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Eric Owens: Singing Grendel, Death And A Troll

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Eric Owens: Singing Grendel, Death And A Troll

Eric Owens: Singing Grendel, Death And A Troll

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Tonight, The Metropolitan Opera kicks off its season with "Das Rheingold." The first installment of a new $16 million "Ring Cycle" features opera superstars Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe.

One of the pivotal roles in Wagner's opera, the troll Alberich, will be played by American bass-baritone Eric Owens. Reporter Jeff Lunden says Owens may not be a household name, but he's one of the most sought-after singers in the business.

JEFF LUNDEN: The first thing you notice is the voice: deep, rich, resonant.

Mr. ERIC OWENS (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language).

LUNDEN: But then there's the eclectic repertoire. It seems these days, Eric Owens is showing up everywhere, from major opera houses to symphony halls, singing a dizzying array of music: well-known classical works, like the Mozart "Requiem"; freshly-minted operas, like "Grendel."

(Soundbite of opera, "Grendel")

Mr. OWENS: (Singing in foreign language).

LUNDEN: The 40-year-old singer says he doesnt want to be pigeonholed.

Mr. OWENS: I really enjoy just the variety of things that I do. And its weird, I mean, it can be a good thing, it can be a bad thing, career-wise, because Im not necessarily known for one-particular thing.

But, at the end of the day, I mean, I need to do what makes me happy.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: And by doing what makes him happy, Owens makes his collaborators happy, like New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert.

Mr. ALAN GILBERT (Music Director, New York Philharmonic): Forget about singers. If you talk about all musicians, there are very few people who are as well-schooled and as widely talented as Eric. Hes really someone who, I think, goes to the heart of the matter. And he comes not only prepared but really understanding the music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. OWENS: (Singing in foreign language).

LUNDEN: Music has been Eric Owens passion since grade school. He grew up in Philadelphia, where he still lives, and was already playing oboe professionally in high school. But it was also in high school where he found he could sing, really sing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. OWENS: (Singing in foreign language).

Mr. OWENS: This may sound funny, but I saw more career potential in singing than being an oboe player. As competitive as the opera world is, theres always a job to be had somewhere.

LUNDEN: Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Adams thinks that background as an instrumentalist is part of what makes Owens such a superlative musician.

Mr. JOHN ADAMS (Composer): Hes got this special past where he really knows what it means to be in an orchestra, to count, to listen for pitch, all the kinds of disciplines that come with instrumental playing and ensemble playing. His fundamentals, his musical chops, as we call it, are so secure.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. OWENS: (As General Leslie Groves) (Singing) I've been preoccupied with many matters (unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Adams was so impressed with Owens chops, he created roles specifically for him in two operas. The first was General Leslie Groves, the military head of the Manhattan Project in "Doctor Atomic," a look at the birth of the atom bomb.

Mr. ADAMS: Eric really wonderfully embodied that role.

(Soundbite of opera, "Doctor Atomic")

Mr. OWENS: (As Groves) (Singing) (Unintelligible).

LUNDEN : Adams also wrote the role of the Storyteller for Owens in "A Flowering Tree," an adaptation of a south Indian fairytale about a girl who can transform herself into a tree.

(Soundbite of opera, "A Flowering Tree")

Mr. OWENS: (As character) (Singing) Children, I want to tell you a story, a story of (unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Owens says hes relished collaborating with John Adams.

Mr. OWENS: He would send some drafts and say: Okay, is this comfortable? Is this too high? Too low? Blah, blah, blah. You know, and he would rewrite things. So, thats really exciting, knowing that you have sort of an effect on the outcome of this wonderful piece of music and that you put your little two cents in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: Owens says he spends eight or nine months on the road, and New York is a frequent destination. Last season, he garnered rave reviews when in a two week period, Owens performed the Beethoven "Missa Solemnis" and a staged concert of Gyorgy Ligetis atonal opera, "Le Grande Macabre," with the New York Philharmonic.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. OWENS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Owens was pitch perfect in the role of Death, even if he admits that finding the pitches was hard work.

Mr. OWENS: In places where its seemingly atonal, I mean, the way I go about it is you have to sort of create these little blocks of tonality within the atonality. You have to create melodies where its seemingly just noise.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. OWENS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Owens is now focused on his very first role in a Wagner opera. Hes playing the thieving troll Alberich in "Das Rheingold" at the Met. The new high-tech production is directed by Robert Lepage, whose credits run from nine-hour theatrical marathons to Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.

Mr. ROBERT LEPAGE (Director): Of course, his voice is amazing, but hes also a good actor. Hes a good character actor. And this is a bit of a counter-role in the sense that hes probably the most sympathetic human being in this universe and he gets to play this very pathetic, not very sympathetic character. And he actually really dives into it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. OWENS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

LUNDEN: And, this is the kind of production where, when singers dive into it, they really dive. Its very physically-demanding. Eric Owens says hes been enjoying not just the musical but the cardiovascular challenges of the role, even if he admits hes a little overwhelmed to be part of opening night at the Met.

Mr. OWENS: You know, I have to make sure I can stay focused and not have one of these oh-my-goodness-gracious moments of, you know, wow, look at me, Im up here with all these amazing people doing this amazing music in this amazing theater.

LUNDEN: Eric Owens opens in "Das Rheingold" tonight.

For NPR News, Im Jeff Lunden in New York.

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