OUSSAMA ZAHR salutes the distinguished achievement of the OPERA NEWS Awards winner.
Photographed in New York by Marty Umans
Grooming by Chuck Jensen for Mark Edward, Inc.
© Marty Umans 2013
There are some singers whose manifest good nature makes them boring and predictable onstage. With Eric Owens, it's the opposite: his essential integrity as a singer makes his characters fascinating. Take, for example, two deeply contrasting assignments, both of them written especially for Owens by one of the leading opera composers of our time, John Adams. The role of the Storyteller in A Flowering Tree (2006) — a figure teeming with compassion — seems directly designed to capitalize on Owens's personality. On a 2007 recording documenting the world-premiere cast, Owens's beautifully textured sound and innately comforting aural presence make it hard to imagine anyone else narrating Adams's lush setting of the Indian folk tale. At the other end of the spectrum, the character of General Leslie Groves in Doctor Atomic (2005) appears on paper to be a cardboard menace, a symbol of implacable military violence in the face of J. Robert Oppenheimer's moral struggle with the task of creating a nuclear weapon. In Owens's Met performances from 2008, Groves still came across as a bullying middleman, in over his head, but the singer's irrepressible warmth gave the general a compelling layer just below the surface.
The forty-two-year-old bass-baritone, born and raised in Philadelphia, first came to national attention portraying the titular antihero of Elliot Goldenthal's 2006 opera Grendel, based on the Beowulf-inspired novella of the same name by John Gardner. The trials and tribulations of Julie Taymor's production, which played Los Angeles Opera and the Lincoln Center Festival, got most of the advance press. But when the curtain went up, Owens's art and his endurance ("The title role is surely one of the longest and most exhausting parts ever conceived for a low-voiced male," wrote The New York Times) won over an enthusiastic audience.
Owens made a name for himself with Grendel, but his role debut as Alberich in Robert Lepage's new production of Das Rheingold at the Met in 2010 made him a star. The marriage between the fundamental beauty of his voice and the despicableness of the character gave Alberich a depth of humanity that I never knew he had. On record and in live performance, there have been fine interpreters of the part, singers who have taken the role of the avaricious dwarf far enough beyond caricature to prove that there is more to him than Wagner's queasy anti-Semitism. But the integrity of Owens's musical line transmitted itself to the character, and the soulfulness of his voice elevated Alberich beyond mere evil. In Owens's interpretation, Alberich is motivated not by indiscriminate malice but by disdain for the injustices he has been dealt — by the alluring Rhinemaidens who have spurned him; by the beautiful gods who have excluded him; by Wotan, who has punished his theft of the gold by stealing it from him. With his multi-dimensional performance, Owens had the breakout success of his career. In his review for The New Yorker, subtitled "Eric Owens dominates the Met's Rheingold," Alex Ross wrote, "Owens's portrayal is so richly layered that it may become part of the history of the work."
Grendel and Alberich are important milestones in Owens's journey, but they tell only part of the story. He credits his insatiable love for opera recordings when he was a teenager for sparking his catholic taste as a performer. Like some singers with an affinity for new music, Owens also excels at early music. It may be because each is neglected in its own way, requiring scrupulous musicianship and a questing intellect, which Owens unquestionably possesses, to bring it to life. But Owens's achievement is rarer still: he has garnered acclaim in recent seasons in an almost impossibly varied repertory that includes Handel's Hercules, Bellini's Capuleti e i Montecchi, Verdi's Aida, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Berg's Wozzeck, Ligeti's Grand Macabre, Adams's Doctor Atomic and A Flowering Tree and, of course, Wagner's Ring cycle. A performer can't survive such a schedule on intellect and musicianship alone; Owens's vocal technique keeps his instrument focused, pliant and powerful without sacrificing his velvety timbre and superbly executed legato.
If he had wanted to, Owens could easily have leveraged his success in Grendel and the Adams operas into a respectable career as a niche artist singing contemporary music. But he took another route. "I'm not Joe New Music," Owens told OPERA NEWS in 2009 — more than a year and a half before anyone had ever heard him sing a single note of Wagner. "I don't want people to be expecting any one thing, because I have such a lot of interests." It's fair to say that Owens's audiences have come to expect the unexpected from him, and in remaining true to his artistic endeavor, he has delivered.
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