Opera’s ever-inquisitive Eric Owens is in high demand
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — But what he really wants to do is conduct …
For the next three weeks Eric Owens is playing the supporting role of Sharpless in Los Angeles Opera’s “Madame Butterfly,” but at age 42, the Philadelphia-born singer has earned a leading position that few can claim: Right now Owens is the voice of the Metropolitan Opera. Literally, his deep bass-baritone is the voice-over on the Met’s television commercials and promos this season, and figuratively, Owens is arguably the company’s standout performer over the last two seasons.
Relaxing on an off day at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival this past summer, where in addition to singing two roles he was also artist in residence, Owens shakes his head when asked about how far he has come in the music world and what he wants to achieve: “When I was in school, oh, man, I thought I’d have a job playing oboe in some small orchestra somewhere. That was the dream — and how things evolve!”
Though it’s true that divas such as Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Anna Netrebko may be the Met’s biggest draws, it’s Owens who ended up being the main attraction of the company’s expensive new “Ring” production. When asked what made Owens so impressive to audiences and critics alike, the Met general manager, Peter Gelb, said recently by phone, “I wish I knew what the magical formula was — but whatever it is, Eric has it, and the audience knows it.”
Owens is, however, self-deprecating about his recent fame: “There are very precious few people who can write their own ticket in any art form. Most of us, we’re working stiffs, and we’re at the mercy of the jobs as they come, and I still feel that way.”
But he admits that playing Alberich in the Met “Ring” has brought changes in his life: “It totally altered the trajectory of my career, people started calling — opera houses from Europe, Vienna, Berlin — and it put me at a different plateau.”
Despite his in-demand status, Owens is spending this fall on the West Coast playing smaller roles. Before moving to Sharpless, Owens sang the small role of Capellio in “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” last month with San Francisco Opera. “Which is totally fine with me,” he says with a laugh, “I’m happy to have a couple things where it’s not a big ol’ magnifying glass on me.”
Owens is also happy to be back at Los Angeles Opera, since the company played such an important part of his early career, “L.A. was the place I had sung the most,” he recalls. “The first thing I did was ‘Il Trovatore,’ it was during the Peter Hemmings era. Then I did Sparafucile in ‘Rigoletto’ and Coline in ‘La Boheme.’”
Then came his big break as the lead in Elliot Goldenthal’s “Grendel,” which received its world premiere at L.A. Opera in 2006, with Julie Taymor directing. “That was a huge jump,” he says. “it was intimidating as hell. Title character, new work, it’s Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal — and I’ll be honest, I felt a little pressure … to this day it’s still the biggest role I’ve ever sung.”
Times Music Critic Mark Swed wrote of the premiere: “Eric Owens’ Grendel is round, frumpy and lovable … the role is hugely demanding, and for Owens it’s career-making.”
Owens insists it didn’t immediately make him a star: “It was a big PR bump, yes, because people came from all over to see it, but people in the opera world weren’t necessarily clamoring for me after it. It was a new work, and people look at that differently.”
Luckily for Owens, Gelb was in the “Grendel” audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “That was when I first heard Eric, and like everyone else in the audience I was overwhelmed by his virtuoso performance,” Gelb recalls. “I thought he was someone who should be singing at the Met. I suggested to [then music director] James Levine that he would be a great Alberich.”
After all the rave reviews and attention that the Met’s “Ring” has given him, Owens insists he’s not a celebrity: “Yes, after the HD broadcast, people from different cities and countries started wanting my autograph, so that was different,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was famous then, but opera lovers took notice — so maybe I was opera-world famous. But those are very different things.”
Owens’ career is clearly on a roll, but just as he started out as an oboe player and was lured away by the possibilities of a singing career, Owens is not content with just the life of an international performing artist: “I’m planning on doing a great mix of things and just trying to stay versatile, which I think is important because once my voice starts going I’m going to need something else to do!”
Francesca Zambello, who recently succeeded Plácido Domingo as artistic director of Washington Opera, has known and worked with Owens for 20 years. At Glimmerglass this past summer (where she directed Owens in “Aida”), she said: “He’s just always been an interesting artist. Just the fact that he’s such a consummate musician, he wants to be a conductor. He’s hungry about everything — he’s hungry for knowledge.”
When asked about his insatiable curiosity, Owens jokes: “I’ve been geeky like that since I was a kid. At 10 years old I was sitting beside the radio listening to Met broadcasts or going to Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal as an oboe student.”
When he’s at the Met, he’ll find time to duck into rehearsals of other productions. “I’m like a kid at the candy store. Sometimes people are like ‘What are you doing here?’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, conductor X who’s amazing is downstairs with the orchestra doing a sitzprobe!”
Owens’ enthusiasm for being backstage at the opera house recalls Orson Welles’ quote about a movie studio being “the biggest electric train set a boy could ever have,” but the singer insists he doesn’t really want to direct: “I don’t think I have the chops to be a director, I just don’t think I have that sort of creative mind. And I can’t draw worth a damn, you know? My stick figures suck, but I’d maybe love to run a company at some point or be an artistic director.”
Grant Gershon, who has known Owens for years and conducted him at the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 2006, is conducting these performances of “Butterfly.” “Sharpless is a great sing,” Gershon says about having a singer of such stature in the role, “but obviously it’s luxury casting for us.”
It was only during this rehearsal process that Gershon learned about Owens’ interest in conducting: “He’s always been such a tremendously inquisitive musician, I’m really thrilled to learn that conducting is of interest to him.” How does he think the bass-baritone will fare at the podium? “Oh, God, he’ll tear it up,” Gershon says with a laugh, “He’ll put us all out of work.”
No doubt an interesting, eclectic future awaits Eric Owens — as befitting someone who lists his main influences growing up as Eddie Murphy and Anne Sofie von Otter, plus Carol Burnett and Riccardo Muti — but for the next few weeks he’s focused on singing Sharpless in “Butterfly.”
This will be his first time performing the role, and this past summer he was relishing the prospect of something new: “I still have to learn ‘Butterfly,’ I gotta couple of months though. But when I get to L.A., I’m looking forward to sitting in on the rehearsal, looking at a complete score. See what Grant is doing ‘conductorially,’ if that’s even a word — is it? It should be.”
Where: Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, downtown L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17, Nov. 28 and Dec. 6; 2 p.m. Nov. 25 and Dec. 9. Tickets: $19 to $319
Information: (213) 972-8001 or https://www.laopera.com
Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes
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