BWW Interview: BARBER OF SEVILLE Star Eric Owens Talks Pressure, Comedy, and Proper Booing Technique
Eric Owens arrives in Houston just as the winter storm hits, shutting down the city's schools, roadways, businesses and, unfortunately, opera rehearsals. Still, the globe-trotting bass-baritone says he is happier to be here in Houston than the Windy City where he makes his home. He doesn't miss the cold. What he does miss, however, is the people.
"When I'm there, I try to be engaged and as helpful as I can," says Owens. As one of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's community ambassadors, he visits local schools to teach or talk to the students. The singer has also performed several concerts with Italian conductor Riccardo Muti of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at juvenile detention centers. "He believes in taking music wherever the people are."
Anyone who has ever seen a substitute teacher eaten alive knows this is easier said than done. But whether it's 4th graders, high schoolers, or seasoned operagoers, Owens says you should know your audience. "You go in there knowing that at first their reaction is going to be a giggle because it's something that's not necessarily familiar and may come off as cartoonish. But after that first giggle, they get over it and they start to just listen."
It's easy to see how awkwardness can turn into curiosity for Owens in an instant. He's unpretentious and can talk about almost anything. Over the course of the conversation, we discuss stand-up comedy, Star Wars, and how Europeans boo an opera production without booing the performers. (Hold your disapproval until after the performers take a bow. As soon as the curtain closes, let it all out. Rotten tomatoes optional.) And, on occasion, we discuss his reasons for being in Houston: To perform the principal role in Houston Grand Opera's THE BARBER OF SEVILLE as well as guest judge for the company's Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers (CONCERT OF ARIAS 2018).
When we talk about the competition, Owens remembers the pressures of being a young singer. "It can be difficult when you're first starting out and trying to learn the ropes. There are high stakes. There is this eagerness to please and make sure that you're noticed. And that's pressure," he says. "There's also that pressure of making a living and wondering whether, come this time next year, will this big old gaping hole in my calendar be filled with work so I can pay bills?"
As an established artist, Owens has a different kind of pressure. He calls it "the pressure of expectation," which he doubly encounters in HGO's BARBER OF SEVILLE -- an established, popular artist performing in an established, popular opera. "It's not easy to put on. It's comedy," says Owens. "And comedy is way more difficult than drama ... It takes a skill above and beyond. It's more than making a script come to life. It's timing, delivery, choreography." And, whereas the things that make us cry are universal, for example the loss of a parent or child, the things that make us laugh are not. "You go around the world and tell the same joke, not everyone is going to get it and not everyone is going to think it's funny."
But pressure by any other name is still pressure. His response to the challenge of BARBER OF SEVILLE and his advice to young artists is the same. Owens says: "It's a process. You take the time, you put the work in, and hopefully what you present people will enjoy."
BARBER OF SEVILLE runs through February 10, 2018. For information about the production, please visit houstongrandopera.org/thebarberofseville. Learn more about Eric Owens here and the CONCERT OF ARIAS 2018 Winners here.
Photo by Dario Acosta