Andrew Owens: An American In Munich

| December 6, 2011 | 0 Comments

Photo: Wilfried Hoesl

While touring through Germany in October I had the pleasure of meeting up with a different kind of artist- opera tenor Andrew Owens from Philadelphia, PA. Andrew is currently living in Munich and performing with Bayerische Staatsoper, having just completed a run of the new opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann).

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) is a five-act opera by Jacques Offenbach, first performed in 1881.  E.T.A. Hoffmann, along with his friend and muse Nicklausse, enters a tavern filled with a group of boisterous students, who tease him about his obsession with the local prima donna of the opera, Stella.  Hoffmann then decides to entertain them with tales of his former loves: Olympia, a mechanical doll who appears as human to him when seen through a pair of glasses, Antonia, a girl who dreams of the operatic stage, but suffers from a weak heart and has been forbidden to sing by her father, and Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan.  In each of these acts, Hoffmann’s happiness is compromised by four villanous characters: Lindorf, who wins the heart of Stella.  Coppelius, who destroys the doll Olympia in front of Hoffmann.  Dr. Miracle, who bewitches Antonia into singing, causing her to collapse and die.  And Dapertutto, who steals Hoffmann’s reflection with a magical mirror.

*Interesting tidbit*  In most productions of ‘Hoffmann’, the Villain and Heroine roles are portrayed by multiple singers.  However, for this production, soprano Diana Damrau assumes all of Heroines and bass-baritone John Relyea sings all of the Villains.  This is a new production, directed by famed British director Richard Jones.

How did it come about for you to tour and audition throughout Europe?

I worked with a director in California one summer and when I was back in Virginia he called out of nowhere and asked if I had any plans to go to Europe. He had an agent who was expanding her roster and was looking for tenors, so he set me up with her.  We were in contact, I sent her my stuff and she arranged an audition tour of Europe.

At the time my dad was really sick so it wasn’t the best time to do a tour, and she asked if my hesitation had more to do with time or money.  So I honestly replied “money,” and she went out and found a sponsor that basically footed my tour. It was amazing. At the time I had this contract with a company in Virginia, and I knew if something happened with my dad I’d end up having to leave them anyway, so I called them an explained the situation that I had to break the contract.  They were very understanding, and it left me with all the spring months free.  I went out once to audition at a bunch of [opera] houses over the winter, and then in February I went on a second tour of auditions, where I started to receive offers.  Once those offers came in she officially added me to her roster.  I ended up in Salzberg, Austria for the summer for the Salzberg Festival, which is pretty much the Woodstock of opera.  It’s been held every summer since the 1930s, and the greatest artists in every field come to perform for two months- actors, dancers, singers, etc- in this great immersion of art and culture.  I know people who buy plane tickets and just fly out and hope to get something… I got really lucky.

What’s the difference between auditioning and performing in America versus Europe?

There is a belief in America that a really good way to have a successful career in the States is to get your feet wet in Europe, because there are so many houses here, and what’s more important is they’re funded by the government.  The house in Munich is the most “monied” house in Germany, just because Bavaria happens to be a very rich state.  So they can put on 40 productions a year and a lot of Americans can come here and get a fantastic experience. You come here and work for about two and half years, and then you return home with all this great press behind you and it opens up more opportunities back home.  Trying to work your way up in America is really tough unless you get into one of the really prestigious training facilities, like the Met or Chicago, or you win one of the major competitions.

What was the highlight of this experience for you? Any moment that really stood out?

I would have to say the highlight of my experience was working with artists I’ve been a fan of now for years.  Making your house debut in an opera such as ‘Les contes d’Hoffmann’ with Rolando Villazon and Diana Damrau is like appearing in a film with Al Pacino and Meryl Streep.  I remember being in undergrad and spending hours on YouTube watching their performances, absolutely stunned, and thinking to myself “I want to sing with them!”  They are magnificent singers and performers and above all, wonderful people!  It was an absolute thrill getting to share a stage with them and getting to know them.  I also got to know John Relyea, another singer I’ve admired for some time.  It was great to have another American to be around.  In addition to his talents on the stage, John is a fantastic rock and blues guitarist, so he and I bonded over our love for Seattle grunge bands.

Have you learned anything about the German culture and audiences that you didn’t know already? How were these performances different from shows you’ve done in America?

The audiences are much more reserved here.  In America, they are incredibly generous with applause.  Here, they wait for the entire piece to conclude before clapping.  I’ve attended numerous performances here and they are tough to impress.  However, it is very pleasing to see an opera house practically full every night of the week!  It’s a wonderful reassurance to us singers that our art form is still loved and appreciated.
In general, the Bavarian people are an interesting folk.  They are very kind, but extremely quiet and stand-offish.  It’s kind of startling to be walking through the outdoor markets amidst silence, with people speaking softly.  I often find that I’m the loudest person wherever I go (which I believe was also true in Philadelphia, a very difficult thing to accomplish!)  Another thing, I think the words “excuse me” and “pardon me” are sadly not part of their vocabulary.  I’ve been roughly nudged aside a number of times since being here Regardless, I love it here.  The city is wonderful and I love German culture.

Curtain call.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann will be brought back to the stage again next summer at the Munich Opera Festival, where they construct a summer stage and run two performances of every opera they put on throughout the year for a month and a half, allowing summer visitors another opportunity to see the show.  

Keep an eye out for Andrew Owens as he climbs the rungs of opera houses worldwide.


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Category: Exclusive Interviews

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