Jane Eaglen – The Valkyrie Next Doorby Wah Keung Chan
/ September 22, 2005
was a working summer for Brit Jane Eaglen. The pre-eminent Brünnhilde of her
generation clocked into work in June for the summer's hottest ticket, Seattle
Opera's three consecutive presentations of Wagner's Ring Cycle. Two
months of rehearsals later, the Seattle Ring opened to favourable
reviews with Eaglen garnishing her share.
Singing Brünnhilde is not an easy feat. Of all the
roles in Wagner's momentous four opera Ring Cycle, the heroine,
Brünnhilde, is undoubtedly the most demanding, requiring the stamina to sing
three operas over five nights, the vocal power to withstand the Wagnerian
orchestration as well as the emotional sensitivity to give full breath to the
drama. Great Brünnhildes of the past include Frida Leider, Kirsten Flagstad and
Birgit Nilsson. Today's hope is Jane Eaglen, who stepped into the 2005 Seattle Ring
on the heels of a March run of the Chicago Ring.
Although Eaglen has sung the Ring many times,
this time around it's different due to the long rehearsal period (in her home
turf of Seattle as a bonus!), and because she is working with director Stephen
Wadsworth in a reprise of the 2001 Seattle Ring. "This time around it's
more satisfying dramatically," said Eaglen.
Wagner is special for Eaglen. "I was born to sing
Wagner," Eaglen remarked. Early opinions shared that sentiment. "I studied
piano at age 5 and, at one point, wanted to be a pianist or conductor. My piano
teacher suggested that I study singing and after a couple of lessons, I was
hooked!" After a year of lessons with a local teacher who heard a Norma and
Brünnhilde voice in her, she auditioned but was not accepted to London's
Guildhall School of Music.
As an eighteen year-old, Eaglen auditioned at the
Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Joseph Ward recognized her
potential, and took Eaglen on as a student. "He believed in the body taking
time to develop enough strength," recalled Eaglen. "I didn't have much of a
voice at that time, but he knew that it would take time." Within weeks, Ward
directed her toward roles such as Norma and Brünnhilde. "He spotted four or
five notes in the middle of my voice that sounded like something", Eaglen
remembered. "He believed that I'd sing the operas of Bellini and Wagner
eventually, so we might as well begin learning the music and the styles. We
worked on bits from Bellini and Wagner, but it was only the bits I could sing -
lines from 'Casta Diva' from Norma or Sieglinde's music from Die Walküre,
but without the high notes."
The high notes eventually came. What was the key to
her development? "We worked on a bel canto method. Ward believed that we sing
with the entire body. The chords and breath have to be supported with the
muscles of the body. We developed the diaphragm to lean on the breath.
Highnotes and singing soft require more intensity. Singing an opera is like
running a marathon. When I give master classes, I want to leave the student
with the sense that singing is hard physical work. Many singers don't sing with
their entire body."
In 1984, after four years under Ward's careful
nurturing, Eaglen joined the English National Opera singing support roles. Her
breakthrough finally came when she played Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni
with the Scottish Opera, where she also took on Tosca and Norma.
The British diva is particularly fond of the city of
Seattle. In January 1994, Eaglen stepped in at the last minute for Carole
Vaness at the Seattle Opera's production of Norma, and caused great
excitement. Live recordings of her subsequent Norma, released on Opera d'Oro
and EMI, were received with equall enthusiasm. Speight Jenkins, director of the
Seattle Opera, acted quickly, "A few days after Jane Eaglen made her
unscheduled American opera debut in Seattle, I asked her if she would sing
Isolde. She eagerly agreed. I then asked Ben Heppner if he were ready to take
on Tristan." Canadian heldentenor Heppner soon came onboard, and both singers
made their triumphant debut performances at the 1998 summer production of Tristan
und Isolde, which was the highlight of that year. The "Ben and Jane"
show continued on to the Metropolitan Opera in 1999 (where it was filmed and
shown on PBS) and to Chicago in 2000. Meanwhile, Eaglen's portrayal of
Brünnhilde began at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1996, repeating the role in
the summer of 1999 with the San Francisco Opera and in the spring of 2000 with
the Metropolitan Opera, before returning to Seattle for the 2001 Ring.
That same year, she married Seattle Opera volunteer Brian Lyson, and the couple
has made Seattle home. Since then, she has been regularly engaged at the
Seattle Opera, including the role of Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, the
title role of Puccini's Turandot, and the title role in Richard
Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. She has won two Seattle Opera Artist of the
On recordings, there is an extensive catalogue of
Bellini, Wagner and Puccini releases to Eaglen's credit, but an anticipated
recording of Tristan und Isolde is on ice due to industry uncertainties.
How she approaches Bellini and Wagner has been a favourite question of
interviewers. "I sing Wagner in an Italian way, rather than sing Italian music
in a German way. You approach music singing lines and phrases. In the past,
Frieda Leider and Lilli Lehmann performed both Italian and Wagner."
Nevertheless, it's hard not to be typecast now as a Wagnerian soprano given
that the demand is great. Always looking for new challenges, Eaglen has dropped
Turandot. "I find it unsatisfying, singing loud for 18 minutes and just
standing and pointing." A move to comedy with Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus
will follow an enjoyable experience doing Richard Strauss's Ariande auf Naxos
in Seattle. On the dramatic end, Eaglen is scheduled for a Verdi Macbeth
at the Vancouver Opera in September 2006, a role she has previously avoided. "I
won't sing it vulgar. I'll sing it bel canto with drama in the voice."
Eaglen's achievements have recently been recognized
with an honourary doctorate at McGill University last June. During her
convocation address, Eaglen's noted that classical music energizes and
stimulates like no other form of music. "I believe that all of us need our
entertainment in whatever form that takes, and as providers of such, we should
be proud to hopefully be able to make other people feel better because of our
"I know that I work better if I have other things in
my life...MY form of entertainment. For me, that involves baseball, cheering
for the Seattle Mariners, which is often a futile exercise, going to movies,
reading, and even watching American Idol. All these things give my mind a rest
from what I need to focus on when I go to work. Until fairly recently I also
listened to a tape which I called my 'warm-up tape' which consisted of various
songs by Meatloaf, Whitney Houston and Bonnie Tyler. I would sing along in the
shower while getting ready to go to the theater and really it is to warm up,
but it also put me in a good mood and got my energy going. There is nothing
like belting out 'Holding Out for a Hero' to get you ready to save the world as
Brünnhilde. This was MY entertainment and prepared me for my work.
"I was lucky enough to meet and become friends with
the late, great actor, Roddy McDowell, and once had a similar conversation with
him. As is often said in our business, 'it's not brain surgery' and he said,
'you are right it's not. But the brain surgeon comes to hear a concert, or an
opera or a recital and feels better for having done so, and then can do a
better job the next day at saving people's lives, and that makes what we do
absolutely worthwhile.' " *
Jane Eaglen sings the role of Sieglinde in Act I of
Wagner's Die Walküre with the McGill Symphony Orchestra conducted by
Alexis Hauser on the occasion of the opening of the new music building at
McGill. McGill voice teacher Stefano Algieri sings Siegmund and Joseph Rouleau
is Hunding. Septemer 30, 2005, 8 p.m., (514) 842-2112.
Favourite Singers: Birgit Nilsson and Maria
Favourite Neglected Composer: Benjamin
Favourite work: Wagner Ring
Current Readings: Harry Potter
Current Cell Phone Ring Tone: The Muppets