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‘Dr. Atomic’ Star Eric Owens on the Joys of Working With Non-Dead Composers

Eric Owens may not be a household name to opera-philes yet, but the striking bass-baritone is well on his way, making his Metropolitan Opera debut this week in John Adams’s much-anticipated Doctor Atomic. Owens — who also makes his Carnegie Hall recital debut this spring — has won acclaim for his versatile voice, earthy style, and up-for-it attitude (exhibit A: traipsing about onstage for three hours in a giant monster costume in the title role of Julie Taymor's Grendel). Owens spoke with Vulture about his new production and faking foreign languages for a part.

How did you and John Adams first hook up?
I first met John in Atlanta. I was there doing performances of his El Niño with the Atlanta Symphony. John came to the rehearsals, and he liked what I was doing with the piece, and during the time he was actually making plans to do Doctor Atomic. He said, "Oh, it would be great to have Eric in this." So that happened, and then I did The Death of Klinghoffer shortly after at BAM. John came to that, and we just sort of hit it off. I have such respect for him; I'm really such a fan. I think there's a mutual respect and a love there, and I'm just happy that arguably one of the premier composers of our lifetime is wanting me to sing his music.

Why do you think you click?
I remember John one time saying he appreciated the fact that I had this wide sort of range, a big bag of tricks vocally. I can do big, bombastic things, I can scale things down to sing things more intimately. My voice is very bass-y, but it can take on some baritonal qualities, so he really appreciated that. The part I'm singing in Doctor Atomic, I mean, there's some really low stuff but some wonderfully high stuff as well.

Do you prefer performing new music to the classic repertoire?
I mean, I enjoy new music. It's a wonderful process, especially if the composer has you in mind when he's writing, to be in on the ground floor, and also to have the composer ask for your input, insofar as the vocal demands of a particular piece.

You’ve worked with Peter Sellars, who wrote Doctor Atomic’s libretto, a few times now. Any crazy stories?
A lot of people from the outside looking in think of him as this wacky person, but he’s probably one of, if not the most, brilliant person I know, and someone with such a wonderfully caring soul. To listen to Peter talk about any subject — it’s mind-blowing. The first time I went to his house, I shouldn't have been surprised, but everywhere you look there are books. He has these wonderful bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling, and there are books all over every square inch of his house. And you can grab any book off of his shelf, and even if he hasn’t read it in ten years, he’ll go on and on about it.

Must be nice to work with someone who’s alive.
Yes! If you have questions, you don’t have to do research — I mean, there he is. But I adore all my wonderful favorite composers who aren't with us any longer — I love Bach, I don't sing nearly as much as Bach as I would like to. And Handel and Mozart. These are the composers who influence the composers of today — my singing of Mozart or Verdi can inform my singing of John Adams. But I need variety, to taste all those things — I couldn't sing Rossini all year exclusively; it would drive me bananas.

Though far more prominent black sopranos exist in the opera world these days, it seems that black men still face some difficulty. How do you feel about it?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have quite a wonderful career so far, but I’m sure there are people who have had difficulties because of race. I could probably go as far as to say there have probably been instances in which I was not hired because someone had a closed mind — but I can’t say definitively, because they don’t call you up and go, “Oh, by the way, we didn’t hire you because you’re black.” They don’t tell your agent that either.

Do you feel like American singers have an advantage right now over others, in terms of the range of styles you’re comfortable with, the repertoire you have access to?
It’s sort of a Catch-22 situation. Yes, we’re not steeped in any one tradition, so we have to be chameleon-like, but sometimes it’s a disadvantage. As I’ve gone through this career, there have been times when I’m singing some Verdi and thinking, Man, it would just be cool to be Italian right now. Because no matter how well you speak a language or even become fluent, there’s always a slight disconnect. That’s part of the reason I really enjoy singing in English onstage — it’s wonderful to know that if needed, I could start improvising. I couldn’t do that in, say, Der Rosenkavalier — not only is it German, but it’s Viennese. I couldn’t come up with some witty bit of Viennese German. But, you know, we as Americans do okay! The jury’s still out in my mind.

Photo: Courtesy of the Weinstein Company