At the Curtis Institute of Music, where faculty members tend to stay for decades, a seismic shift is coming to the school's storied opera and vocal studies department. Eric Owens and Danielle Orlando will assume co-equal roles as head of opera starting in the 2019-20 season, the school announced last week.
The joint appointment pairs an active, worldwide performer with a veteran opera coach and educator. Both have long histories with Curtis.
"It'll be a shared partnership, so we'll be basically the artistic directors of the opera and voice department, which is really great," said Owens, a bass-baritone known for his vivid vocal characterizations at the Metropolitan Opera. "I've known Danielle for many years, and we get along incredibly well, and actually she was there when I was a student and we worked together, so that is the really fun part of it."
With the ink on the deal still wet, neither job has a title yet, and the exact duties and areas of concentration are to be worked out later.
"We both have different performing and teaching experience to bring to the table," says Orlando, often heard locally at the keyboard with singers. "I think we'll both figure out which parts he is more passionate about and which parts I am more passionate about.
"Even our musical history, me as an accompanist and him as a soloist, we both have very strong musical opinions and are collaborators at the same time," she says. "He started to get into teaching alongside of his career, and he is the one who is a success story from Curtis and can bring in a lot of that in terms of working with the students."
The new duo will take over at the end of next season, when Mikael Eliasen, the Danish-born current chief of the Curtis opera and voice department, steps down after three decades.
Having an actively performing singer in the driver's seat augurs at the very least a change in perspective.
"The chief glory of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Rheingold — the first installment of a multiyear enactment of the Ring — is Eric Owens's performance as Alberich, which announces the emergence of a major Wagner singer," wrote New Yorker critic Alex Ross in a 2010 review. Owens's portrayal was "so richly layered that it may become part of the history of the work," Ross wrote.
That performance will be a decade in the past by the time Owens, 47, moves his base from Chicago to Philadelphia and takes up the Curtis job. The Curtis- and Temple University-trained Mount Airy native will continue to perform, but more selectively than before as he approaches 50.
Owens says he sees "going forward being a little more picky. I can envision more concerts and maybe not as many opera productions, but as it stands there are contracts in place at the Met going out several seasons in the future and definitely continuing at Lyric Opera [of Chicago], so I'm not pulling out of the ring. But going forward, we are going to have to find that balance. And, hopefully, it will be an opportunity for me to perform more often in Philadelphia."
What about changes to Curtis Opera Theatre? Because of its partnership with Opera Philadelphia that involves co-productions at the Kimmel — which Owens says will continue — Curtis has a higher profile than many other conservatory opera departments.
Like the Academy of Vocal Arts, Curtis typically has a few standout students each year who are on the cusp of real careers. Tenor Juan Diego Flórez, bass Matthew Rose, and mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham were trained there, and farther back, the school counts Rose Bampton, Anna Moffo, Judith Blegen, Benita Valente, and Margaret Harshaw among its vocal alumni.
It's too early to discuss any changes to the department of between 20 and 25 students, says Owens. Next year's direction — singers, repertoire, and the creative teams assembled for each production — will still represent the work of Eliasen. Future seasons will be mapped out in part in response to the needs and abilities of incoming students for the 2019-20 school year.
But that doesn't mean they don't have some initial hunches about the program.
Orlando points out Owens' love for baroque opera. "We've done a few Handel operas here, and it's always been extremely helpful to the students," says Orlando. "New works, too, he's a champion of new works. These days you have to keep up with that skill set; it can be hard to learn and sing.
"That's an interesting combination, baroque and new works. There will be a lot of discussions about that, I am sure, depending on who is here," she says, meaning which particular students.
Orlando and Owens will work with other Curtis leaders to "craft a game -plan," he says. "Once we are all assembled and in the same city, we can bring forth something more concrete."
His ideas about singing and teaching, though, are fully formed. One eye-opening moment for him as a teacher was watching one of his own teachers with another student — "and he was using a completely different set of terms, so it was not cookie-cutter. It was amazing to see that, and I know that now, that teaching has to be tailor-made to each individual. There is not one proper technique.
"With the instrument being the body, think about the size of the nasal passages, the size of the head, the size of the mouth," he says. "So many things go into finding the perfect fit for the individual."
Student or performer, Owens believes that "at the end of the day, good old-fashioned good singing is what should be first and foremost in their minds."
What does he mean? "That's not to say one should not be good on stage — you definitely need those skill sets. But I think the focus has to be on what defines opera. Because without the sets and costumes, you have a concert opera. Without the music and singing, you have a play, and it's usually a [expletive] one.
"Don't get me wrong," he says. "Opera is definitely a musical theater endeavor, but to have people up there who act well and aren't singing well, that's pointless. That's basically my philosophy. First and foremost get the cake baked, and we'll deal with icing."
Owens' return to Curtis follows in the tradition of scores of others — musicians who started at the school as students, and by virtue of teaching there, either never left or find themselves returning.
"I'm just so excited to come back to Philly and am so proud of what my hometown has become," he says. "The job is a dream job come true for me. It's so wonderfully redundant."