Q&A with Eric Owens: How DJ Jazzy Jeff influenced this classical singer

Eric Owens
It's generally agreed that bass-baritone Eric Owens is easily one of the most badass young singers performing today. His espresso-rich voice can swing from sweet poignancy in Porgy and Bess, to haunting lyricism in A Flowering Tree, to thunderous bravado in El Nio. He's also no stranger to new American music, working closely with John Adams and upstaging a highly publicized 20-ton wall in the New York premiere of Elliot Goldenthal's Grendel. So when we heard that Owens was dipping his toe into jazz and standards tomorrow night at (Le) Poisson Rouge, we had to talk to him about the American sound, the "CNN composer" and Philadelphia's musical influences (which, yes, include, DJ Jazzy Jeff). Click past the jump for more.

Your program at (Le) Poisson Rouge is chock-full of Gershwin, Porter and Berlin. What came first for you: classical or jazz/standards?
Classical. This is actually my first foray into a public performance of some of these standards. It's been something I've been wanting to do for a long time.... It's the most incredible music ever—this period in America, the whole Tin Pan Alley, the early 20th century when jazz was coming about and all these wonderful songwriters. And I listen to them and they're just as incredible as any aria by any great composer in the classical world. The way these songs make me feel... I just get a smile on my face every time.

Certainly classical fed into the development of jazz, especially from composers like Gershwin.
Exactly, all those guys really. There was a heavy classical influence with them and most of them trained classically. I just think it's great and I'm really psyched about doing this on Tuesday.

Philadelphia has a hugely storied history in the music scene—from opera singers Marian Anderson and Mario Lanza to Chubby Checker and Dick Clark to Coltrane and Philly soul. How did growing up in that environment influence you musically?
Grover Washington, Jill Scott, DJ Jazzy Jeff, all those guys... It's an amazing treasure trove of musicians that have come out of Philadelphia. Growing up around that was great, just awesome. In my pursuit of my classical career, just knowing that excellence was around, coming out of the city, the influence made me want to do my best and strive for excellence that surrounded me with this Philadelphia heritage.

With a background in the standard rep, you've also carved out an interesting niche for yourself in 20th- and 21st-century classical works. Was this a deliberate choice on your part?

It's hard to say. It wasn't something that I set out to do, but I think with my instrumental background—I started out as a pianist and I was an oboist for 15 years, playing professionally—I think the musicianship led to that sort of thing. People started to know me as one of those people who could do new works and do it on a certain level. It sort of took off on its own; word of mouth spread. I didn't want to be necessarily known as that, just a new-works kind of a guy. But it's something that came about, and it pleases me because I enjoy having a variety of repertoire. So it's all worked out really well.

And now you have composers like John Adams writing roles specifically for you.
Which is just amazing. It's an amazing honor to have one of the foremost American composers want to write stuff for you. It's always great to be on the ground floor of a new work and having the composer ask you your opinion on certain things. It's really exciting.

With Doctor Atomic, what was it like creating a role based on someone from history that many people knew or still remember?
That's kind of daunting, especially someone who's in the not-so-distant past, where people are still alive who knew these people. I think everyone in the cast was mindful to portray these people as accurately as possible within the confines of an operatic setting with music. But it's exciting, and John has been sort of known for tackling subject matter and librettos that are based on these powerful events in our world history—The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China. Quite the poli-sci kind of repertoire.

Wasn't Adams called the CNN composer?
Yes! He was dubbed the CNN composer, which I think was hilarious.... When you think about composers like Mozart, they were trying to get away from old, lofty, mythological subjects and trying to have subjects that were based on what was going on in their day. It's not anything new, trying to tackle this sort of thing. When Mozart was trying to get The Marriage of Figaro done, people were up in arms. The nobility of France had the play banned because it touched on everyday human situations and bringing about change. When they dubbed John the CNN composer like it was something new, it wasn't. These ideas, the subject matter being relevant, have always been around. Which is what makes it exciting.

And just like Mozart, Adams has been known to be a scandal maker.
Klinghoffer especially, there were people who thought he was too favorable for one side, people thought he was favorable to the other side. I think he was trying to be evenhanded about it, but you're not going to please everybody. And to set out to try and please everybody is a surefire way to fail. You'll have a mediocre work if you say, "How can I please everybody?"

Moving off subject, how would you describe the sound of contemporary composers—particularly contemporary American composers—to someone who's never heard them?
When I think about the American classical sound, I think about people like Barber and Copland, Gershwin. It's more grounded in folk music, a lot of it, especially in someone like Copland. But it's also very wide-ranging, there are definitely European influences. And also you have influences of composers who became Americans, like Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, who influenced our sound but also incorporated what they came and heard into their own music.

Sort of like America itself, a melting pot.
Exactly. It's a combination of all these things and these influences. We're not in a country that's come out of an ethnicity like the countries in Europe; it's multifaceted.

And the classical training, as you said earlier, paved the way for jazz and the standards that you're singing on Tuesday.
Absolutely. And also you can see with several European composers—the French especially—there's this sort of back and forth of America having its own identity but being influenced by Europe's and Europe kind of coming in and becoming American. There's the symbiosis that goes on.