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Lyric Opera’s ‘Ring’ cycle a perfect fit for Eric Owens

Opera singer Eric Owens, starring as Wotan in the Lyric Opera's upcoming production of "Das Rheingold" is photographed at the Civic Opera House on Sept. 23, 2016. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Nothing reigns more supreme in the opera world than Richard Wagner’s massive, 15-hour set of four operas – “Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung),” which interweaves German and Scandinavian folklore and brings together gods, heroes and mythical creatures.

“It’s this epic saga that takes four operas to tell the story,” said famed bass-baritone Eric Owens. “We don’t have that in any other singular work. It’s this big puzzle of all these pieces put together. And when you have something like that, it always creates a sort of a cult following. I liken it to being a Trekkie.”

‘Das Rheingold’

6 p.m. Oct. 1, with five subsequent performances through Oct. 22

Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets, $34-$299

Info: lyricopera.org

Owens has performed the role of the dwarf, Alberich, in recent “Ring” cycles at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Germany’s Deutsche Oper Berlin. But he is taking on the towering role of Wotan, king of the gods, for the first time as Lyric Opera of Chicago begins a new “Ring” production with “Das Rheingold,” which runs for six performances Oct. 1 through 22.

“When I think about it, it’s a little unbelievable to me,” Owens, 46, said, “because it wasn’t like Wotan was part of the master plan or anything. It kind of evolved of its own accord. The ‘Ring’ at the Met was the first Wagner I’d ever done and it was well received and so people started thinking of me in these terms.”

Because of the huge outlay of time, money and resources that a production of the “Ring” cycle requires, only large companies can typically afford to mount them, and even they do so only infrequently.

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Lyric Opera staging 2 epics in 1 season

Lyric Opera has presented concentrated “Ring” cycles (three complete performances in three weeks) just twice previously in 1996 and 2005. As in those cases, it will again mount one of the four operas each season through 2020 and, then, following the regular season that year, it will perform the entire cycle three times in three weeks.

Eric Owens photographed at the Civic Opera House on Sept. 23, 2016/ | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times
Eric Owens photographed at the Civic Opera House on Sept. 23, 2016/ | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

“By the time we do the whole cycle, it will have been 15 years since we did the last one, and I think that it is quite long enough,” said Andrew Davis, the company’s music director.

The company’s “Ring” performances in 1996 drew critics and audiences from all 50 states and 22 other countries, and the company expects a significant share of out-of-town attendees as well in 2020 for the complete cycles.

The scenery for this David Pountney-directed production was conceived by the late Johan Engels and realized by Robert Innes Hopkins. Not set in any specific time period, it has a kind of Industrial Revolution look with low-tech, mechanical implements and large, pulley-operated puppets depicting the giants.

Among the many challenges of presenting a “Ring” cycle is finding a suitable cast, especially a singer who has the vocal heft, physical endurance and stage presence to portray Wotan. Davis described Owens as a “no-brainer” for the role, calling him a terrific musician and extraordinary theatrical personality.

“I love working with him,” the conductor said, “and he’s got that special kind of aura about him. He comes across very much as a figure of authority, a person of stature and he’s an impressive artist. When he’s on stage, he holds the stage.”

Because Wotan appears in three of the four operas, establishing the arc of the character will be challenging, Owens said, but he’s waiting to see how formidable the rest of the role’s demands will be. “I don’t know yet,” he said, “because ‘Rheingold’ is the easy one of the three. We’ll see.”

In 2014, Eric Owens starred opposite Adina Aaron in Lyric Opera’s production of “George Gershwin’s<br>Porgy and Bess.” | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2014
In 2014, Eric Owens starred opposite Adina Aaron in Lyric Opera’s production of “George Gershwin’s
Porgy and Bess.” | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2014

The bass-baritone received earlier offers to perform Wotan in a “Ring” cycle, but this one was the first one he accepted because of the way the Lyric has structured its performances, allowing him to learn the role by doing one opera a season.

“To do something as daunting as this for the first time,” he said, “I need to get to know them one at a time really well without the distraction of the others. Once we get to the cycles here, it will feel a little more natural because I’ve gotten them all under my belt.”

In fact, the singer moved from New York City to Chicago two years ago specifically to prepare for this “Ring.” “I thought to myself, doing this for the first time, when I go home from a rehearsal or a performance, I want to go home. I don’t want to go to some corporate apartment with a crappy bed.”

Owens, who has performed in such previous Lyric productions as George Frideric Handel’s “Hercules.” John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” and “George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” is beginning to think of the company as home. “There is an incredible warmth that makes up for the winters,” he said with a laugh. “Definitely, the people here feel like family. So, it’s wonderful.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.