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In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Jane Eaglen’s Battle Cry: In It for the Music

Mar 1, 2017 3:01:13 PM
By Richard Dyer

Jane Eaglen made her American debut with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra in the Hatch Memorial Shell on July 3 and 4, 1992. The soprano had been singing professionally in her native Britain for eight years and stood on the cusp of what turned out to be a major international career.

jane 1.jpgWith the Pops she sang Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry from Wagner’s Die Walküre. On the Espalande, guest conductor John Mauceri called this the most difficult couple of minutes of music ever composed for soprano because it includes two long trills, many octave leaps, eight high Bs and four high Cs. Eaglen dispatched this with confidence and flourish, and when she returned later in the evening to sing “God Bless America,” she looked and sounded as if the Statue of Liberty had burst into song.

She could not possibly have known what was in store for her over the next 20 years or so. She became the most important Wagnerian soprano of her generation, and she also sang the most demanding roles in the Italian repertory as well—Norma, Gioconda, Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco—not to mention Mozart’s Fiordiligi in Così Fan Tutte and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and she did it all of this with some of the world’s best conductors and in the most prestigious opera houses.—For a time she made a “dream team” with the tenor Ben Heppner. She recorded four solo albums for Sony, appeared in 10 complete opera recordings, and preserved a couple of her roles on video. She doesn’t love her recordings——big voices are difficult to record convincingly; the one she likes best is the complete Tosca in English.

In the middle of her second decade at the top, Eaglen began to wind down the hectic pace of her performing career in part because she had started a second career as a busy and successful teacher, first at the University of Washington in Seattle, then at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, and since 2015 at New England Conservatory. Today, she and her husband—they met and married in Seattle, where she became an American citizen—live in Lynn, where they are renovating a large Victorian house which is only half a block from the ocean.

She completed her last Wagner Ring Cycle in Norway in 2008, but Eaglen wants to make it clear that she has not retired from singing. Since moving here she has sung Act 3 of Die Walküre in a benefit concert at NEC, other excerpts from Wagner, including a Rhinemaiden, with the Lexington Symphony, and last summer the Immolation Scene from Die Götterdämmerung with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in the Hatch Shell—completing, if not closing, a circle 24 years after her debut there.

This Season Eaglen is making her debut with Boston Lyric Opera, singing Mother Goose, the madam, in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. This is not a long role, but a colorful one on a stage filled with whores and roaring boys. And Mother Goose gets to bring down the curtain at the close of the scene, which she has already stolen while teaching young, gullible country boy Tom Rakewell the catechism of vice.

(The performances of The Rake’s Progress take place in the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theater on Sunday, March 13 at 3PM and Sunday, March 19, also at 3PM, with two midweek performances on Wednesday, March 15 and Friday, March 17 at 7:30PM.)

In at least two respects this character role completes another circle for Eaglen. For the first few years of her career she mostly sang small roles like the Priestess in Aida, Berta in The Barber of Seville, and the First Lady in The Magic Flute at the English National Opera in London while she worked on her voice and waited for it to mature to the point that she could sing the operas and the roles that were her destiny.

Another connection: she sang her first Die Walküre with Scottish Opera in 1991. A young staff member there, Nicholas Russell, became a friend. Now he is Director of Artistic Operations for Boston Lyric Opera. Last year he called Eaglen with a “weird idea”—and asked her if she would like to sing Mother Goose for BLO. Eaglen was delighted by the offer—only part of one opera in her regular repertory gave her the opportunity to play comedy, and she loved carrying on as she got to do as the flouncing self-important Prima Donna in the prologue to Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

Eaglen recently sat down to talk about the course of her career, her teaching, and The Rake’s Progress in a coffee room after a rehearsal in the Boston Center for the Arts. It was still too early in the process for her to go into much detail about the production, but she did say that Allegra Libonati’s staging will include a non-singing role for Stravinsky himself—and the opera is set in the late 1940s and early 1950s when Stravinsky was composing the opera, which marked a turning point in his career, the end of something and the beginning of something new.

The distinguished libretto was written by Stravinsky’s friends, the great poet W. H. Auden and his companion Chester Kallman, who developed the scenario from the famous series of eight paintings and related etchings created in the 18th century by William Hogarth, so there will also be some Hogarthian detail. “The good characters will live in the 1950s but the bad characters will be in the tradition of Hogarth and the 18th century,” Eaglen explains. “Mother Goose is not that classy a character and there will be some sleazy goings-on, but we haven’t worked out what kind of accent I will have. I thought she should be a Cockney like Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, but that may not work in this setting and with the accents of the others. We’ll have to see…”

Eaglen is delightfully outspoken and informal; she used to tell interviewers that she relaxed by listening to Meat Loaf. Operagoers who remember her as Isolde and Brünnhilde will enjoy experiencing her in a very different kind of role in The Rake.

jane 2.jpgAt 17, Eaglen abandoned the piano in order to study voice, and her first important voice teacher Joseph Ward stayed with her throughout her career. The two remain long-distance friends today—now in his mid 80s, he lives and teaches in Australia. Eaglen was not accepted by an important London music school so she stayed closer to home and enrolled at the Royal Northern College of Music, where she encountered Ward, a baritone-turned-tenor who was in the circle of first-generation performers of Benjamin Britten’s music, and also sang the premiere of one of Michael Tippett’s operas. Collectors may remember him as Sid in the first recording of Britten’s Albert Herring with the composer conducting back in 1964.

Ward heard a roundness and vibrato in some middle notes in Eaglen’s voice that convinced him immediately that her future would lie in Wagner. “At that time I sounded pretty much like a boy soprano except for those few notes.” Eaglen didn’t even reject my impertinent suggestion that she may even have sounded like the young Charlotte Church. “After a couple of weeks Joe said I would grow up to sing Brünnhilde and Norma. I didn’t know anything about opera at that point, so I asked him ‘Is that good?’ My voice very slowly grew out from the middle in both directions, but I was always a true soprano, and I still am. Another thing he thought was very important was to train the voice to move, to learn to sing coloratura. So from the very beginning we worked on phrases from Norma and the Wagner operas and Donna Anna from Don Giovanni—never a whole role or even a whole aria, just phrases. He believed it was impossible to sing Isolde if you couldn’t sing Donna Anna—and later on I would vocalize on Donna Anna before singing Brünhilde and phrases from Brünnhilde before I went on as Donna Anna.”

Most of her early roles were small. “Berta in The Barber of Seville sneezes more than she sings and her main job is to clean up the stage.” Gradually she began to take on larger parts like the Foreign Princess in Dvořák’s Rusalka and Fata Morgana in Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges. Her first sensational success came when she sang Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

An important early encounter for her was with the legendary conductor and Wagner coach Reginald Goodall, who had trained several generations of important British Wagner singers. Eaglen worked only briefly with Goodall who was then very old, but one thing he said has stayed with her ever since.

All Goodall’s protégés called his studio in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden “Valhalla.” It was actually the men’s room for the highest balcony in the theater. “It had great acoustics,” Eaglen recalls. “I had been engaged to sing Isolde’s Liebestod with Goodall as a part of the celebrations surrounding the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981. We got along, maybe because I was born and grew up in Lincoln—and as a child, Goodall had been a choirboy in Lincoln Cathedral. At the climax Goodall stopped me and pointed to the dynamic level Wagner marked in the score. It’s only a double forte, the loudest dynamic marking Wagner ever used. ‘Wagner isn’t loud,’ Goodall insisted, and the voice is always a part of the texture. After the concert, we were presented to Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Goodall was a tiny man but he stood up to Prince Charles who had mentioned the enthusiastic response of the public. Goodall said, ‘We are not in this for the audience; we are in this for the music.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

jane 3.jpgSeattle was the springboard to Eaglen’s American career. She made her debut as a last-minute substitute in Norma and right away the company’s director invited her to sing her first Isolde. She remained connected to Seattle for most of the rest of her career and it was there that she began her teaching career.

Her singing carried her to the great European music centers as well as to the opera companies in Chicago and San Francisco. She sang at the Metropolitan Opera for eight years and about 50 performances in eight operas. Her last performance there was in 2004; it was Die Götterdämerung, an historic afternoon broadcast which brought to a close Texaco’s 64-year history of sponsorship. She also appeared with leading orchestras, and sang with the Boston Symphony both in Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood.

Eaglen never stopped learning new roles; Mother Goose proves she is still willing to do it. There seems to be only one of her roles she never particularly cared for, although she sang it often, and that was Turandot in Puccini’s opera. “Even when I had great colleagues and great conductors and stage directors, I never really enjoyed it. Turandot is not a long role or a sympathetic character; all you have to do is sing high and loud—and stand and point your finger. At the Met there were a lot of stairs on the set and the costume weighed 60 pounds with the headdress adding an extra 20—and the headdress was not always securely attached. I always called it my Excedrin role.”

One almost-accidental engagement turned out to reach the largest audience of Eaglen’s career. In 1995 the film of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility became very popular, and one dimension of its popularity was “The Dreame,” a song performed by Kate Winslet. The text was taken from an Elizabethan poem by Ben Jonson; the music was by Patrick Doyle. The director of the film Ang Lee liked the song so much he wanted a fuller performance to play on the soundtrack during the closing credits. Eaglen learned and recorded the song within 12 hours.

This led to a heartwarming experience 16 years later. In 2011 Eaglen lost the use of her right hand and began experiencing problems of balance. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor which needed to be removed immediately. She arranged to have the eight-hour surgery performed at the Cleveland Clinic, which is near where she and her husband were then living. Fortunately the tumor was benign. In the ICU a friendly nurse asked Eaglen what she did; the soprano replied “I’m a singer.” The nurse responded “I have a favorite song; I listen to it every day. It’s called ‘The Dreame’ and it came from a movie.” “I said, ‘That’s ME.’ The nurse must have thought I was still under the anesthetic, so she had to go home and look at the CD before she believed me. It’s nice to know that something you did can affect people so much.”

Eaglen was sometimes roughed up by the critics, and not every performance, not every role, revealed her at her best. But it is worth insisting that her best ranked with the best of her time. Her stage presence and acting often came in for adverse criticism, but she did act with her voice, which is what matters most in opera. Her voice was powerful but it had a beautiful soft edge and warmth to it; she never screamed and always sang within her resources rather than way out beyond them. She was a direct and honest performer and you always knew what she was singing about, and that it came from the music and from within herself. Many of her roles were superhuman creatures but she found the dimensions of humanity within them. She knew what she was doing, and why.

And that is what she is passing on to her students today. “It is important to learn the rules before you start breaking them,” she says in her common-sense way. “A student has to work at his or her natural level, not beyond it; no one was ever meant to sound like anyone else. If you are 20, you have to sing like a 20-year-old. A big voice should not sound like the voice of a ‘Mozart specialist’—you have to sing with your whole body and with the support and breath in place, and then you can’t hurt yourself. You keep the breath and the voice moving. I try to teach my students other things as well: career management and all the big and little matters I had to learn the hard way. I am grateful for all I learned and I feel it is my responsibility to pass it on.”

 

RICHARD DYER is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.

 

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Images (top to bottom): Soprano Jane Eaglen; Ms. Eaglen (with Junhan Choi) teaching a master classes as a visitor to New England Conservatory in 2012 (photo by Andrew Hurlbut/NEC); making her Seattle debut as a last-minute replacement for the demanding title role in Norma (Seattle Opera archives).

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