A REPRISE: Nine years ago, I had the honor of interviewing bass-baritone Eric Owens about his role as Porgy in the 2010 production of “Porgy and Bess” with Washington National Opera. In celebration of his reprise of this role at The Metropolitan Opera next month and in the spring at Washington National Opera, this re-post comes timely.
*This was one of my early interviews and I was most appreciative to this star artist for giving me a chance to chat with him about this performance and his career. This interview appeared in my column called “The Kennedy Center Examiner” which you may have heard me mention its advent and subsequent name change.
by Patrick D. McCoy
“Porgy and Bess” remains to be one of the most beloved compositions in the opera repertoire. Composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, it was first performed in 1935. Based on the Heyward’s original novel Porgy and the play co-written with his wife Dorothy Heyward, the story is set in the ficticious town of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina.
Eric Owens, who sings the title role of Porgy in the upcoming Washington National Opera production spoke with me from Arlington, Virginia. His resonant, well-modulated speaking voice was readily noticeable on the onset of the interview.
Patrick D. McCoy: When was the first time that you performed in Porgy and Bess?
ERIC OWENS: The first time that I sang in a production of Porgy and Bess was actually last year with San Francisco Opera, singing the role of Porgy. I had sung excerpts from the opera in concerts before, but last year was the first time that I sang in a full-staged production. It was the same production by Francesca Zambello, which I am currently preparing to sing with Washington National Opera.
PDM: Really. That was an important moment. Who was the conductor for that performance?
EO: The conductor was John DeMain. Many wonderful singers sang in that production: Laquita Mitchell as Bess, Lester Lynch as Crown, Karen Slack as Serena, among others.
PDM: I recognize all of those great singers, particularly Karen Slack who is singing in the Washington National Opera performances.
PDM: Porgy and Bess is such an important part of the opera repertoire because of the story that it tells about African-American life in the South. What things have you done to prepare for this particular role? What experiences and thoughts have helped you to embody the character?
EO: I have studied the source material: in particular, the original novel by DuBose Heyward. A lot of one-on-one help came from Francesca Zambello, who helped me to find what I could bring to the table musically. She helped me to draw on past strengths that would help me to convey the character. Francesca and I have been in association for about 15 years, but Porgy was the first time that we had a chance to work together. It is one of the reasons that I accepted this engagement because of our past experience together. I was surrounded by so many great singers in the San Francisco production that had sung the opera numerous times before.
PDM: Aside from Washington National Opera, you are quite a favorite soloist among concert goers here in D. C., recently singing Handel’s Messiah with the NSO to rave reviews. Do you have any upcoming engagements at The Kennedy Center?
EO: Actually, I just sang Rossini’s The Barber of Seville this past September with Washington National Opera. That production featured tenor Lawrence Brownlee. Upcoming, I will be appearing with the National Symphony Orchestra in The Wound Dresser by John Adams. But one of my earliest performances with WNO was in the opera Simon Boccanegra by Verdi in 1997.
PDM: I was impressed with your musical beginnings during your early childhood; you studied piano and oboe. When did you discover your gifts as a singer?
EO: Around 18, say 19 I realized that I wanted to be a singer. I sang in the high school choir and when I was a senior I took voices lessons. Still, I continued with the oboe, hoping to some day be in an orchestra. I have always been a fan of opera. I was listening to Met broadcasts early as 11 or 12. As a career I thought that could be exciting. So I entered Temple University as a voice major, but still not sure if it was really my niche. By the time I got to my sophomore year, that’s when it began to make sense and I felt like I was meant to sing. I find myself pinching myself, being grateful that I am really living my dream.
PDM: That is truly amazing! What role did your family have in encouraging your aspirations as singer?
EO: Honestly, there were no professional musicians in my immediate family, but my mom always made sure that I had piano lessons. I was personally drawn to it.
PDM: So, now that you have become one of the world’s most sought after opera singers how are you received by your family?
EO: Oh well received! I was always allowed explore different options and alternatives. I would say that they are very proud. I have always had a sense of strong determination and now that work has paid off.
PDM: When you are not singing concerts yourself, what kind of music do you listen? Who do you listen to?
EO: I listen to classical and jazz by the greats like Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, R and B especially Jill Scott, a native also of Philadelphia and a little hip-hop like music by Trick Daddy.
PDM: Trick Daddy? (chuckles)
EO: Yes (laughing) Trick Daddy. I also like old school hip hop by Kool Moe Dee.
PDM: Often when speaking about the successes of African-American opera singers it is said that contralto Marian Anderson opened the door and soprano Leontyne Price kept the door from closing. In your opinion, what African-American singer paved the way for the basses, baritones and bass baritones such as yourself?
EO: There are quite a few: Simon Estes, Paul Robeson and Robert McFerrin, who made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera shortly after Marian Anderson debuted there.
PDM: Finally, what advice would you give to a young person who aspire to have a successful career in opera?
EO: If you encounter disappointments or failures like not placing in a competition or a bad audition; look in the mirror. Ask yourself what can I do to improve whether it is languages, technique, etc before pointing the finger or blaming someone else. There is room at the top, but you have to be on your A-game, all the time!
PDM: That is powerful. Eric, thank you again so much for taking time out to speak with me. You are such a role model for a whole new generations of singers. Again it is truly an honor to speak with you. Best wishes on a great performance!
EO: My pleasure!
Bass baritone Eric Owens sang the role of Porgy with Washington National Opera March 20-April 3, 2010.