When the bass-baritone Eric Owens wants to reschedule our interview, he leaves me a voicemail. “This is Eric Owens,” he says, his voice like an earthquake, as if I would be getting a call from anyone else whose message requires a subwoofer. It’s a voice Chicago’s classical music buffs will come to recognize, if they don’t already, from a string of high-profile local performances—and maybe, soon, at the grocery store, too. He’s moving here from New York City this fall.
The 44-year-old, who opens the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season as the bass soloist in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 under the baton of the CSO’s music director, Riccardo Muti, is a hot booking with the world’s top opera houses and orchestras. The Philadelphia native rose to the highest opera stratosphere after his performance of the title role in the Beowulf riff Grendel in Los Angeles in 2006, a show that pundits called “monstrous” but nonetheless showed off Owens’s power and stamina.
Since then, his schedule has read like the A-list of opera: Berlin, Vienna, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Lyric Opera of Chicago, summers at the Glimmerglass Festival and Santa Fe Opera. “Eric has a distinctive sound and astonishing charisma onstage,” says Anthony Freud, the Lyric’s general director. “He’s a singer who simply compels attention.”
This fall at the Lyric, Owens, who studied at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, returns to one of the most celebrated roles of his career: Porgy in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, in the Francesca Zambello production in which he made his role debut in San Francisco in 2009. “I’m looking forward to building on groundwork that has already been laid with Cesca and some of the same people,” he says. “It is going to be a new experience with some really good old friends.” The company has scheduled 13 performances, the most for any opera at Lyric since the split-cast Tosca in 2009–10.
It’s a lot of time to drag a foot around. Although many stagings put the crippled Porgy on a cart to roll across the stage, the Zambello production gives him a crutch instead. “When I first did it, I was having some problems,” Owens says. He had to see a doctor. “I was having the weight centered on my armpit instead of my arm. I was cutting off a nerve.”
Sometime around Lyric’s Porgy opening in mid-November, Owens plans to make Chicago his permanent home. It’s a testament to his deepening artistic connections here, especially with the Lyric, where he will play Wotan, the top male role in Wagner’s Ring cycle, dozens of times between 2016 and 2020. “It’s really exciting,” he says of the move. “I’m already looking at places on the Internet. For what I’m paying for a one-bedroom apartment [in New York], I could live in a house in Chicago.”
Owens has another reason to look forward to his new Windy City digs: working more regularly with students at the Chicago High School for the Arts. He serves as an ambassador for the Lyric’s outreach program and spends much of his free time visiting that and other schools around the city. “I can’t wait to get back,” he says. “The guys at ChiArts are so awesome.”
He’s trying, he says, to make himself more visible in the community. But with that voice, what he’ll really be is audible.
Where to See Him Next
Owens on four of his upcoming performances
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, CSO
Sep. 18 to 23
“That word ‘soloist’ is such a strange word. I’m just one of the strings on the instrument that is the Chicago Symphony.”
Porgy and Bess, Lyric Opera
Nov. 17 to Dec. 20
“It’s exciting to get yet another chance to essay this character, to dig deeper and to find more nuance.”
L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, CSO
May 7 to 15, 2015
“A lot of the pieces I do are tragic. This will be a fun one.”
Pelléas et Mélisande, CSO
May 14 to 19, 2015
“It’s quite a layered character, and Debussy’s music is wonderfully intense and beautiful.”