As a teenager, Eric Owens once took a train from his home in Philadelphia to New York City, where he got a standing-room-only ticket to watch James Levine conduct Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera. Little did Owens suspect that he would one day be the undisputed star of the same opera at that same storied opera house.
“I was absolutely shocked at what happened to me,” said Owens during a recent phone interview. “I’m not sure anything like it had ever happened before.”
The 42-year-old bass baritone, who performs Saturday night with pianist Warren Jones at the Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall, isn’t exaggerating. Owens portrayed Alberich, the evil dwarf lord, in director Robert Lepage’s new mounting of the Met’s Ring Cycle. Usually, all of the attention in Rheingold, the first opera in the Ring Cycle tetralogy, goes to the baritone who sings the part of Wotan, the mighty but corrupt king of the gods. The ugly little Nibelung Alberich rarely amounts to more than a stock villain.
But that’s not how the Met audience saw it with Owens in the role. When he walked onstage in September 2010 to take his curtain call, he was met by a stunning surprise.
“I was expecting polite applause, which is what Alberich always gets,” says Owens. “Instead, the hall erupted in a thunderous ovation. I could physically feel the applause.”
Owens wasn’t just imaging the enthusiasm. Writing later for The New Yorker, critic Alex Ross noted that, “The chief glory of this production is Eric Owens’ performance as Alberich … [his] performance announces the emergence of a new major Wagner singer, for his portrayal is so richly layered that it may become a part of the history of opera.” Talk about superlatives.
Born in Philadelphia in 1970, Owens grew up in a family that appreciated music. His mother sang in choirs and played piano, and she started Owens on piano lessons at age 6. “I hated it at the time, but obviously I really appreciate the early exposure now,” says Owens.
In junior high school Owens switched to oboe and within a few years he was studying with Laura Ahlbeck, second oboe in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. It was Ahlbeck who secured those Ring Cycle tickets for her young student.
Owens began studying voice seriously during his senior year in high school, entering the pre-college division of Temple University’s Boyer College of Music. He earned his undergraduate degree from that school and then entered the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, studying voice under Armen Boyajian.
With all the success he’s enjoyed in opera, Owens obviously has no regrets about switching from oboe to voice. “Oboe jobs are just so hard to get,” Owens says. “Those jobs almost never come open, since when someone wins an orchestra chair they stick with it for 20 or 30 years. As an opera singer I freelance and can move around.”
True enough, but Warren Jones, Owens’ collaborative pianist, says the singer’s extensive prior instrumental experience has been a huge benefit. “Eric has become such a great and expressive opera singer precisely because he is such an accomplished all-around musician,” says Jones.
After Curtis, Owens joined the Houston Grand Opera’s young artists’ program, and his career has been moving forward at a frenetic pace ever since. He made his debut as Ramfis in the Houston Opera’s Aida, and then sang Lodovico in San Francisco Opera’s Otello, Oroveso in the Royal Opera Covent Garden’s Norma and Ferrando in Los Angeles Opera’s Il Trovatore.
He first gained widespread recognition in 2005, when he appeared in the world premiere of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at San Francisco Opera. He debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in the same work, singing the role of General Leslie Groves. His subsequent appearance in the Met’s Ring Cycle secured his place in the top echelon of today’s opera singers.
It takes an enormous amount of vocal heft and interpretive gravitas to become a convincing Wagner singer. Not surprisingly, vocalists who possess those qualities are often attracted to weighty repertoire.
Owens will be singing a program filled – for the most part – with serious songs in Nashville. The first half of the program will feature the lieder of Wolf, Schumann and Schubert. Many of these songs are quite dark.
“I sang these songs in recital recently, and a woman came up to me afterward and said, ‘you seem like such a sad man,’” recalls Owens, who in real life may well be the happiest guy on earth – he constantly interrupted his interview with baritonal belly laughs. “But I am a sucker for sad songs.”
That said, Owens will allow some light into the program. During the second half, he’ll sing songs by Debussy and Ravel. Naturally, audiences today won’t let Owens leave a recital hall without singing a little Wagner. Owens will oblige with an early Wagner song called the “Les deux grenadiers.”
“People always expect me to sing Wagner now, so I like to end with ‘The Two Grenadiers’ because it’s so tongue-in-cheek,” says Owens. “I mean, no one expects to hear me singing Wagner in French.”
Click here to hear an interview with Owens.
If you go
Opera star Eric Owens perform the songs of Wolf, Schumann, Schubert, Debussy, Ravel and Wagner. Pianist Warren Jones will assist. The recital starts at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23 at the Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall, 2400 Blakemore Ave. The concert is free but tickets are required and are available at the Blair Box Office.
Owens will also present a master class with Blair students from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24 at Ingram Hall. The class is free and open to the public.