Bass-baritone Eric Owens is currently singing the role of the King of Scotland in Ariodante at San Francisco Opera until July 6. The Opera Tattler spoke to Owens last Sunday in San Francisco.
You started piano at 6, oboe at 10, and now you are an opera singer. Did you come from a musical family?
No, there aren't any professional musicians in my family. My mother had me take piano lessons, and I'm very glad she did, but at the time it wasn't exciting, practicing and all that. It's a funny story about how I got started with oboe. In junior high my older brother was in band, and I started off on clarinet. At one point an oboe became available because the oboist graduated, and I thought I'd take it up. Since there was only one, I knew I would be first chair. It is a great instrument, but you spend a lot of time making reeds, more time doing that than actually practicing. It makes oboists a little crazy, not that opera singers are exactly sane.
So how did you move from playing oboe professionally at 15 to studying voice?
I loved opera from when I was 10 or 11, but only started singing in choir in high school. The choir director pulled me aside to say I might have something there as far as my voice was concerned. So I took voice lessons at the end of high school and studied voice at Temple University.
Your San Francisco Opera debut was as Lodovico in Otello in 2002, and I remember that as being a crazy production because Ben Heppner withdrew. How was that experience?
It was very exciting! We practically played guess the tenor each night, since there were four different singers as Otello in that run. Pat Racette was a trooper, she barely rehearsed with some of them!
I did not realize you were even in Ariodante, because I was blinded by the prospect of Susan Graham, Ruth Ann Swenson, and Ewa Podleś. When I did notice my first thought was General Leslie Groves (from Doctor Atomic) is singing Handel? The music is so different. But obviously from the panel discussion and from your singing you love Handel. You were able to name Carestini as the castrato that first sang Ariodante and Gustavus Waltz as the first person to sing your role, the King of Scotland, so you did your research. How do you sing such different music? It's easier to research for newer operas, because many of the characters are historical, such as Leslie Groves, and there are tons of documents to look at, in English. That's much simpler than trying to find out information on operas based on older texts, you might look at a source text that isn't exactly in modern French for example, and perhaps that’s more difficult.
As for preparation, I'm lucky to have a strong foundation for my technique from my voice teacher, and I don't go about preparing for a role much differently even though the styles are very different.
In looking at your repertoire, I see you have performed some Handel, starting with Achilla in Giulio Cesare. What other Handel operas have you sung in besides this and Ariodante?
I've sung in Hercules (Hercules) and Jeptha (Zebul). Most of my career has been in the United States, and the Handel-craze is mostly in Europe. I'm not a singer people necessarily associate with Handel, not like David Daniels or Joyce Di Donato. Some singers specialize, but I couldn't do that, it would drive me crazy to sing, say, Rossini, all year long.
I read the score with last night's performance of Ariodante, and I have to say, I have an immense respect for all the singers and musicians involved. I could barely keep up and I was just reading along, I can't imagine having to play or sing that quickly.
Last night I had a moment when I just looked around and there I was, Ruth Ann's dad on stage, and it all sort of sank in and we don't always take time to appreciate how amazing it is.
I believe they cut one of your arias in Ariodante, is that right? It's a rather long opera, even with the cuts it is the longest opera at SF Opera this summer.
Yes, they had to make some cuts to keep it manageable, like you said, it is long. So they've cut some arias, part of a duet, and the ballets. I think they ended up cutting 30-40 minutes of music.
How was creating the role of General Leslie Groves in Doctor Atomic? Did you know you have the best line in all of opera?
"Three pieces of chocolate cake, 300 calories."
It was great working with John Adams and Peter Sellars. When I sing the line about the cake, it is like having a therapy session in front of a few thousand people, since I'm not exactly a small guy. Groves didn't get to be the top military leader in charge of the Manhattan Project by being nice, but that part is meant to humanize him, and I think it does.
You just had your Lyric Opera of Chicago debut with this role, and you will be singing Leslie Groves at the Met this October. Is it your Met premiere? Are you excited about being in a simulcast?
Yes, that will be my Met premiere. It's all very exciting, especially since it is a totally new production. I am also singing Sarastro at the Met in December.
Is it the production with all the puppets in it?
Right, it's the Julie Taymor production of The Magic Flute.
Could you talk a little about your experience in Grendel? I know it had some issues, it was supposed to have a world premiere at LA Opera on May 27, 2006, but it had to be pushed back to June 8, 2006. Do you think you'll sing it again?
Grendel really changed the trajectory of my career. You know, I usually end up playing the father or the king, and I don't think people knew I could sing something like Grendel, where I'm on stage for nearly 3 hours. It was a great experience.
The production had a lot of computers and motors, and they weren't talking to one another by the time we were supposed to premiere. That part was frustrating, so much time was taken up by tech that we didn't have all the time we needed to rehearse all the way through.
I know Julie Taymor wants Grendel to be performed again, and I hope they do it in the next 10 years, while I can still sing it.
The reviews were very good, Alex Ross wrote some really nice things about you in The New Yorker.
That was so great! I was a cartoon in The New Yorker. I think the only thing that could be better is being on Sesame Street. That would be so cool.