Earlier this month, Washington National Opera audiences experienced Verdi’s epic “Don Carlo” performed by a stellar cast. Making a particularly powerful impression was bass-baritone Eric Owens, who used his refulgent voice and sensitively nuanced phrasing to eloquent effect as he burrowed into the role of the anguished King Philip II.
One of the most gifted and acclaimed vocal artists on the international scene, Owens has given compelling performances of Beethoven and Wagner with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in recent years. On Sunday, the singer makes his Baltimore recital debut with pianist Myra Huang at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, presented by Shriver Hall Concert Series.
During an interview a few days ago, the Philadelphia-born Owens, 47, spoke about his career, his recital program and his take on opera’s future. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:
Q: You were an instrumentalist in your early years. What helped move you in the direction of a vocal career?
A: My mother made my brother and me take piano lessons. I was about 6. I played clarinet in the junior high school band. I wanted to be in the orchestra, but only the upperclassmen could play in it. There was only one oboe in the orchestra, and when the guy playing the oboe left, I was able to get in. I was lucky enough to have some wonderful oboe teachers.
One of my oboe teachers, Lou Rosenblatt [a longtime Philadelphia Orchestra member who died in 2009], would tell me, ‘”Play this phrase like a singer would do it.” That was something he always stressed.
I also sang in [the high school] choir. The director threw me a few solos, and one time he said, “You might consider voice lessons.” I took some in my senior year.
But I actually had been an opera fan since about the age of 8 or 9. I listened to a lot of opera recordings. Something spoke to me. Two recordings in particular: [Mozart’s] “Don Giovanni” with Cesare Siepi, and [Bellini’s] “Puritani” with [Joan] Sutherland and [Luciano] Pavarotti — I was just blown away by that one.
I saw my first opera in Philadelphia when I was about 15 — [Puccini’s] “Manon Lescaut” with [Romanian soprano] Nelly Miricioiu. Seventeen years later, I made my debut at [London’s Royal Opera House in the role of Oroveso] in [Bellini’s] “Norma,” and the Norma was Nelly Miricioiu. That was just one more clear indication that I made the right choice.
Q: Are there vocal artists whose work has been particularly inspiring?
A: Two singers come to mind. They influenced me because of their varied repertoire and their ability to sound like native speakers in any language: [Belgian bass-baritone] Jose van Dam and [Swedish mezzo-soprano] Anne Sofie von Otter. I admire the integrity and passion and smarts they would bring to any role they sang.
Q: Do you enjoy switching gears from opera to recitals?
A: It’s the only instance where I get to be artistic director. I can plan the repertoire myself. There is something really wonderful and freeing about that, but it also comes with an incredible amount of responsibility.
I’ve done all-Schubert recitals. I’ve done happy recitals and gloom-and-doom recitals. The program for Baltimore is a little of this and that. [There will be songs by Schubert, Brahms, Ravel and Duparc, as well as two concert arias by Mozart.] People may come away wondering why these songs were chosen. There is no one right answer.
Q: You were a visiting artist at the Peabody Institute last year and give master classes in other places. What’s your impression of today’s voice students?
A: There are some wonderfully talented young people. But there’s more supply than demand; a lot of them are not going to have opportunities.
Q: Do you have optimism about the future for opera?
A: I like to tell people that a week after the first opera [“Dafne” by Jacopo Peri in 1597], people worried about how they were going to sustain the art form. This isn’t anything new. But the world has changed dramatically. You’re not just competing with other entertainment choices people can go to, but with people not leaving their house — everything they want can be beamed in.
But I don’t care if you have the greatest sound equipment. What’s missing is the wonderful energy that circulates when you are with a group of people at a performance. The experience is heightened by this collective — the energy from the performer to the audience, and from audience member to audience member. You just can’t get that at home.