CHICAGO–Professional opera singer, Eric Owens said he enjoys his role as an ambassador for Chicago’s Lyric Opera because it gives him the opportunity to meet with students, especially those of color.
On Monday, he sat in a freshmen vocal class at Chicago High School for the Arts, 2714 W. August Blvd., which consisted of predominately African Americans. The students had the opportunity to sing for Owens and two were brave enough to perform a duet. The Philadelphia native, Chicago transplant offered constructive criticism, as well as advice for the entire class. That’s what he tries to do whenever he’s meeting with students, he said, but it’s not all serious. He actually laughs with them and asks them questions about their lives.
“With me it’s about imparting some wisdom just because I’ve been around longer than they have, but it’s really just about having a conversation and getting to know them,” he said.
However, the class was less interested in talking about themselves and more interested in participating in an Q&A with Owens. They asked him what challenges he encountered when he broke into the industry. They asked him if he listened to more than just classical music, to which he responded, “Yes, I listen to 70s R&B and Blues, music before your time.”
Before leaving, Owens stressed to the class of attentive listeners that learning never stops and that they will always be students. He said he’s still a student himself. He also recommended that the ones who are truly serious about becoming professional performers start practicing in front of friends and strangers.
“You don’t learn to perform unless you’re performing,” he said.
Later on, while sitting down with The Chicago Defender, Owens described his entry into the performing arts arena as a “slow start.”
“I broke down the walls by pulling brick after brick,” he said.
“I didn’t break in, I kind of rang the doorbell until I ignored the hell out of them,” Owens said.
As an African American male he said he is a minority in the opera circle.
“I’m sort of Bigfoot hanging out with the Easter bunny,” he said as he laughed with his deep baritone voice.
Even still, he admitted that there have been some small improvements. He believes it’s important for minority students to not let the race factor hold them back from reaching their goals. His advice is for them to sharpen their skills.
“You have to get your craft and your art to the point where you will not be denied,” he said, but he admitted that it won’t always work.
Owens said that young performers need to ask themselves one question when faced with a potential race issue.
“If someone doesn’t want you there because of race, is that a place you want to work at?”
“And if it’s a place that’s considered like the brass ring to the world at large, well the person who’s making the decision now is not going to be there forever,” Owens said, adding that over the years he probably was denied jobs because he’s Black, but there is no sure way to tell.
He said that he didn’t have to think about that in one of his current performances, “Porgy and Bess,” which he stars in. The cast is all Black. There are only two shows left, Thursday at 2 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at www.lyricopera.org.