De’Ron McDaniel ’16 has been trying to bring Eric Owens to Oberlin for years. As chair of the Oberlin College Black Musicians Guild—OCBMG, for short—McDaniel wants to promote the work of black male singers, who are largely underrepresented on the operatic stage. And what better example than Owens, an extraordinary bass-baritone whom McDaniel—himself a baritone—has idolized throughout his young career?
This month, McDaniel’s efforts will be rewarded: On Saturday, November 21, Owens will perform an 8 p.m. recital with pianist Myra Huang in Warner Concert Hall. It will be preceded by a master class with Owens at 2:30 p.m. Friday, November 20, in Kulas Recital Hall.
“I’m looking forward to hearing his amazing artistry and for the opportunity to get to know him in the short time he is here,” McDaniel says of Owens, who has performed repertoire ranging from Handel to John Adams in opera houses around the world. At Oberlin, he will showcase his exceptional versatility in a program consisting of pieces by Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Ravel, and Verdi, as well as musical theater.
Singers often specialize in either opera or art song, yet Owens is coveted both as a recitalist and for roles such as the male lead in Porgy and Bess, which he sang at the Lyric Opera of Chicago last season. Owens is best known, however, for his work in opera, including his recent portrayal of the dwarf Alberich in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
“The moment he walked onstage, he had my full undivided attention,” says baritone Jason Goldberg ’16, who saw Owens’ opening-night performance in Chicago. “The way he brought Alberich’s twisted nature out through the power of his voice and interpretation of the text was amazing to watch.” (Goldberg, incidentally, alternated the role of Junius with McDaniel in Oberlin Opera Theater’s fall 2015 production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia.)
Beginning in 2016-17, Owens will begin one of his grandest undertakings yet: performing the role of obsessive king Wotan in a complete Ring Cycle that will span four years at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Owens’ role at the Lyric also extends beyond the stage: As the company’s community ambassador, he visits schools, interacts with students, and advocates for arts education—experiences that make him an ideal artistic mentor for current students such as McDaniel.
With each guest visit it organizes, OCBMG attempts to reserve time for interaction with students—“so we can talk to them as real people,” he says. In addition to bringing to campus artists and scholars like Owens, New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), and Brown University Africana studies professor Tricia Rose (who will be at Oberlin on February 24), the guild exists to create a safe space for black-identifying Oberlin students to discuss being a black musician in a conservatory environment.
McDaniel adds that the guild is not just for black musicians. “We are dedicated to supporting black musicians and the preservation of black music,” he says. “And if you’re interested in promoting that, then we’re for you.”
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