I wanted to write about Eric Owens, the bass-baritone, because he seems to be turning up an awful lot of places as artist-in-residence — Glimmerglass, Wolf Trap, and the Washington National Opera. I didn’t realize, however, just how deep his commitment to expanding his role actually is — something I outline in my article in this Sunday’s Washington Post, as he spends six weeks with the young singers at the Wolf Trap Opera.
I also didn’t realize how wide-ranging his thinking is. I’d interviewed Owens a couple of times in recent years, once about singing Porgy and once about his involvement in Renée Fleming’s “American Voices” project at the Kennedy Center last fall. But Owens is so focused and “on-message” when he talks that he never gave an inkling, in those conversations, of the many other things that are going on in his mind — be it developing a non-profit organization or working seriously on a conducting career. (He’s not pushing too fast on the conducting work. “There’s nothing wrong with someone having some miles on [them], in terms of being a conductor,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be right off the showroom floor.”)
And since I couldn’t fit everything into one article, here are a few more noteworthy quotes from Eric Owens.
On singers and their market value: “There are precious few artists, opera singer type artists, who can go to Europe and sell out an arena, and in terms of free market capitalism are deserving of the check that comes at the end of the rainbow. We’re working at non-profits and in order to pay us, you have to raise money. If you think from a financial standpoint you’re worth what you’re getting paid, it’s not really the case, but from an artistic standpoint, yes, we’re trying to bring beauty into the world. All of these companies in the United States have to raise money, and I think we can be a little more helpful than that, if we’re so inclined.”
On City Opera, and how singers get involved: “A lot of artists, they were really up in arms and irate about the situation at [the New York] City Opera… but they were putting all of that on George Steel’s shoulders. The demise of City Opera was decades in the making. George just happened to be running it at the time. A lot of people were up in arms. [They wrote] open letters. Well now, what are you going to do after you write that letter? ‘What can we do?’ Well, we’re not helpless. It’s time for us to round ourselves up and say, ‘Let’s try to be a little more part of the solution.’ Yes, you go to school and pay for lessons, it is a whole lot of work to get up on that stage, but I think we can do more. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot more, but a whole lot of people doing a little bit more.”
On getting involved with philanthropy and fund-raising: “This all started a year ago when I crashed a development meeting at the [annual meeting of the] League of American Orchestras. I had sung the night before with the St Louis Symphony. [In the question period at the end] I said listen, you guys have a resource that’s not fully tapped, and that’s us. I know in development you guys don’t want to ask too much of us because you don’t want to bother us. What would really bother me is if you aren’t around in ten years. That would bother the hell out of me. We need to help them help us.”
“We [artists] have to stop feeling like we’re guests. We need to feel like we have many, many homes, and we go to them, and these homes need a little bit of maintenance.”
On the importance of opera singers: “My engagements with opera companies and orchestras, I’m so grateful that they welcome me into their fold. And yes, I go there and I do a job, but if they come up to me and the performances have gone well and they’re complimentary, I’m just, Thank you for having me, because there are hundreds of other people you could hire for this temp job. We’re temps. It’s easy to [think,] “Here I am; aren’t you lucky,” but no. This would go on without any one of us. I know it will, because Luciano died several years ago, and opera kept happening.”