I interviewed Eric Owens, the world-renowned bass-baritone, in the beautiful surroundings of Glimmerglass Festival. He had just come off a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth two nights before and was preparing to work with singers from the Young Artists Program. Soon he would be appearing alongside Artistic Director Francesca Zambello pre-show to greet audiences and encourage support.
This coming season he will return to Washington D.C. to reprise his role in Kurt Weil’s Lost in the Stars with Washington National Opera.
Susan: You said that the hardest part of performing Verdi’s Macbeth was climbing on the table in the banquet scene. (Eric laughs.) But seriously, it’s such a demanding role. What is the hardest part for you?
Eric: The hardest part is figuring out how to play all the stuff that’s missing in the opera from the Shakespeare. There are so many key elements that are gone, so how do you tell the whole story? Anne (Anne Bogart, the director) was so amazing. In the time that we had, she would help us find how to communicate a key transition in the story in a single instant of the music. She showed us how to choose in one look or gesture, so nothing is wasted or lost. How to inhabit a character and not to “know” what is coming next. How not to telegraph where the character is going. The thing in theatre about going backwards as you go forwards.
Susan: Yes, it’s a beast of a play and, I believe, an opera. What was going on in your thinking process in tackling the role?
Eric: I found myself asking why am I still here? Why am I still standing here and why am I not there? It was so hard to fill in those blanks and sometimes it was so frustrating. With the king’s arriving … Macbeth is having doubts and he’s asking, “Why would I do the opposite of what I am supposed to do here? Why should I be the assassin of my king and a guest in my house?” There is the moment when we come out to receive Duncan. The scene in the opera only takes a minute, and there’s no time to develop the inner monologue. But it seemed important to show that it’s one thing to plot to kill someone but entirely another when you stand face to face with your king and it’s been bred into you to hold all this reverence, especially in those days! Surely in the presence of one’s majesty it’s a different thing and you start to waiver. We try to accomplish this, I by doing the deepest bow I know how to do and Lady just barely nods, and maybe that says it all about this couple. Yes, that’s the hardest part, in the opera everything is so condensed. But with Anne we wanted to try and tell the entire story.
Susan: In the production I felt you were going for the conflict in this man. Especially in the second act, where in some productions Macbeth becomes a kind of killing machine, you were able to show his full humanity leaking out all over the place, driving him mad. Were you conscious of building the tension between your actions and what was going on inside?
Eric: Yes, and between the two of them it’s really Lady Macbeth in the opera who takes the position of “just do it.” But of course as a lady she can’t “just do it” because she’s powerless. We wanted to find in Macbeth that deep inner conflict and the mania. There’s the scene with the witches where he’s told “No man from woman” can harm him, and he revels, but only for an instant, because then he pushes himself for that double insurance policy.
We had such a theatrical process in our rehearsals compared to most operas. I was so grateful to Anne, especially for the kinds of private chats we would have. I remember when she pulled me aside and suggested that maybe Macbeth was not exactly the man of the house. On the battlefield, yes, he’s that guy, but not in their home where she rules. And when Macbeth walks in and for a moment it’s all “Hail the conquering hero” but then immediately she puts him down and it’s her controlling him. And I said, “Yes it’s a buzz kill.” And Anne said, “Yes, but there has to be a buzz first before the kill.” In the same way I think we found that moment where a wedge is driven between Macbeth and Banquo, and he can no longer be his friend.
Susan: Were there any differences between you and Anne you had to work through?
Eric: I guess I am stubborn. I kept asking, for instance, why does Macbeth accept everything the witches say except this one thing about Banquo’s children becoming heirs? Why does he keep doing the same thing expecting different results? Why does he force a different outcome by killing people? Perhaps Macbeth keeps going back to the witches to try and get them to say something else. It kept nagging me that there’s this talk about two prophecies that have come true, but there’s only the one, that he’s Thane of Cawdor.
Working with young artists
Susan: The role of Macbeth this summer should have been enough for any man. But you are also back as Artist-in-Residence for the second time and a mentor to the whole group of young artists. Do you find each season the young artists group tends to form its own unique identity requiring different goals and guidance on your part?
Eric: As a group? I’m still learning about them –
Susan: They seem like a particularly strong crop of performers this year – formed actors, movers and singers –
Eric: Aren’t they amazing this year? The young man who plays Papageno, Ben Edquist is remarkable. And the performers in Candide – they’ve got it all. It’s so heartening for me. We’re approaching a time when acting is being taught alongside singing right from the start. When I was their age and starting my career I hadn’t had any of that. It came to me later as an audience member when I kind of approached the process as a reverse engineer and was asking, “Why do I like this performance more than that performance even if the singing in both was just fine?” And I would discover for myself things like “that person is listening” or “that person is creating in the moment.”
Susan: Would you say then that this is what you are here to do, to make sure the young singers understand the dramatic preparation it takes?
Eric: I can’t say I have talked about it with this group, because they have come with it already. I have been so impressed with how comfortable they are on stage. I can probably attribute that to the audition process and the powers that be were looking for that.
Susan: That’s Michael Heaston who does the scouting all over the country for both Glimmerglass and the Washington National Opera.
Eric: Yeah, definitely. But maybe by just showing in your own work and in performance this gets reinforced. Remember, there was a time in opera where no one would dare run all around the room and sing an aria. Artists would get away with saying, “No, I simply couldn’t sing this line.” Now there’s the expectation that the moments on stage are about much more than the musical line. Here though, probably I see my work as hearing things musically and identifying what could be improved in the singing.
Susan: What specifically might you be listening for – the length of a line or phrasing?
Eric: The sense of legato, a sense of phrasing, yes. I feel strongly that every sound that comes out of your mouth has to be informed and indicate a choice that you made. A lot of times a singer can’t know that something isn’t fully supported or that a straight tone suddenly appears in a line otherwise legato. I might ask, “Was that a choice?”
Susan: What else?
Eric: I like to meet with them regularly, informally, have dinner with them, and just be available to help them with whatever is going on with them, about the business or their concerns. But you know, that’s not even work. They are doing more for me than I can for them. Just to be around that untainted enthusiasm! They still haven’t seen yet the man behind the curtain yet. They’re still on the yellow brick road. “Poppies!” Nice!
Susan: Do you ever think about directing opera?
Eric: I don’t know if I have what it takes to do that. The thought of it is so overwhelming, I don’t think I have those chops.
Lost in the Stars coming to Washington, DC
LOST IN THE STARS
February 12 – 20, 2016
Washington National Opera
at The Kennedy Center
Tickets: $69 – $215
Details and Tickets
Susan: I for one am glad you are on that side of the stage in the roles I’ve seen you sing. And I am particularly happy you will be coming to Washington and WNO to recap your role in Lost in the Stars. I want to tell everyone I know to come. If it was life changing for me, what can I say to tell them what it was for you? And will there be changes?
Eric: It was life changing for me. And yes, there will be some cast changes. To be able to come to the table again having done it already and to see where we can go from there, that’s a huge gift that doesn’t come around that often. It’s exciting! We can hit the ground running in the process because there is already a framework. We can challenge ourselves to go even deeper. In this show especially the question “What does it really mean?” is important because it means so many things to the different people.
To have had all of these people from all over the planet but especially the wonderful spirit of the South Africans [from Cape Town Opera]! They were so full of joy and life and laughter and reminded us that even coming from a country and a system where they might have been “grumpy” all the time, instead they were beacons of light. Everyone came to the work with such love and service to the piece. And I remember that none of us left the stage after the last curtain call for a good ten minutes because we were just hugging and crying and laughing. We didn’t want to let it go.
But all we have is now, right? That’s what we learn in theatre and opera. And to let it go. And carrying it with love.