The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s “Ring’’ cycle has been controversial since the unveiling of its first opera, “Das Rheingold,’’ in September 2010. Much of the critical flutter centered on director Robert Lepage’s hi-tech sets, but there has been debate about much of the singing, as well as the conducting of James Levine, who began the cycle, and Fabio Luisi, who has taken over most of the conducting duties.
One of the few things that almost everyone seems to agree on is the bass-baritone Eric Owens, whose portrayal of the dwarf Alberich has won something close to universal praise. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross called Owens’s command of the role “the chief glory’’ of the “Rheingold’’ production, adding that it was “so richly layered that it may become part of the history of the work.’’ That would be no small feat in the treacherously contested realm of Wagner performance.
Last Saturday, the Met broadcast “Götterdämmerung,’’ the cycle’s fourth and final opera, into movie theaters around the world. Owens was not on stage (or screen) for long, as Alberich makes only a brief cameo. Still, the completion of his first complete “Ring’’ cycle marks a kind of pinnacle of his career, which has been in swift ascent since 2005, when he created the role of General Leslie Groves in the John Adams opera “Doctor Atomic.’’
He’s busy, too. Owens, 41, is in the midst of a cross-country recital tour that takes him to Denver, Davis, Calif., and back to New York before arriving here next week for three Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis’’ under Kurt Masur.
“It’s a little nuts,’’ said an improbably relaxed Owens the day after the Met broadcast. But, he added, a busy schedule “comes with the territory.’’ Last year Carnegie Hall took questions for Owens on Facebook and made videos of his answers. In one, he admitted that in his 30s, the touring and loneliness had made him consider giving up the performing life.
Now he takes it all much more in stride. “I don’t want to say it’s easier, but I’m more at peace with it. ’’
What’s most astonishing about Owens’s “Ring’’ triumph is that it was his first appearance in a Wagner opera. “Yeah,’’ he said with a laugh that had a subterranean rumble to it, “my first time to do Wagner, I decided to do it in a little out-of-the-way place where nobody would have seen it.’’
The chance to spend so much time immersed in Wagner’s music with the rest of the cast and especially with the Met Orchestra made it something altogether different from a regular job. “I mean, a paycheck seems deliciously redundant.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take it,’’ he added. “I got bills, you know.’’
Unusually for a singer in the prime of his career, Owens spent a chunk of summer 2010 taking conducting classes at the Aspen Music Festival. He had to hire a string orchestra to make an audition video and dust off his oboe, which he hadn’t played in years. (All conducting students are required to play in the orchestra when not on the podium. He reports that he was “pretty decent, if I must say so myself.’’)
He plans to continue with conducting, though he admitted that carving out time for rigorous study is difficult. “But I just wanted to get some serious training under my belt. It’s not something I want to or one should dabble in. It takes a lot of focus and concentration, and a lot of work.’’ Even if he doesn’t go on to conduct professionally, he continued, “it’s going to do nothing but improve how I sing, and make me a better musician all around.’’
It certainly can’t hurt with the “Missa Solemnis,’’ a notoriously complex piece that “frightens the hell out of conductors,’’ Owens said. Still, he said, “when you tackle it and do it, it’s really incredibly satisfying.’’ Owens is especially fond of the piece’s ambiguous closing moments. “It doesn’t end in this big bang; it ends with question marks. Which I think is a wonderful thing. Because nothing is ever really finished with things spiritual - one’s always searching.’’
Finckel leaving Emerson
One of the music world’s longest-standing chamber groups is undergoing a rare personnel change. The Emerson String Quartet announced this week that David Finckel, the group’s cellist since 1979, will leave at the end of the 2012-13 season. Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han, are codirectors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Music@Menlo. He is leaving to pursue new artistic projects. He will be replaced by the Welsh cellist Paul Watkins.
Finckel, Han, and Emerson violinist Philip Setzer play a program of Mendelssohn trios on Sunday at Jordan Hall; the Emerson plays there on April 27. (Both concerts are part of the Celebrity Series of Boston.)
Beethoven, people’s choice
The Leipzig String Quartet is slated to play an all-Beethoven concert at Gordon College in Wenham tonight. That’s not so unusual. What is unusual is that the group is putting the program out to popular vote. On the college website, people can choose three from among Beethoven’s 16 quartets. The Leipzig will play the top vote-getter in each of the three familiar divisions: early, middle, and late. At press time, the “Harp’’ Quartet (Op. 74) and the A-minor Quartet (Op. 132) led their respective categories.