FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
If you're not an opera buff, you may not have heard of our next guest.
(Soundbite of opera singing)
CHIDEYA: Eric Owens. The rich, velvety tones of his bass baritone voice have made him a rising star in the opera ranks. He just made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in October. And tonight, he opens in the Met's most recent production of "The Magic Flute" by Mozart. He stopped by our New York studios to tell us about his latest endeavors. Eric, how are you doing?
Mr. ERIC OWENS (Opera Singer): I'm well, how are you?
CHIDEYA: I'm great. I'm going to have to stop myself from just listening to your voice.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: See? And you got a great laugh to match as well.
Mr. OWENS: Oh, that's funny, thank you.
CHIDEYA: So tell me how and when you started to sing professionally?
Mr. OWENS: My first professional engagement was back in 1993 at the Ashlawn Highland Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia. And it was a summer festival, and I found out about it because a man by the name of John Douglas(ph), who was the director of the opera program at my undergrad at Temple University, he was in charge of this program and he said I should audition. And I auditioned for it, and it was my first sort of paying singing operatic gig, as it were.
CHIDEYA: When did you think - it sounds, from what I know about you, like you've always loved music and opera. But when did you know that you wanted to be a part of this world?
Mr. OWENS: Probably when I was about 19 or 20 years old. Up until that point, I had been - actually, an instrumentalist. I played Oboe professionally for years throughout high school. And I thought that's what I was going to do, but I'd been a lover of opera since I was about 11 years old. So you know, when my voice kind of came into being and I started singing in the high school choir, the choir director there, you know, said that he heard something that might be worth pursuing, and I started taking voice lessons late in high school.
CHIDEYA: Well, let's move on to some of your professional successes, and there are many. A lot of people only dream of being on stage at a famous opera house like the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Mr. OWENS: Right.
CHIDEYA: Or La Scala in Milan. And now you debuted at the Met this fall. What was that like?
Mr. OWENS: It was pretty awesome. And it all didn't really hit me until the curtain came down after the first performance. Because up until then, I was just, you know, trying to rehearse and trying to work, you know, really hard, and make sure that, you know, I was doing everything I needed to do. And even going out on stage the first time, it really didn't hit me, because I was just trying to stay focused. But once the curtain came down and we were doing the curtain calls, and I could actually see out to the house how many people were out there, and, you know, the whole occasion of it all didn't strike me until then. And boy, it was just - it was amazing, because for any young American singer, that's the place you're shooting for, it's the pinnacle of the opera world. And it was great. Just thinking about it sitting here right now, I was just - yeah, I'm just - I'm really grateful to have had that experience.
CHIDEYA: Yeah, I can only imagine. Well, let's talk a little bit more about the role that you were playing, General Leslie Groves in the opera "Doctor Atomic" by John Adams. And it's a modern opera about the countdown to the first test of the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert during World War II. Let's start out by listening to you.
Mr. OWENS: Sure.
(Soundbite of opera "Doctor Atomic")
Mr. OWENS: (Singing)
This program has been plagued from the start By the presence of certain scientists Of doubtful discretion and uncertain loyalty
It was agreed in Washington That nothing can be done About dismissing these men Until after the bomb has actually been used.
CHIDEYA: So what's going on at this point in the opera?
Mr. OWENS: At this point, it's sort of a suspension of time, and the characters are on stage. And each one of them has these different thoughts going through their head as the night progresses and everybody's sleep-deprived in this sort of dreamlike state. And what - and so the characters end up thinking out loud in sort of these little short soliloquies. And all Groves could come up with is, you know, these darn scientists. Boy, I can't wait to get rid of them, because they've been plaguing me and if, you know, we didn't need them for their expertise, they would have been out of here. And so he's sort of having this moment. And then following, there's a moment with Oppenheimer, where he's, you know, talking about memories, regrets, fears, spasms, afflictions, nightmares, rages and neuroses, and he's sort of coming to grips with becoming the father of such mass destruction.
CHIDEYA: The father of the atomic bomb, as some people call him.
Mr. OWENS: Indeed. Absolutely. And so the general, sort of - he has got tunnel vision. He needs - this project needs to get done, he's not having any sort of emotions about it or any regrets. You know, he just knows that the brass in Washington needs - they need to know that this going to work.
CHIDEYA: What do you like about this character, or playing this character? Who was white, by the way, and I wanted to ask you about that.
Mr. OWENS: Exactly. Absolutely. Yeah.
CHIDEYA: It's that the whole question of cross-racial casting comes into play.
Mr. OWENS: Right. Indeed.
CHIDEYA: Or race-neutral, some people call it.
Mr. OWENS: And it's so funny, because I was curious as to how people would react to me playing someone who was white, and a character of the not-too-distant past. You know, there are people still alive who knew this man. But John Adams, he wanted me to be in this opera, and he just thought it was character-driven, he thought I could bring this character to life. And it made no difference to him whatsoever, you know. And also the original director on the librettos, Peter Sellars. And they thought this was a story that affects all mankind. So you know, whether I was black or white didn't really matter to them. And so ultimately, it didn't matter to me, and I was just happy to be a part of the production.
Insofar as my feelings toward Leslie Groves as a person, it's a mix, because he could be a real bastard. You know, I spent most of the night in the opera just sort of screaming and yelling at people, and worrying about deadlines. And so - but there was this one moment where he had this sort of human moment of talking about troubles he's been having with weight and his diet. And he meticulously writes down everything he eats. And he has control over all these men, but he can't grip on the whole dieting thing - which I can relate to, because I'm a big guy. That was a sort of a tender moment. And I was glad that that moment was in there, because originally, that wasn't going to be a part of the opera. And so it gives him more dimensions than this, just sort of this tyrannical, militaristic guy who needed to get this project done.
CHIDEYA: On a different level, do you prefer - since you have a relationship with the composer John Adams, and you seem to be mutually respectful and also embracing of each other's talents - do you prefer working with someone who you know, and who's working in the modern opera tradition, or do you like doing older operas as well?
Mr. OWENS: I think it's 50-50. I like both. What's so exciting working with a living composer is just that. He's here and if you have questions, you don't have to, you know, resort to some dusty old book. I mean, you can get it right there from the horse's mouth. But also, I mean, I just adore the classics.
CHIDEYA: Well, you're going to be singing "Magic Flute."
Mr. OWENS: Indeed.
CHIDEYA: Yeah, at the Met, again.
Mr. OWENS: Right. I'm doing some Mozart, who I just adore singing his music. I'm a person - I'm an artist who just needs that variety. I need, you know, a variety of different styles and periods of music.
CHIDEYA: What opera would you recommend someone to go see if they think they wouldn't like opera?
Mr. OWENS: Wow! I would recommend them either actually going to see "The Magic Flute" or "The Barber of Seville." Two operas that have a lot of wonderful, fun, light characters, as well as some characters with some gravitas. But something like, you know, either some Rossini or Mozart, so "Magic Flute" and "Barber of Seville" come to mind.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well, it's been great talking to you, and I enjoy your enthusiasm for this world that a lot of us don't get to see much of.
Mr. OWENS: Thank you so much for having me.
CHIDEYA: That was bass-baritone Eric Owens. He debuts tonight in the role of Sarastro at The Metropolitan Opera's production of "The Magic Flute." He joined us from our NPR Studios in New York City.