Eric Owens is a cool cat. There’s really no other way to say it. When you meet him, there is a warmth and jolliness about him that puts you at east right away. He’s the kind of guy you’d want to grab a beer and shoot the breeze with because while he’s plenty smart and often says things that are terribly profound and insightful, conversation with him never feels heavy as he constantly has you in fits of laughter. It occurred to me at his recital in Berkeley that what sets this bass-baritone apart from others is his ability to lubricate any dark, disquieting atmosphere with humor and empathy, be it a depressing evening of Schubert Lieder or his of portrayal of Alberich in the Ring. From his “MWAHAHAHAHA” evil laugh at the end of Schubert’s “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” (best evil laugh ever!!!) to his stumbling, intoxicated rendition of Ravel’s Drinking Song, Eric’s wonderful and quirky sense of humor played an invaluable role in his recital, soothing and placating the audience after some of the heavier pieces crushed us and permeated the hall with a dense fog of gloom and despair. I sat down with Eric Owens last October when he was in town performing the role of Capellio in San Francisco Opera’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. He just wrapped up another Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and will be appearing in Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Ring Cycle this fall.
You go to a lot of concerts. I know many singers are so tired after a full day of rehearsals that they just go home to rest, but I see you out at the other performances and even watching other rehearsals. You must really love classical music.
It’s funny because I’ll be rehearsing something in New York, then I’ll go to the opera at night to see something else and people will say, “What are you doing here?!” and I’m like, “I’m an opera fan!” (Laughter) And I came here to see this, and I can do it for free! What do you mean what am I doing here?! Yeah, it’s weird. Some people are not fans of their own art form which is just weird to me.
You used to play the oboe. Why are oboe players so crazy?
I think oboe players in particular are nuts because… it’s the reeds! You have to make them and how good you sound on the instrument has so much to do with the reeds. If you have a crappy reed one night you’re going to sound like a crappy oboe player even if you’re not, and so that pressure makes you crazy. You spend more time making the reeds than you do practicing the damn thing. It’s just maddening sometimes when you get like a really great reed, but it’s only gonna last you like a week and a half and then it’s dead! And so it’s just like ARGHHHHHH!!!! And then you’re crazy… and you’re crazy with a knife in your hand!
When did you discover your voice and start singing?
I started taking lessons when i was a senior in high school; I sang in the high school choir and sang a few solos here and there. But meanwhile, having been an opera fan since about the age of 9 or 10. I listened to it on the radio and the orchestra director at my junior high school, this wonderful German lady, she would give me opera records to listen to. I remember she gave me Der Freischütz of all things, which was awesome.
OMG, I LOVE that opera!!!
Isn’t it great?! They don’t do it enough here; they should do it in this country.
I saw it at the Salzburg Festival many years ago and fell in love with it, but I can’t find it here in the States.
It’s a great piece and it’s hasn’t been done at the Met since the 70s.
Well at least we can find it on Spotify.
Spotify is awesome! It’s got all the stuff that you thought you could never find again that’s out of print. I stay up sometimes late at night like a kid in a candy store and I’m like, “Oh, will you look at that!”
Your German diction is pretty good. Are you fluent?
My German is pretty good. I lived there for a bit, in Cologne, but it’s been so long and I haven’t been back so my German is a little rusty. But once you get around it again, it all comes back. I love singing lieder. I love searching and finding repertoire that I want to do and it’s mostly based on the poetry first, more so than the music even. I mean, the music is definitely important, but I have to feel the poetry. It really is “prima le parole e dopo la musica.”
Do you ever have a hard time switching from opera to lieder?
I tell ya, a lieder recital kicks my ass every time! I am exhausted at the end of a lieder recital that’s ninety minutes, more so than if I were singing in a five hour long opera. Because of that internalization and all that emotion that happens which doesn’t have the physical release that opera allows you. Even though you’re standing there most of the time very still, it takes, for me anyway, so much more energy to get to that point and to be able to be this different kind of vessel for that material that’s like a teaspoon worth of the densest tar compared to a Jupiter-sized ball of cotton candy. That’s concentration in every sense of the word. That scaling it down and having so much material occupy such a small space; it’s heavy, but in a good way. There’s this journey that you’re on and you’re drawing people into the space.
So after the performance do you need to rest or be alone afterward?
No! I always end up going out afterwards because I need to be with people to depressurize. One of these days, man, I’m just gonna do like a fluffy recital. With just like Disney feel good shit and shock the hell out of everybody. They’ll be like, “Oh! Oh well he must have gotten laid this week! Looks like he came outta that Obi-Wan Kenobi cave of his!”
AHAHAHAHAHA!!!! You are quite the comedian. I remember I saw a YouTube video of you rapping or something and it was hilarious!
OOOOOHHHH!!!!! That was the opening night of Rheingold. We had gone to the official party and that party was a pain in the ass because too many people were invited to that party and it was hot and stuffy, like being in a coach fight. So we went down to Landmark and Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” came on the radio and I start rapping along. My publicist, she starts filming and I’m like “what are you doing?!!” And then all of a sudden Alex Ross shows up.
So are you a big hip hop fan?
Some, not a lot. But the stuff from like 30 years ago when I was a kid. But now, I’m so not plugged into pop culture it’s ridiculous. It’s funny because I sort of figured out something of myself… some of the hip hop things I like or some of the pop stuff I like, I’m just like: “Oh my God, Eric, that’s song is grounded in classical music. Wait, that’s a passacaglia! That’s why I like this song!!!” I’m such a geek that something always has to do with classical music… (laughter)… it’s like, “you are just such a spazz!”
Okay so let’s talk about your recital in Berkeley. How do you put together your program? What is the process?
What drives my manager NUTS is that it takes me a long time. It’s like “hurry up and pick a program already!” Because I’m sitting at home and I got five or six different program possibilities and I’m trying to figure out…. alright am I going to have a theme or am I going to do all Goethe? And so you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do and it’s the only time you get to be your own artistic director and it’s a lot of freedom but a lot of responsibility. And singers like me who aren’t like big stars like Renee Fleming… I’m always thinking, “alright, Eric, you realize now that this is the last recital you’re ever going to get a chance to do right?” That’s in the back of my head. So I’m just like okay so I need to do this and that and all the stuff I like, and I’m driving myself crazy. Then you start to figure out what it is you’re not going to do. And then you start to try to piece together something and eventually I made a decision that it was going to be an all German first half and then an all French second half. I always try to do some Schubert in a recital because there’s so much of it that people don’t know and it’s not the top fifty that everyone does regularly. You know there’s 550+ and so within the Schubert set I’ll have a theme of all mythological texts. And then I thought, “Okay I wanna do some really really deep, dark go-throw-myself-in-the-Rhine-Schumann.” (chuckles)
So was this inspired by your role as Alberich in the Ring Cycle?
No, I mean it’s really easy for me to go to a dark place, repertoire-wise. Stuff in minor keys tend to be more satisfying to me for some reason. There’s just more variety in the vocabulary of triads in minor, diminished chords and stuff. So I was like alright, let me find the darkest – “Mein Herz ist schwer” and “Melancholie” and “Muttertraum” which is just the most heartbreaking song. And I was just thinking, you know, what made Schumann go throw himself in that damn river?
It was that syphilis!
But you think back to the 19th century and how a lot of those guys were depressed as hell, but with that depression came this amazing creativity and I’ve had a little experience with that. When I was younger I had some depressed times where I was writing poetry and it was coming out of nowhere. And I was just like, “why am I writing this?” And you think about those guys and they’re in this darkness and they can create this beautiful thing that probably help them to come out of it. Not so much to escape, but to really own the misery and vibrate with it, because when you own something, you can do with it what you will. You can throw it out later. But if you’re always, sort of like, “no, I’m fine, I’m fine….” It’s like, “No, dude! You’re not fine!”
And then part of me was like, “Ok well Eric, what kind of recital is that gonna be? People are going to be like oh my god, and going out there at intermission and slitting their wrists. But I said “NO! I’m going to be unapologetic about this!” You know in the middle of Wozzek, Berg doesn’t start apologizing for being a kooky the whole damn night. No, it is what it is.
And so there is no one right way to formulate a recital. It should be what you want it to be. On any particular evening: “Come along, people, take this journey with me! It’s gonna be a bumpy ride, but when we come out at the end…. ahhhhhhhhh!” And then I decided that I had done the Wolf – the Michelangelo lieder before and I wanted to do it again. I had done them twice before and I was finding different things with them this time and it’s great coming back to pieces after awhile because you’re a different person.
We change and experience new things just in our everyday lives. So that half was sort of the “we’re gonna sell alcohol at intermission” half. (laughter) You know, and I get my little kickback from them vendors!
Yup, that 20%.
They’ll be like, “Damn, we sold a lot of alcohol tonight!” So then the second half I wanted to kind of crawl out of it a little bit with the French, but not necessarily completely. So I chose the Debussy, which is a little more airy and lighter. But underneath, in that poetry is still… with “Beau Soir” and “Romance”… it’s in a major key, but listen! Listen to the text. There might be a smile on your face, but there’s still a tear.
It’s like “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice.” It’s in a major key, but it’s heart-wrenching.
Yes, exactly! And then I wanted to sort of get out a little more with the Ravel, but the one true moment of comedy is in the last song, the drinking song. And the Wagner at the end, it’s sort of tongue and cheek because I’ve been having success with Wagner, but also “Les Deux Grenadiers” ending the all French half with the “Marseillaise” at the end. It’s got that triumphant kind of feeling, but still… a question mark. You know like the question mark at the end of Missa Solemnis with the “dona nobis pacem” and the timponi coming in with this march at the end in a different key… sort of this relaxing feeling, like everything is all good and fine, but because we’re dealing with human beings, there’s always the potential for us to fuck ourselves up like we always do.
You did read Schopenhauer didn’t you?! (laughter) Okay so what about encores? What are your go to encores?
It’s funny I get all corny and sappy. One of my encores always is either “An die Musik” or “Music for a While” just to sort of pay homage to this art form that in a lot of ways has saved my life. And just to feel that with an audience, to reflect on how lucky are we that we recognize and have an appreciation for this so perfect of art forms. I don’t know of any other one that evokes such emotion and can change your mood, can transport you to a place thousands of miles away. It’s pretty amazing and I just always want to give that shout out to Music.