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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 11, No. 1

Jane Eaglen – The Valkyrie Next Door

by Wah Keung Chan / September 22, 2005

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It 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 Year awards.

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 efforts.

"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 Callas

Favourite Neglected Composer: Benjamin Britten

Favourite work: Wagner Ring

Current Readings: Harry Potter

Current Cell Phone Ring Tone: The Muppets

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