“Have you stopped singing?” Eric Owens says people ask him.
Actually, the bass-baritone, who turned 44 this week, is at the height of his career. In 2010, at the start of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Ring” cycle, he stole the show as the evil dwarf Alberich, and turned a role that isn’t usually thought of as pivotal into a springboard to the ranks of established star artists. Today, he has his pick of major parts, from Gershwin’s Porgy to Wagner’s Dutchman — both at the Washington National Opera, where he’ll try out the Dutchman for the first time this coming spring.
But Owens is also appearing in some roles that aren’t usual for a singer of his age and level of success — teacher and mentor. This summer, he’s spending six weeks with the Wolf Trap Opera, where he spent two summers in the mid-1990s as a young professional, as that company’s first artist-in-residence. “I jokingly tell people I get what arguably everyone who spent two summers at Wolf Trap wanted,” he quips, “a third summer at Wolf Trap.”
This time, though, his role is to dispense vocal and career advice (in addition to the occasional performance, such as the Aria Jukebox concert he will offer with the Wolf Trap artists Sunday at 3 p.m.).
It is rare for a major performer in his prime to spend so much time on what is essentially a nonperforming activity — a retirement job, in some people’s eyes. For Owens, it is part of an even larger and more ambitious vision. He is setting out to redefine the way that American singers view their jobs and to explore ways in which they can contribute to the field — as mentors, as fundraisers and even, most remarkable, as donors.
Like many opera singers, Owens can be described as larger than life; but he mitigates his physical stature, and the power of his deep, warm voice, with a quality that one might call self-effacing. Now grizzled, with the mien of someone older than his years, he moves with the deceptive gentleness of a big cat, projecting a warmth and sense of leisure that belie the welter of activity below the surface, and he leavens his delivery with a ready, sunny, sometimes almost goofy, smile.
His role at Wolf Trap calls for him to use all of these qualities. “To the extent that Eric can disappear into the woodwork,” says Kim Witman, the head of the Wolf Trap Opera and instigator of the new artist-in-residence program, he does. “He sits around in breaks, goes to lunch, develops a rapport with them so they can ask the kinds of questions they need to ask. They’re respectful, as they should be, but he wants to break down that barrier.”
Wolf Trap is but one station in what has become an active branch of Owens’s career. This summer, he has also spent time in San Francisco, working with members of the Merola Opera Program. Next season, as he prepares for the Dutchman at WNO, he will be working with the singers in that company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. He was artist-in-residence at Glimmerglass in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 2012, and will return there in the same role next summer while he prepares his first outing as Verdi’s “Macbeth.” And this fall, he’s moving from New York to Chicago, where the Lyric Opera has appointed him one of its community ambassadors as part of that city’s ongoing arts outreach.
“With all the mentoring and the coaching, people ask me, ‘Have you stopped singing?’ ” Owens says. “I’m like, ‘No, I can do this, too.’ We all are multitasking our butts off all the time. I’m not trying to be a full-time teacher at a university somewhere. That never will be me, because it’s just not my desire.”
His desire is much larger.
“I just think there’s a sea change that needs to happen with artists, vis-a-vis what they expect of themselves,” he says. “There’s all this talk lately about thinking outside of the box. I think artists need to start talking in those terms as well and find out what we can do that’s more than is traditionally expected of us, because we are living in times where the landscape is changing constantly.”
And Owens is concretely demonstrating what he means.
“He’s big on put ‘your money where your mouth is,’ ” says Francesca Zambello, the artistic director of WNO and head of Glimmerglass, who is making good use of the singer’s talents, not only onstage. Owens now chairs the advisory committee of the Glimmerglass Festival and is also a donor.
The Wolf Trap Opera is also becoming a beneficiary of his efforts. This summer, he is encouraging the young artists to contribute any money they can. “He is seeding a fund that will be part of our 2015 budget,” Witman says, “a gift to the 2015 Wolf Trap Opera by the 2014 artists, including himself.” She adds, “The philanthropic part of this is very important to him. Not only does he want materially to participate, but he wants to encourage and inspire that tendency in young artists.”
This effort is laying out a framework for an even larger goal: a nonprofit organization that Owens plans to launch this fall to help mobilize other singers, raising funds for awards to go to young-artist programs at opera houses all over the country.
“I’m calling everybody from . . . a young artist [who] can give us $5 this year and $7 next year to the people who can write a check for $10,000,” Owens says. “We’re not going to save the world, but we’re going to have a little bit of impact and have some skin in our own game.” He adds, “We need to help them help us.”
The career of a busy singer can be so demanding that it leaves artists overextended and exhausted, even without the burden of the extra activity that Owens is shouldering. Artistically, he has plenty of challenges as well. The Dutchman is only his second Wagner role — “people think I’ve done tons of Wagner,” he chuckles — and, like Porgy, it sits high in a voice that is notable for its rich lows flecked through with gold. “I have to massage my voice up to it,” he says. Macbeth, too, is a quintessential role for the voice type known as a Verdi baritone; Owens has also sung the bass aria of Banquo, to considerable effect.
The stresses of the career have led him to make what appear to be unconventional choices — such as taking on the relatively minor role of Sharpless in “Madame Butterfly” in Los Angeles shortly after his Met Alberich. “I’m happy to have a couple things where it’s not a big ol’ magnifying glass on me,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Indeed, his philanthropic and mentoring activities are part of the way he’s chosen to deal with — or shelter from — the bright spotlight of the fame his career has won him. “A part of it comes with me not being too terribly comfortable with the notoriety that has come in the last few years,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out a way to use that for something good that is not just about me. Because I get really uncomfortable. So I figured maybe I can use [this work] to channel it.”
One of his constant messages is not to make too much of your own importance. Zambello remembers him at Glimmerglass saying to the young artists, “ ‘You have got to realize that we are easily replaceable. I’m telling you, it doesn’t matter what stage of your career, you can always be replaced.’ I remember him starting that talk,” she says, “and everyone’s fork clattering to their plates.”
Owens hails from Philadelphia and began his musical career playing the oboe before making the transition to singing. He hasn’t left his instrument far behind. Over the past few years, he has been studying conducting. Four years ago, in the midst of major career successes as a singer, he was a fellow in the conducting program at the summer festival and school in Aspen, taking part in the students’ grueling regimen and playing oboe in one of the orchestras when he wasn’t conducting. His next stop was Juilliard, where last spring, during the most recent iteration of the Met’s “Ring” cycle, he exchanged his teaching and master-class services for the chance to work in the conducting class under the New York Philharmonic’s conductor and director of Juilliard’s conducting program, Alan Gilbert. “There were times I couldn’t be there,” he says, “because I was across the street at the Met at my day job.” (He will conduct a concert with WNO in the spring; the program has yet to be determined.)
So no, Owens hasn’t stopped singing. But he hasn’t stopped exploring and experimenting and trying out new things, either.
“I might end up surprising people, doing something a little different,” he says. “I’d like to maybe run an opera company someday. Or be a dean at a school of music. I’m open to many, many things. I just have this curiosity about so many things.”
This summer, Wolf Trap’s artists get to learn up close, and firsthand, an unconventional and powerfully appealing model for success.
“The role-model aspect of this cannot be underestimated on any level,” Witman says. “As an artist, as a performer, as someone who has his head on straight, and someone whose heart is in the right place.”