Even over a cell phone connection, Eric Owens' booming bass-baritone seems to fill the room. His deep voice emanates in a warm, lulling purr, showing no signs of any pressure he might feel at the prospect of taking on one of his dream roles in his native Philadelphia. Beginning on Friday, he’ll sing the part of King Philip II in Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” a piece he’s loved since long before he ever thought of becoming an opera singer himself.
“This is a piece that’s been on my radar since I was a teenager, when I didn't have any designs on singing,” Owens says. “It’s pretty much as good as any opera can get, and I can only say that about maybe 10 operas out of thousands. Verdi’s music speaks to me like an old friend. Singing this role is a dream come true, and to be doing it with my hometown opera company is doubly wonderful.”
Owens, 44, grew up in Mt. Airy and discovered classical music at an early age. After graduating from Central High, he studied at Temple and the Curtis Institute of Music and has since become one of the most acclaimed voices of his generation. Portraying King Philip in British director Tim Albery’s interpretation of “Don Carlo,” he’ll have a prime opportunity to showcase his range in a villainous but somewhat sympathetic role.
Opera Philadelphia’s “Don Carlo” is a new co-production with Washington National Opera and Minnesota Opera, and is highlighted by Owens’ debut in the role of the king. The story is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition and weaves together personal, political and religious conflicts as matters of state collide with a royal love triangle.
“It’s a remarkable, beautiful piece, and it’s an amazing piece of theater as well — and you can’t say that about all operas,” Owens says with a high, musical chuckle. “I’m thinking of another Verdi piece, ‘Il Trovatore,' which is an amazing piece of music but you kind of roll your eyes at the drama. But there are a few pieces, like ‘Don Carlo’, where if you took one note away, it would be like Jenga. When you get music and drama that are so wonderfully crafted, it’s an amazing night in the theater.”
The sympathetic villain
“He’s a sad, lonely guy, and he’s a king,” Owens says of the role of King Philip II. “The frustration that he feels manifests itself by him being a complete jackass. He’s a multi-layered guy even though he’s not too terribly pleasant. We see a glimpse of this in his aria. There’s a human being, a fragile soul inside there, and Tim, the director, definitely wants all of those layers to come out and shine.”
If you go:
Opera Philadelphia: “Don Carlo”
April 24-May 3
Academy of Music
240 S. Broad St.
$19 to $249, 215-893-1018