Hitting the Highs and Lows with Bass Eric Owens

Philadelphia born bass-baritone Eric Owens has been consistently praised for his performances with major symphonies and opera companies throughout the United States—such as the rave reviews for his performance in the title role of Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel, directed by Julie Taymor with the Los Angeles Opera. This fall Owens was featured on the new CD release of John Adams’ opera A Flowering Tree and made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the role he originated, General Leslie Groves in Adams’ Doctor Atomic. This month he follows up the role with another Met performance, singing Sarastro in The Magic Flute. In 2009 he is set to sing Bellini at Covent Garden, Mahler at Carnegie Hall, and Strauss in Atlanta.

I sat down with Owens at the San Francisco opera house as he prepared for his final dress rehearsal as the King of Scotland in Handel’s Ariodante. You would never guess from Owen’s humility that he was featured in a New York Times article on young classical musicians, “Looking Toward Greatness.” He seems to possess already the qualities of gratitude, dedication, and good humor that should help him enjoy and sustain the career for which he has worked so hard.

Did you always love to sing?

I started piano when I was about 6 and then oboe at the age of 10, and I was playing oboe professionally by the age of 15. So that was much of my musical life early on. I wasn’t much into singing then, but I was an opera fan at a young age and I would listen to it on the radio. Voice didn’t really become an important part until I was in my late teens. And then there was a period when I was doing both, and then I started to veer toward the singing more, and the oboe just sort of took a background position.

Who was your first voice teacher?

My first teacher was a man by the name of George Massey in Philadelphia. I started studying with him when I was a senior in high school. He was connected with Temple University, so then I went to Temple University as a voice student for “undergrad.”

Was your experience at Temple positive?

Oh, it was fantastic. I’m so glad that I had, in retrospect, a university experience instead of just strictly a conservatory experience at that age. It gave me a well-rounded view of the world and people. And then, later, for grad school I went to Curtis.

And the transition wasn’t too rough, because you had your teacher already?

Exactly. He helped me to build a very solid foundation. And then I moved on to a man by the name of Armen Boyajian.

And that’s who you’re with now?

Yes.

How long have you been with him?

Oh boy! Since 1993, so 15 years. But actually, in the interim I was at the Houston Opera Studio and a man by the name of Stephen Smith was a teacher down there. And I studied with him as well and he was very helpful in different ways. And the great thing about Armen was that he didn’t get all territorial. He is a firm believer that you didn’t get all the information you ever needed from one source, and it wasn’t a problem.

That’s kind of rare.

Yeah! Some of these teachers really latch on to a student and it gets all personal and it’s more about them than the student.

He [Boyajian] is Sam Ramey’s teacher?

Sam Ramey, Paul Plishka, Mignon Dunn studied with him
. . . lower voices.

What is it about his teaching that so connects with you?

Well, that’s just the thing. He connects with you! I had an opportunity to sit in on a lesson of another student of his, and he wasn’t saying anything to this student that he said to me. He doesn’t have this stock file of answers. It is all tailor-made to what you need. Even the semantics of the lesson. He would just figure out what would click, what would resonate with you—and I just found that so impressive. And he was very meticulous about building a technique one step at a time.

We didn’t sing repertoire for about two years. We just did vocalises and technical exercises. I didn’t stop singing my other stuff, but he said, “We’re going to concentrate on the best road map for you, and where you need to place the sound, and the ideal sound for you on every note on every vowel.” And it was amazing because there would be times when I would go away for the summer—and he wouldn’t write anything down—and he would say, “OK, last time we met your ‘ah’ vowel was doing this . . . ” He just has this freaky memory!

So what kind of exercises did you do? Did you do Vaccai or Concone?

No. I did that earlier on in undergrad, but he would take every vowel and he had a mirror in front of you so you could see what it looked like physically. And then he would add consonants to every vowel and make sure that the consonant wouldn’t make the vowel deviate in any way—take it back or something—and then he would add double consonants like an “st” and then an “str,” so that the diction of the consonants wouldn’t change the placement.

Did he do mostly sustained singing?

Yes. We started in the middle of my voice and worked down. And then we started there later [down] and worked up. He’s the reason why I have a pretty decent top to my voice that complements my voice. It [all] sounds like the same voice.

How often do you see your teacher?

Not often enough! He moved out to farmland in New Jersey and it’s just so inconvenient. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Manhattan. I try to see him every year just to go in for checkups or if something’s concerning me, but I think I’ve been managing pretty well. Especially when you’re traveling and working, [your teacher is] not always accessible. But there are people who I’m working with, and I’m around wonderful conductors who let me know if something needs improving or changing.

Tenors and sopranos can start their training slowly by singing lower before moving up. As a bass how do you start slowly?

It’s funny. My voice has started to settle a little higher. So I’m sort of considering myself a bass-baritone now, even though I still sing “bassy” stuff like Sarastro. The one thing that basses have going for them is that there is repertoire for every stage of your career. Unlike for soprano there aren’t that many starting roles. For a soprano, you’re either the star of the show or a very small part, and tenors the same thing. It’s either “la cena è pronta” or you’re singing all night.

For basses, you can do Masetto in Don Giovanni, you can do Colline, and get experience and not have it be some miniscule role. And as you grow there are meat-and-potato roles when you’re in your heyday and at the end, if things start to fall apart you can sing the Sacristan in Tosca.

I’m curious about the distinction between bass and bass-baritone. People often use them interchangeably. Half of your reviews call you a bass and half of them say bass-baritone, and a baritone here at L.A. Opera is singing Wotan right now. In your recording of the Verdi Requiem, when you go down to the B, that sounds like a bass to me!

I know. Take a person like James Morris. He still calls himself a bass and he’s sung many a baritone role. Sam Ramey still calls himself a bass and he’s sung many a baritone role—so he could really call himself a bass-baritone. It varies from person to person. I think there are different colors. When I hear James Morris I hear a bass-baritone because he has a color that can go both ways.

As opposed to a basso profundo?

Right.

Have you heard the Fasolt singing in Das Rheingold at San Francisco Opera right now?

Yes. Andrea Silvestrelli. I mean—that’s a bass! Or Like Kurt Moll—those guys. I don’t consider myself one of those kind of basses, even though there’s some crossover with the repertoire. Or people like Matti Salminen, or years ago, Martti Talvela.

He’s the Finnish bass who died fairly young?

Yes. What a voice that was—amazingly sweet, but really “bassy” at the same time.

Is there a spot in the bass voice that’s comparable to the female lower passaggio, a tricky spot?

It varies. For me, in the middle of my voice it happens around F or F#, the fourth line on the bass clef in the upper passaggio. E-flat is a note for me that I’d rather sing an F. It’s one of those notes that could go either way.

Your high E-flat?

That’s one of those spots that I had to iron out to make it all sound smooth. Man that took a lot of work. But now, it’s kind of settled down and I know how to mix things to make it a smooth transition from bottom to top.

You mentioned that your voice is settling higher. What are your dream roles for the future?

Well, I’ve been engaged to do some higher stuff. A few years down the road I’ll be doing Amonasro in Aida, and also, I’ll be doing Alberich in the “Ring” in a few years.

You were saying that you still do Sarastro and the lower roles, so what you’re saying about settling higher—

It doesn’t mean that I’ve lost the bottom.

So, King Philip in Don Carlo?

Oh, absolutely. That’s a dream role to do, but I would also love to do Amfortas in Parsifal, which is higher. I just have to make sure when I do certain roles back to back that they aren’t so incredibly different from each other. And it suits my personality because I love a variety of repertoire.

You really don’t want to be a specialist?

No—and you do pay a price for that.

In what way? In terms of casting?

Well, in terms of someone knowing who you are, in terms of PR.

Don’t people say that there’s a Wagner mafia?

There’s definitely a Wagner and a Rossini mafia! And I haven’t been identified with a particular role or a particular period, and it’s a slower route to any sort of notoriety. I mean, when you think of Rossini, you think of several names immediately, and it gets you hired more often, quicker . . . I guess when people are casting, they don’t immediately think of me because I’m not one of those people who sings Rossini all year long. Some people do, God bless ‘em, but it would drive me completely nuts. I can’t do the same thing over and over again. I do repeat things, but I know people who all they do is Rossini, but it would drive me crazy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not my cup of tea.

And you like the modern stuff too?

Sure. I love it. It’s a challenge. It’s always exciting to be on the ground floor of something new that’s about to be unearthed.

For Grendel you were on stage for the whole thing. Was that the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

That was very challenging. That was the lowest and highest thing I’ve ever sung. And I was on stage all night in this big old costume, running around, jumping, dancing, singing—and you know what? I had a ball! It was hard, but I haven’t done a role before or since where I could just be completely out there in every way: vocally, dramatically. And I am so thankful to Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal for trusting me to do that.

The production faced some big technical problems?

The set. We were just held hostage by the set. We’d start rehearsal and work for 10 minutes, and the set would break down. This piece, I never ran it from start to finish until I was in front of a paying audience.

How much of the year are you on the road?

Nine to 10 months of the year. Yeah, it’s a weird sort of existence. It can be very unsettling.

What do you do on the road to stay grounded?

Well, fortunately I’ve been doing this long enough that almost every time I go somewhere, I’ll know someone—and that’s always helpful to see friends and other people in the business who help keep you grounded. But sometimes you’re in situations where that’s not the case, and you just have to use Skype and call home and call people. . . . Everything costs something. If you choose something it means you have this, and you can’t have that. I think it was Ben Heppner who said, “I sing for free. They pay me to deal with all this other stuff.” You just gotta love it. And it’s not for everybody. Some people try it and decide they’d rather have a “normal existence.”

Is there a singer you admire most vocally?

Yes. One that comes to mind immediately is José Van Dam, I really just think he is a class act in every way.

Have you ever met him or worked with him?

No. Actually, I’ve never even heard him sing live.

What do you admire about him?

No. 1, the voice is just amazingly beautiful, but technically speaking, it’s just a phenomenon. I listen to him and I can’t help thinking: “Yes! That’s the way one should do that.” And he does it with such style and finesse. Also, he’s such a linguistic chameleon. When he sings French he sounds French. When he sings Italian he sounds Italian. When he sings German he sounds German. It’s just so wonderful to listen to.

Tell me about your character in Ariodante. He’s a pretty nice guy?

Yeah. He’s the king and [Owens stretches and yawns a bit and you can see him breathing a bit into character] and you know: “It’s good to be the king.” [He laughs, quoting Mel Brooks.] He’s Ginevra’s father. He’s sort of the typical bass part, that fatherly leader type, but with some amazing music. I’m singing two out of the three arias that he has and I just think they’re fantastic. He’s a good guy but he finds himself in this predicament and he has to be more of a king to his daughter than a father. He may have to put her to death.

I said in rehearsal, “This is rough. There should be a 25th amendment where he could recuse himself.” It’s not a long role for me but it’s incredibly satisfying because I enjoy doing Handel so much and I don’t do nearly as much as I would like to—because I’m not a specialist [he laughs].

So, this guy’s a nicer character. But you’ve also played Sparafucile and other bad guys. Do you like playing a villain? Is that more fun?

Yeah, because it’s more complicated. Villains are not like an archetype, and they don’t see themselves as villains. They can be a little narcissistic—they’re out for themselves—but in most cases they end up trying to play the good guy, or put on airs for other people, be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Take a character like Iago in Otello. He’s playing the good friend until you get him alone.

But as an actor you don’t play that.

No. Every character has to think that that show is about him or her, because in our own lives [laughing], it’s about us. I was doing Norma recently, and Oroveso is not a pivotal role. The director asked me what the opera is about, and I said, “It’s about him!” You have to think that way and every other character has to think that way. You as an artist know it’s about Norma, but as a character it’s gotta be about your relationship to everyone, how it affects you, so that when you’re on stage there can be the generosity of dramatic output.

You can’t go into any role thinking, “This role is insignificant.” You gotta go out there and sizzle, within the parameters of what your character is about.

What do you do as an actor to get into character?

I read a lot. I try to do a lot of research. That’s what’s so great about doing new things. It’s usually based on subject matter that’s more recent history and so there’s always more source material.

Like Doctor Atomic?

Yeah, there were so many books! But for performance, I’m not one of those people who have to go into some sort of cocoon. Right before I go on, I look in the mirror. The costume really helps with that. You can’t help but behave a certain way when you look a certain way. These costumes I have for Ariodante are very regal costumes, and you see yourself in the mirror and your posture changes, and you just start to behave in that way.

Have you had a chance to work with Ewa Podles’ replacement yet? (Sonia Prina.)

For the first time, two days ago.

How is that, to work somebody in that close to opening?

It’s fine. This cast is an amazing cast of people. I’m having such a wonderful time. The singing is amazing and they’re great people, and we’re all professionals. And we’re gonna be there for Sonia and she’s doing a great job. It’s almost like she’s been here the whole time. She’s just on it. And that’s helpful. In that situation you just rally around that person and make them feel as comfortable as possible. And you just kind of roll with it.

Is it an ideal situation? No. But these things happen and you have to be flexible.

You’re on the board of an organization in your hometown of Philadelphia?

Astral Artistic Services and the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. These are organizations that helped me when I was young and it’s important for me to give back and nurture up-and-coming artists. That’s something that’s very close to my heart.

Curtis is a great boost for anyone. It’s tuition free.

It’s amazing that they’ve been able to do that for so many years. It’s one of the best—if not the best—conservatories. I had such a great time when I was there. The people that would come through and guest conduct—Rattle, Muti—to have easy access to that was just amazing.

What advice do you have for singers who are just getting started?

My only thing that I try to live by is that you never can get everything you need from one source, be it voice teacher, coach, mentor, whatever. There are a lot of ways to go about looking at things. That’s not to say that one person cannot be really good for you. I just really believe in soaking up, as my information, inspiration from as many sources as possible, and then you just sort of sift through it.

Everybody might not agree with that, but I’ve studied with different teachers and I always come away with different strengths. That’s not to say that one should go out and study with 10 different teachers.

Any little tricks you have for vocal health or getting over colds?

Something’s always going to crop up. When I first got here I caught something on the plane coming from Amsterdam. You know, all the typical things, the washing of hands—Purell® is a wonderful thing—but sometimes the traveling can be hard on the body.

What’s your routine on a show day?

Usually for a show I try to nap, maybe take a walk, get some fresh air, but it varies from role to role. If the role is not that incredibly taxing, if I don’t take a nap it won’t be a big deal. But when I was doing Grendel, I didn’t do anything all day because it really required a lot of me.

Is there a role for you or an aria that you feel so emotional about that it’s hard not to get choked up?

St. Matthew’s Passion, or a lot of Bach. I recently did “Ich habe genug” in L.A. I started to really focus on the words, and I thought, “Eric, you can’t do that” because it started to really get to me. And then I thought, “That’s kind of too bad.” I mean you can’t be too cold, but you have to stay kind of detached. I can’t be a part of the audience.

Is there a choice you made in your career that, looking back, you regret?

Actually, no. At this point in my life I’m a firm believer that everything happens in its own time and so everything that has happened has led me to where I am right now, and I’m enjoying my career right now.

You sound very grateful.

Yeah! I’m very grateful. It’s so funny because as a young singer, when things are happening and you’re sort of trying to climb this ladder, oftentimes you don’t enjoy what’s happening in the moment. The ambition is always saying: “OK, I’ve got to do this, and I’ve got to do this.” Now, in retrospect I’m grateful for what was happening then.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.