Jane Eaglen shares her passion for performing
August 17, 2006
Being the typical diva – demanding, the center of attention, possessor of the biggest, most powerful instrument onstage – was about the last reason for Jane Eaglen to become an opera singer.”I never thought I wanted people to look at me,” said Eaglen, over a beverage at Zélé Café. “I just thought I wanted to give people something. At 3, I was asked to recite a poem at church. And I did; I said I’d love to do it. There was something natural about getting out there and performing, somehow.”Eaglen has become among the biggest of divas, in the best sense of the word. The 43-year-old soprano, a native of England, is renowned for her portrayal of Brünnhilde from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. The cycle is complex, with its depiction of power struggles between the mythical gods, and massive, typically performed as three five-hour operas over five nights. The role of the warrior daughter Brünnhilde, which Eaglen first sang in 1996 with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, is the height of dramatic opera, and was raised to an even higher level by the 20th-century Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson. In the Aspen Festival Orchestra performance last Sunday, which concluded with the “Immolation” scene from “Götterdämmerung,” Eaglen embodied the power and hugeness of the role. Eaglen, who has lived in Seattle the past seven years, repeated the role of Brünnhilde in Chicago in 1999, and performed it at the Metropolitan Opera in 2000.Eaglen has come to embrace the grand scale of Wagner, the “Ring” cycle and Brünnhilde. “I love Wagner,” said Eaglen, whose Aspen debut last week also included singing the final scene from Strauss’ “Salome” and conducting a master class. “I love Brünnhilde with a passion. I sort of jokingly say, she’s like me, a big farm girl. There’s something about the character I love; every time I do the role, I find something new. Nothing I’ve come across equals being a part of that music, a part of that Wagner.”Stepping backIn a rare scheduling move, Eaglen appears again Sunday, Aug. 20, with the Aspen Festival Orchestra – and a chamber orchestra, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the Colorado Children’s Chorale and tenor Anthony Griffey, all under the baton of Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman. It is a concert, the last of the festival season, that matches Wagner for size. But the emotional mood of the concert will be far removed from the grandiosity of “Götterdämmerung.”In the finale of a season that was presented under the thematic banner Celebrations, Eaglen will sing the soprano part in Britten’s War Requiem. The piece presents an emotional reality that should be close to the hearts of listeners. The War Requiem was commissioned for the reconsecration of the Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by Nazi Germany; it debuted in 1962, the year Eaglen was born. Though Eaglen grew up with Britten’s music, and tenor Joseph Ward, the only teacher she has ever had, was intimately involved with Britten’s opera in the composer’s own time, she has never performed the War Requiem before.
The piece, about the regret of war, is very much in tune with the times. But Eaglen says getting swept away by the emotions is to be avoided. She will approach it much as she would Brünnhilde.”I think with this role – and this is a role – you have to take a step back,” she said. “You go to a place where you’re feeling the emotions, what the composer’s trying to say. But you have to convey that emotion to the audience. You have to step back, and have that feeling for the audience.”As a performer, you get swept away by those emotions. You can get very affected by it. The ‘Immolation’ scene – that’s my five minutes of desert island music, my favorite music ever. If I didn’t step back, I can get very affected by it. I have to be careful not to break down, because I’m then not singing. I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do.”A singer is bornIn and around Lincoln, the small town in England’s eastern Midlands where she was raised, Eaglen is far from a diva. In fact, people there know her less as an opera star and more as “Ron Eaglen’s daughter,” she says.Eaglen was born into a family where sports counted far more than music. Her father, Ron, who died when Eaglen was 10, was a local cricket and soccer legend, who founded all the soccer leagues in the area. It was a neighbor who sang in a lot of amateur productions that told Eaglen’s parents of Jane’s musical promise.Eaglen started on piano, and performed passably but not exceptionally. And not only did she lack surpassing skills, she didn’t have the requisite devotion.”That five hours of practicing a day wasn’t fun,” she said. But singing was instantly fun, and when Ward, her vocal teacher, told her, at the age of 17, that she should only practice 15 minutes a day, Eaglen was enticed.”I’d always liked performing,” she said, “and this brought together the performing aspect with the musical aspect. The whole idea of getting out there and performing, that drew me to it. I’ve always loved communicating. My dad always gave after-dinner speeches, and it’s another side of that coin. My friends will tell you I can talk forever.”
Eaglen said she knew nothing about the art or the life she was getting into. When she entered the Royal Northern College of Music, all she knew was piano and symphonic music. Ward, however, recognized quickly what Eaglen was destined for. “He spotted right away, said I would sing Wagner,” said Eaglen. “He sent me to listen to the [Georg] Solti ‘Ring,’ with Nilsson singing Brünnhilde. And I was hooked.”Eaglen’s Brünnhilde has crowded out the other roles she has sung. She has frequently sung Mozart in her debuts; her first major opera role was as Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Scottish Opera. The title role from Bellini’s “Norma” has also become a signature for Eaglen. She has sang Michaela in Bizet’s “Carmen,” Fiordiligi in Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte” and the title role in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Eaglen continues to expand her repertoire; upcoming roles include “Tosca” in Japan and “Lady Macbeth” in Vancouver, her debut in each role.”I’ve sung roles nobody could believe I would sing,” said Eaglen. “But sadly, I think once you sing the really dramatic roles, the Wagner, people think you can’t sing the other roles. They often think the voice isn’t capable of singing other things, that it loses its flexibility. Which I don’t think is true.”A peaceful protestThe season’s first performance by the Aspen Festival Orchestra included Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” composed during the siege of the city in 1941. The piece, with its “Invasion” theme, was intended to capture the visceral impact of war. The season concludes with a different take on battle. Britten’s War Requiem premiered in 1962, 17 years after World War II ended. It was commissioned from Britten for the reconsecration of the Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by the German Luftwaffe. From that remove, Britten, a pacifist, created a particular look at war.”It has both reconciliation and protest in it. And they’re both overt,” said Asadour Santourian, artistic administrator of the Aspen Music Festival. “But the protest is not a rant, not in your sinuses. It’s not loud or angry.”To make the element of reconciliation perfectly clear, Britten asked that the baritone be a German singer, the tenor English, and the soprano Russian. “It was an open gesture of reconciliation, to have all the sides of the war recognized,” said Santourian.For the protest aspect, Britten’s text used both the Latin Requiem Mass, as well as poetry by Wilfred Owen, an Englishman who had died in World War I. “He had written this poetry when he saw his compatriots die in the war,” said Santourian. “He talked about the pity of war: Is it really necessary?
“It’s a very English approach to protest – very poetic, done with words, not loud or angry.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org