What Opera Singer Eric Owens Learned When He Studied Conducting

August 22, 2016
Photo: Eric Owens photo
Bass-baritone Eric Owens

Opera singer Eric Owens has an almost godlike voice. His booming bass-baritone wins over audiences at the Met Opera and many other opera companies around the world.

He spent the past year as artist in residence with the New York Philharmonic. The famous orchestra brought Owens along to sing at one of its concerts this summer at the Bravo! Vail music festival.

But a few years ago he decided to study conducting when wasn't performing on some of the world’s biggest opera stages.

The classes gave him a new appreciation for how hard it is for a conductor to stand on the podium and lead an orchestra.

“Especially when they’re in front of an orchestra for the very first time, It’s like going on a blind first date with 60, 70 people,” Owens said.

The singer learned about conducting from one of the world’s most in-demand maestros -- Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Phil.

Owens says conductors don’t just think about the overall sound of the orchestra. A conductor juggles their focus, listening to all the sections and balancing the different parts.

“Any time I’m on that podium it’s quite a learning experience,” he says. “I’m a bit jealous of the guys that get to do it often. But having done it, it just enhances my empathy for everything the conductor has to deal with.”

But Owens said an opera singer understands multitasking. When he is onstage at the Met Opera, he’s singing. He’s watching the conductor. He’s listening to the orchestra. He’s acting -- and reacting to other cast members.

“There was a study done as to the careers that require the most ability to multitask and opera singer came in No. 2 to air traffic controller,” Owens said with a laugh. “Believe it or not.”

Owens says he’s still primarily a singer. He sang Wagner with the New York Phil at Bravo! Vail this summer. And he’s looking forward to a slew of opera dates around the country this year.

But Owens says his conducting classes made him feel like a better musician. When he uses that huge voice onstage he listens a little differently to what everyone around him is doing.

Watch Owens singing music from Verdi's "Macbeth":