A Bass for All Seasons

Lisa Houston on June 17, 2008

Philadelphia-born bass-baritone Eric Owens returns to San Francisco Opera this month to sing the role of the King of Scotland in Ariodante. Owens originated the role of General Leslie Groves in Doctor Atomic, received rave reviews in the title role of Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel directed by Julie Taymor for the Los Angeles Opera, and has been consistently praised for his performances with major symphonies and opera companies throughout the U.S. The Met will hear him next season as General Groves, and as Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Lisa Houston sat down with Owens at the opera house on the morning of the final dress rehearsal.

Have you always loved to sing?

I started piano when I was about six and then oboe at the age of 10 and I was playing oboe professionally by the age of 15. So that was 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 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 and 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 [Institute of Music]. Exactly. [Massey] helped me to build a very solid foundation and then I moved on to a man by the name of Armen Boyajian.

How long have you been with Boyajian?

Oh boy! Since 1993. But in the interim I was at the Houston Opera Studio. 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 was a firm believer that you didn’t get all the information you ever needed from one source and it wasn’t a problem.

He’s Sam Ramey’s teacher? Sam Ramey, Paul Plishka, and Mignon Dunn studied with him, especially lower voices.

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

Owens as Sarastro

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 didn’t have this stock file of answers. It was 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. I just found that so impressive. He was meticulous about building a technique one step at a time. We didn’t sing repertoire for about two years, we just did vocalese and technical exercises. I didn’t stop singing my other stuff, but he said we would concentrate on the best road map for me — where I need to place the sound, and the ideal sound for me on every note and vowel. And there would be times when I would go away for the summer and [when I returned] he would say, “OK, last time we met your 'ah' vowel was doing this,” — he just had a freaky memory.

Tenors and sopranos can start 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 bass stuff, like Sarastro. The one thing that basses have going for them is that there is repertoire for every stage of your career. There aren’t that many starter roles for soprano. You’re either the star of the show or a small part. And tenors have the same [problem]. It’s either “la cena e pronta” [“dinner, right away”] or you’re singing all night. Basses can do Masetto in Don Giovanni, or Colline, and get experience not in some miniscule role. 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 the terms interchangeably. Half of your reviews call you a bass and half of them say bass-baritone. There’s a baritone singing Wotan [in the San Francisco Opera production of Das Rheingold] right now. And on your recording of Verdi’s Requiem your low B sounds like a bass note 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 when he could really call himself a bass-baritone. It varies from person to person. I think there are different colors [between the voice types]. When I hear James Morris, I hear a bass-baritone because he has a color that can go both ways. Did you hear the Fasolt singing in Das Rheingold 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, Matti Talvela.

He’s the Finnish bass who died fairly young?

Yes. What a voice that was. Amazingly sweet but really bass-y at the same time.

But you still do Sarastro and the lower roles. So what are you saying about your voice settling higher?

It doesn’t mean that I’ve lost the bottom. So, King Phillip 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 don’t want to be a specialist?

No. And you do pay a price for that.

In terms of casting?

Well, in terms of someone knowing who you are, in terms of P.R.

Don’t people say that there’s 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. It’s a slower route to any sort of notoriety. I mean, when you think of Rossini, you think of several names immediately and they get hired more often, more quickly. I guess when people are casting, they don’t immediately think of me because I’m not one of those people who sing Rossini all year long. Some people do, God bless them. But it would drive me completely nuts. I can’t do the same thing over and over again. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not my cup of tea.

Tell me about your character in Ariodante.

He’s the king [here he stretches and yawns a bit and you can see him getting into character]. You know: “It’s good to be the king.” [He laughs at the old Mel Brooks joke.] He’s Ginevra’s father. He’s a 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 [laughs].

But you’ve also played Sparafucile and other bad guys. Is it more fun to play a villain?

Owens as Sparafucile

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 Othello. 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 it is about us. I was doing Oroveso in Norma recently, which 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. You, as an artist, know it’s about Norma, but as a character it’s got to be about [that character’s] relationship to everyone, how it affects you, so that when you’re onstage there can be the generosity of dramatic output. You can’t go into any role thinking, “This role is insignificant.” You’ve got to 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. They are usually based on more recent history, so there’s always more source material. But for performance, I’m not one of those people who has to go into some sort of cocoon. Right before I go on, I look in the mirror. The costume really helps. You can’t help but behave a certain way when you look a certain way. These costumes I have for Ariodante are very regal. You see yourself in the mirror and your posture changes, and you just start to behave in that way.

Have you gotten a chance to work with Ewa Podles’ replacement [Sonia Prina] yet?

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 group of people. I’m having such a wonderful time. The singing is amazing and they’re great people. 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.

What’s your routine on a show day?

Usually I try to nap, maybe take a walk, get some fresh air, but it varies from role to role. This role is not that incredibly taxing so 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. This show is not on my shoulders. That would be Susan Graham. It’s the Susan Graham show and what a show it is. She’s fantastic!

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 Alberich in The Ring.

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 onstage for the entire thing. Was that the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

Owens as Grendel

Photo by Eric Millard

That was challenging. That was the lowest and highest thing I’ve ever sung. I was onstage 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.

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 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 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.

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