An international star and Chicago favorite, Eric Owens is currently starring at Lyric in Dvořák's dark fairy tale Rusalka (on stage through March 16). He'll be a very familiar face over the next few seasons. He's back as Porgy in Porgy and Bess in 2014-15 and makes his role debut as Wotan in Lyric's new Ring cycle starting in 2016-17. Beyond his work on stage, Owens has just committed to be one of two inaugural Lyric Unlimited Community Ambassadors (along with Rusalka co-star Ana María Martínez). He found time to answer a few questions about Rusalka, Wotan, and what he likes to do when he's not on stage!
This is your role debut as Vodník in Rusalka—what has been the most fun part of the role and the most challenging?
The most fun thing is I get to be this frog-like water creature, which is just kooky and awesome.
The most challenging thing is singing in Czech. It's a language that's so incredibly new. In school we take French, Italian and German and in opera are introduced to Russian just because of the repertoire. It's been wonderful, but it's quite a challenge, especially when there are syllables with absolutely no vowels and you're supposed to figure that out.
How about those webbed feet? Do you enjoy working with elaborate costumes and prosthetics?
It's great! Months ago, they took a mold of my arms and my feet, so they fit perfectly. They are not a hindrance whatsoever. It makes the character come to life for you and you know exactly what you need to be doing. I've been looking at geckos and salamanders and stuff—I'm not joking—to see how they move!
In some ways, this seems like a Rusalka dream cast - can you give a bit of insight into the rehearsal process with such an amazing group of singers?
When I saw the cast list I thought, "This is going to be great." You have these people who give on stage, and they are not afraid to give the piece its due and whatever the director comes up with. It's a group of good people, fun people who take the work seriously, but don't take themselves seriously. And that's a great combination.
What do you find most exciting about David McVicar's vision for this work?
He makes it very human, and even though it's a fairy tale and even though my character—all night long—talks about how terrible those humans are, Vodník and Rusalka are embodying very human characteristics and qualities and idiosyncrasies. He brings quite a bit of earthiness to it. It's something to sink your teeth into.
It's funny, this is the first time that I've worked with David even though we've known each other for about 15 years. We've been talking about working together ever since then and finally we are. It's been great; I'm so thrilled. I hope the occasion presents itself where I can work with him again.
Can you share one moment in Rusalka that Chicago audiences should definitely watch for?
I wish I could see it! I know it's gorgeous, because when we were rehearsing without the lighting, I think I was talking with J'nai [Bridges, a current member of Lyric's Ryan Opera Center ] and I said, "That looks amazing under the work lights, so once the lighting designer gets a hold of it, it's going to be stunning." And from what people tell me, it is!
Can you give us any insight into any other Ring preparations you might be doing as you're starting to think about what will certainly be an epic journey with your role debut as Wotan?
I'll tell you one thing, when I was doing Alberich [ed. note, Owens portrayed the dwarf Alberich, another character in the Ring cycle, at the Metropolitan Opera to great acclaim], I noted to myself that Alberich and Wotan are—in some ways—two sides of the same coin. These beings that are frustrated, and there's something missing from their lives and they are out looking for it on the outside, both of them. Just look at all the philandering Wotan does. When I'm approaching that, I try to remember, "What's this guy searching for?" Here he is, basically the Bill Gates-Warren Buffett version of things, and he's unhappy as hell. What is he really searching for and what is he not finding in the comfort of all these many females?
I can't wait to see how this all unfolds, to go on this journey again with the Ring cycle but with a different character being my focus. And, of course, to actually be in Die Walküre is something! In the two Ring cycle productions I've done, I've never seen Die Walküre so to see what's going on in that world and to inhabit it as a performer is something I look forward to.
In terms of pre-operatic careers, it's well-known that you used to play the oboe. If you had to imagine an alternative, non-musical career for yourself, what would it be?
I still am an oboe player. I'm a recovering oboe player!
Stand-up comedy. We went over to Second City the other night, and it was awesome. I would love to do something like that, that kind of comedy-based theater troupe would be amazing. Those guys are brilliant! Brilliant!
What do you like to do or see in Chicago when you have some time off from rehearsals and performing?
Now that the rehearsal period is over, I'm going to check out some blues clubs and hopefully the weather will warm up a bit. I'll probably go to some CSO concerts and maybe go to another Second City show, but blues definitely—this is the place!
Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg Photography/Lyric Opera of Chicago