Appearance of bass-baritone Eric Owens as Wotan in Seattle Opera’s welcome concert on August 28, performance by Wagner Die Walküre will be multiplied by the events. This is his SO debut among a stellar cast of other notable Wagnerians. Equally important, the exciting outdoor event at Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion Lawn, with Seattle Symphony Distinguished Conductor Ludovic Morlot at the helm, will be the first post-pandemic live opening for the company.
Two-time Grammy-winning Owens has a world stage resume that would be the envy of many opera singers in his fach. He champions both classical / romantic repertoire and new music: from Mozart and Beethoven to Verdi and Gershwin, from 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: Yeah, and it’s so exciting. Seattle Opera is a company that I have admired for so long. It will be so nice to play there.
EM: And what a way to make your debut, as Wotan.
OE: Yes! I thought it would be quite different in a concert version, and not in the full opera either. They made modifications and cuts to suit the demands of time and space. Still, it’s so exciting, a role that I really enjoy playing. With wonderful singing friends (Angela Meade, Brandon Jovanovich, Raymond Aceto, Alexandra Lobianco) that makes him really special. I love Christina Scheppelmann and therefore I admire her for making this possible.
EM: Have you ever sung with any of these singers?
OE: I sang with Brandon. I know Angela very well, although I have never sung with her before.
EM: And you and they are all excellent in the Wagnerian roles. Let’s go back in time in a certain way. What was your journey to the opera stage?
OE: [Laughs] Oh wow. I started playing the piano at the age of 6 at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. While I was there I found myself listening to singers and got interested in the opera voice. Then I listened to recordings, in particular that of Luciano Pavarotti I Puritani. It particularly inspired me. I also learned to play the oboe at the age of 11, which I did for a while, eventually turning professional at 16 as a freelance writer in Philadelphia. I started singing in my high school choir, and the principal noticed something worth pursuing, so he gave me solos and I started taking singing lessons in senior year. . I did my undergraduate studies at Boyer College of Music at Temple University and did my graduate studies at the Curtis Institute. After that, I was a young artist at the Houston Opera Studio and my career started from there.
EM: Have you found that your oboe study helps you control your breath as a singer?
OE: They are so different. With the oboe, it’s all about getting rid of enough air. Before you breathe, you have to breathe out to get rid of bad air. This is of course not the case with vocals. So one didn’t necessarily help the other.
EM: You’ve got a whole story with Wagner’s operas: Chicago, the Met. Tell us about these.
OE: I sang Wotan in Chicago, all 3 Ring operas. Alberich at the Met Ring and also Hagen at the Met Götterdämmerung. So I sang in the 4 Ring operas. I also sang Flying Dutchman with the Washington National Opera.
EM: You are quite the Wagnerite.
OE: It’s funny because some Wagner that I really like to sing. I had the chance to sing the 4 Ring operas.
EM: What you might say are the pinnacle of his works. Do you plan to play more of Wagner in the future?
OE: There are some Ring cycles in my future, although I cannot yet say which companies because they have not been announced. I will also sing King Marke in Tristan.
EM: It’s a whole different level.
OE: Is not it ! I see Wagner as Bach. The music is so moving, so ingenious, without publicity for this genius.
EM: In both, the emotion runs deep underneath, and they were both such geniuses.
OE: Yes. You can think of them as mathematicians, but the music isn’t that cold.
EM: What roles in Wagner would you most like to play?
OE: I would love to play Amfortas in Parsifal. I sang this part live and would love to do it on stage. The music speaks to me, the depth of its despair. The way it is written takes you to your heart and takes you on this journey.
EM: The ultimate thing, the final glory of a Wagner masterpiece. You have performed both on the opera and concert stages. What are your most memorable appearances in one or both?
OE: In concert, I had an incredible experience in directing Passion according to Saint Matthew with the Berlin Philharmonic. We played him in Berlin, then we went on tour with him to New York and London. The play is incredibly powerful. It speaks to me. The whole experience has been a great gift. These are events that I will never forget. On the stage of the opera, a The Incoronazione di Poppea with the English National Opera was in a way the flagship experience of my career. Everyone in the cast was totally in the service of the music, the drama. We were all there for everyone.
EM: Who lead ?
OE: Harry Christophe.
EM: Is he a baroque specialist?
OE: Yes he is.
EM: It sounds like a win-win.
OE: Baroque is my favorite musical period. I’m not necessarily known to perform it, but I love music and spend a lot of time listening to it.
EM: Your experience of contemporary opera is quite extensive. Describe some of the highlights.
OE: The highlights are especially when the piece written for me, like that of John Adams the Blossoming tree, which premiered in Vienna, and the world premiere of its Atomic Doctor at the San Francisco Opera. At the Houston Opera Studio, each year a new piece is written for the members. I remember Ricky Ian Gordon Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Jackie O by Michael Daugherty. It was very early in my career.
EM: It must be exciting to do a job that no one has heard before.
OE: There is a certain responsibility, but also a level of comfort. No one can compare you to anyone else! But for the chance to work with the composer, learn what he meant by music. I’d kill to have a conversation with some of the long-gone composers. It’s such a gift to have the composer right there.
EM: Tell us about your participation on the board of directors of the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts and Astral Artistic Services.
OE: I’m not on those boards anymore, but it was a great experience. NFAA is now called Young Arts. I was one of their graduates in high school. I sat on the board for 3 or 4 years. I always find it very rewarding to work with young artists. Both organizations are all about young artists. Serving on the boards was a way of giving back. AAS is a Philadelphia-based organization that helps young artists by providing opportunities for them to perform. Go to the community, to schools, to retirement communities, who are in desperate need of the gift of music. The broadcast is amazing, and they put on their own live recitals in the Philadelphia area. I credit them for giving me so many opportunities to play, to perfect my art, to speak to the public, when I was a young artist. To connect with the audience, not just musically but verbally.
EM: Especially in the last year, with all the performances online, verbal connection has become incredibly important.
OE: By using this, the audience gets more of the overall experience. Its very important.
EM: Is there anything you would like to add to our discussion?
OE: Just to repeat that I am really excited to make my debut with the Seattle Opera.
EM: And like Wotan, who hurts everyone!
OE: Yes! [Laughs.]
EM: Thank you very much, Eric. We can’t wait to hear from you and see you live.
OE: Thanks Erica.
Details of the Seattle Opera Welcome Concert can be found at: https://www.seattleopera.org/on-stage/welcome-back-concert/
Photo credits: Dario Acosta, Seattle Center Marketing