Artistic Services.
EO: I’m no longer on those boards, but it was a great experience. NFAA is now called Young Arts. I was one of their award recipients in high school. I served on the board for 3 or 4 years. I always find working with young artists very fulfilling. Both organizations all about young artists. Serving on the boards was a way of giving back. AAS is a Philadelphia organization that helps young artists by giving them performing opportunities. Going into the community, schools, retirement communities, who desperately need the gift of music. The outreach amazing, plus they put on their own live recitals in the Philadelphia area. I credit them with giving me many opportunities to perform, hone my craft, speak to audiences, when I was a young artist. To connect with the audience, not just musically but verbally.
EM: Especially this past year, with all the performances online, verbal connection has become incredibly important.
EO: Making use of that, the audience gets more from the experience overall. That’s very important.
EM: Is there anything you would like to add to our discussion?
EO: Just to reiterate I’m really excited about making my debut with Seattle Opera.
EM: And as Wotan, who makes trouble for everyone!
EO: Yes! [Laughs.]
EM: Thanks so much, Eric. We’re so looking forward to hearing and see you, live.
EO: Thank you, Erica.
Details about Seattle Opera’s Welcome Back Concert can be found at: https://www.seattleopera.org/on-stage/welcome-back-concert/
Photo credits: Dario Acosta, Seattle Center Marketing
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]