By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; E18
Eric Owens enjoys singing in English. "I always get so jealous of Italians and native Germans," says the opera singer. As an American singing opera, "even if you get really fluent, there's always a certain amount of disconnect, because you didn't grow up with the language," Owens says. "When I sing American music, it's really satisfying to identify and connect so well with the text."
Owens has plenty of opportunity to sing in English in Washington in the coming months. Having already appeared here in the fall in the Washington National Opera's "Barber of Seville" and the National Symphony Orchestra's "Messiah," he is returning for two larger parts: the title role -- or one of them -- in "Porgy and Bess" at WNO and, with the NSO, in John Adams's Walt Whitman work, "The Wound Dresser."
Both appearances are highlights of the spring-long festival of American vocal music organized by the Vocal Arts Society. "America Sings in the Nation's Capitol" spotlights the wealth of the nation's vocal music tradition with performances presented by more than 25 ensembles around the region, from the Cantate Chamber Singers to the NSO. The Washington Chorus is focusing on Nico Muhly; the National Master Chorale is bringing in composer Morten Lauridsen for a choral workshop; the National Philharmonic is doing works by Bernstein and Barber; the Vocal Arts Society is presenting Anthony Dean Griffey, Patricia Racette and other Anglophone singers in recital. And Owens will take on Porgy, a major -- and controversial -- role.
"I thought long and hard about it," he says of his first Porgy in San Francisco last season, because for an African American singer, "it can be the sort of role that if you take it and start doing it on a regular basis, it can become the only thing you're known for." However, Owens has made his career doing a wide range of roles and had reached a stage where he thought "I didn't have to worry about that sort of branding."
At the same time, the former bass's upper register was developing to a point where the higher role of Porgy was, for the first time, physically possible for him. He now calls himself a bass-baritone. "My top has always been pretty decent," he says, referring to the highest notes in his voice, "but it was more, 'I'll come up and visit for a second, but I need to go home right away.' Now, I've been invited in, and I can stay awhile, but I don't live there just yet."
As for John Adams: Owens is well familiar with his music, having sung major roles in the world premieres of his last two operas (General Leslie Groves in "Doctor Atomic," the Storyteller in "A Flowering Tree"). He loves the music -- "it tends to be pretty tonal" -- but, he adds, "it ain't easy. . . . It's pretty rhythmically challenging, and the meters are changing incessantly. . . . You almost have to get to the point where you can get up and conduct the thing" in order to sing it accurately from memory.
American song is a particular love of Owens, be it Tin Pan Alley or Charles Ives. He dreams of doing a recital of songs by composers in languages not their own: Ives in German, Schubert in English or Italian. But in the meantime, he's happy to be in Washington, singing in his own language.