by Burton A. Spielman
Eric Owens is a big guy, as imposing in person as he is onstage at The Metropolitan Opera, where he is a celebrated bass-baritone. But his critically-acclaimed portrayal of Alberich, the guardian of the golden Ring in Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Niebelungen,” doesn’t permit his sunny smile and easygoing personality to come through.
I had the opportunity to interview Eric, 42, who grew up in Mt. Airy and graduated from Central High School 25 years ago (247th graduating class) for The CHS Alumni Journal this past August, near the conclusion of his appointment as Artist in Residence at The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.
We had arranged for him to meet me in front of the Alice Busch Opera Theater after a Sunday afternoon performance. By the time I arrived, Eric was surrounded by fans offering their compliments and comments. “I am willing to wash your socks!” one woman gushed. Far from being the intimidating “Ring” character, he engagingly and winningly spent a half-hour acknowledging the opera-goers.
Eric grew up in a family that was not particularly music-oriented. “My mother played the piano and my father sang a tiny, tiny bit, but there weren’t any professional musicians around.”
He became interested in music at the Ada Lewis Middle School. When he was a freshman, he played clarinet in the orchestra for a year in the back of the section. “I didn’t see myself getting up to the front of the section anytime soon, but the fellow who played oboe graduated, and he was the only oboist. So, I asked the band director, Eleanore Alter, one of my ‘angels,’ if I could play oboe. There was only one oboe, and my rationale was, ‘I’ll be first oboe; hell, I could ‘be’ the oboe section!’”
I asked Eric if he did any “churchly” singing. “No,” he replied. “My singing didn’t really start until high school … I remember my time at Central so fondly. Central High School was amazing because, in addition to the academics, which were just second-to-none, there was this wonderful music program and wonderful teachers — Stephen Wilensky, who I think is still there and was the band and orchestra director, and Italo Taranta, the choir director. He was this amazing guy, and not only did we have choir rehearsal, but he taught ‘theory!’ We learned music theory at Central and sang these wonderful concerts. Besides singing, I played in the orchestra. Central was where my music career got started.
“Mr. Taranta gave me a solo in one of the Christmas concerts. We did excerpts from Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ and I sang ‘But who may abide the day of His coming.’ We did it down at this mall, the Gallery, and,” Eric laughed his deep, rumbling laugh, “I can remember my knees shaking. Violently! I was SO nervous! It was amazing that my voice didn’t sound like what my knee was doing.”
Reflecting on that for a moment, Eric offered a perspective that he undoubtedly shares with young artists just getting their start: “So I’m thinking that now, getting up in front of an audience is no big deal, but it takes that first time so there can be a second time and a third time, and so on.”
When I asked Eric about his subsequent musical training, he mentioned that he was playing professionally while he was still at Central. “Oboe-wise, I was freelancing around Philly. I actually skipped class one day to ‘go gig.’ But I didn’t start taking singing lessons until my senior year at the urging of Mr. Taranta, who said, ‘You know, you should really think about getting some training.’ That was great for me because I had been an opera fan since I was 10 years old.”
Owens had become an opera fan as a result of listening to the Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcasts. “My junior high teacher, Ms. Alter, gave me LPs to listen to. She said, ‘Oh, you like opera? Let me give you these,’ handing me a recording of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is wonderful,’ not ever imagining I would ever become a professional. But then, all these years later, looking back at the progression of things, I can see how this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s wonderful to have a career in something that makes you happy; I don’t have those Monday morning blues. Which is GREAT!” (Author’s note: Wilensky is currently the chairman of the Central High Music Department. Taranta has retired from the faculty at Settlement Music School in Philadelphia.)
And post-Central High? “I went to Temple University and then the Curtis Institute of Music. So, Philly through and through. After that I spent two years in the apprentice program at the Houston Grand Opera Studio. My first live opera experience was at the Opera Company of Philadelphia; it was Puccini’s ‘Manon Lescaut’ with this Romanian woman, Nelly Miracoiou. Years later I made my debut at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in Bellini’s ‘Norma’ with … Nelly Miracoiou!”
This past summer’s residency as Glimmerglass Artist in Residence (in Cooperstown, NY) was a busy sojourn for Eric. He appeared as Amonasro, the heroine’s father in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aïda,” and as Stephen Kumalo, the lead character in Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars,” based upon Alan Paton’s novel, “Cry, the Beloved Country.”
In “Lost in the Stars,” the intensity of Eric’s performance left many in the full-house audience in tears. He took his curtain calls to tumultuous applause, completely in character, that of a tragically broken man who has witnessed his son’s execution but has accepted the friendship of the father of his son’s victim. When I complimented him on inhabiting his character even after the curtain fell, he commented, “You can find people like this anywhere in the world. Yes, it is a South African story, but it’s a very human story. At core, Stephen is just a man who wants to find his son. Any parent, anywhere, could understand that.” Then, he joked, “It does take a little while to shake that off. If you take it home with you, you’ll be up drinking all night.”
Eric also performed — as if two major opera roles weren’t enough — a concert of songs associated with singer and bandleader, Billy Eckstine. “I am a huge fan of his beautiful voice as well as his beautiful singing. People think both of these are the same, but they aren’t. He had an elegant sense of legato, and he really knew how to turn a phrase. I think he could have been an opera singer if he had wanted to.”
Finally, it was time for us to part. When I asked Eric to e-mail me his snail mail address so I could send him a few copies of this edition of the Journal, he replied, “Oh, that would be great! My mother will be thrilled!”
Internationally renowned Metropolitan Opera star or not, some things never change.
Burton A. Spielman is the Managing Editor of the Central High School Alumni Journal, from which this article is reprinted with permission. Some portions also appeared in The Glimmerglass Festival 2012 Program Book. For information about The Glimmerglass Festival, visit www.glimmerglass.org. For more on Eric Owens, visit www.eric-owens.com.