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Opera's ever-inquisitive Eric Owens is in high demand

The Metropolitan Opera's bass-baritone, currently performing as Sharpless in Los Angeles Opera's 'Madame Butterfly,' aims to spread his musical wings.

November 17, 2012|By James C. Taylor
  • Tenor Eric Owens goes over music with pianist Jeremy Frank during rehearsal for Owens' first "Madame Butterfly" with LA Opera at the Music Center.
Tenor Eric Owens goes over music with pianist Jeremy Frank during rehearsal… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

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!"

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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!"

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