in: News & Features

November 23, 2014

Valhalla at NEC


nec-sealSlated to break ground next summer, the first new construction on the New England Conservatory campus since 1959, the Student Life and Performance Center will transform NEC with a new residence hall of 252 beds, dining commons, reunited score and listening libraries, black box theatre/Opera Studio, large and small ensemble rooms with recording facilities, and multiple areas for socializing and meeting. That can only happen, though, with a bit of a push from enthusiastic new contributors who are encouraged to sign up for a gala “Valhalla at NEC” on December 10th featuring a concert version of Wagner’s Die Walküre Act III.

The exciting news is that NEC’s own dramatic soprano Jane Eaglen will be paired with the fine heroic baritone, Greer Grimselsy, and the NEC Philharmonic will be playing under Robert Spano. The festivities begin at 6:00 for high-level contributors and at 7:00 for mere mortals. For more on the production with links to ticket sales, cast and bios, click here.

For this article, Jane Eaglen spoke generously about her musical life. She also recorded a speedy synopsis of Die Walküre Act III. The slightly sped-up recording comes after the break

LE: President Tony Woodcock is so proud of having you on the faculty. What is it about Boston and NEC that attracted you?

JE: I do love teaching and I made a conscious decision that I had traveled for 25 years and just kind of wanted to be in one place a bit more, and get a dog and get to a place where my husband and I could just have a little bit of a calmer life in a way. And so I really did enjoy the teaching but I think really it’s just that there’s great talent here. Some really wonderful voices come through and that’s exciting as a teacher to have that raw talent to work with and hope that you can really develop that is exciting.

So Tony didn’t have to twist your arm too much?

Any move across the country is a big deal. But just the thought of being able to work with such good students is great.

And now, as you are beginning your second year of teaching at NEC, you are also about to make your first performance here in a gigantic benefit. How did it come about?

I happened to mention to Tony, hey wouldn’t it be fun to do the third act of Die Walküre. And about a week later he said, I have a date for that concert. I asked, what, when did this happen? It happened quite quickly but that’s how it came about and to raise money for the school and so on we’ve cast the valkyries from students.


A couple, yeah. Not all of them.

You didn’t have a Wotan among your students?

No. I’m thrilled that Greer Grimsley could come and do that.

Did you ask him? Does he have any connection to NEC?

His wife Luretta Bybee teaches here. Greer and I have known each other for over 25 years. We first met at Scottish Opera when he was doing his first Jochanaan in Salome and I was doing my first? Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte. So we’ve known each other for a very long time and we actually sang together in his first Ring in Seattle.

Eaglen and Grimsley in Seattle Walküre

Eaglen and Grimsley in Seattle Walküre

So apropos of The Ring, how about giving us a preview of Act III of Die Walküre in 30 seconds a la Anna Russell?

Click below for an audio file with the impromptu response.

Now let’s resume with an outline of your musical life from the beginning.

I sang at church and school a little bit because, being musical, I could sort of sing in tune. But it wasn’t until I had done my piano exams in Lincoln in England that I actually thought about singing.

You passed in piano, through?

Yeah I got my certificate at piano when I was 16. And so my piano teacher said well maybe you want to have voice lessons. So I had voice lessons for my last year in high school and very soon after the first couple of lessons decided that’s what I wanted to do.

And the teacher realized there was something special there?

There was a wonderful woman that lived in the next town. It was an hour and a half on the bus every Saturday morning to her studio and an hour and a half back. That was my Saturday. But yes, she prepared me for the audition at the Guildhall School of Music where I was told that I would never be a singer and I should probably go and do something else that was not music because I had no voice. But I think every singer has one of those stories.

Maybe on that particular day you weren’t in your best voice.

Well I was 17 years old and I didn’t sound anything like I have sounded since. I went and auditioned at the Royal Northern College of Music and the teacher who has been my teacher since then basically heard one or two notes in the middle of my voice that he thought had potential and decided he wanted to teach me. Hearing that germ of a sound that might develop into something— that’s what is exciting about hearing young voices. My teacher, having that kind of an ear, after two weeks of lessons, I was accepted and went to the college. After two weeks I still sounded like a boy soprano with a couple of notes somewhere in the middle that worked. But he said to me, one day you’re going to sing Brunhilde and Norma and I didn’t know anything about that, I knew orchestral music and piano music and I said, is that good? And he said, yeah pretty good, you should probably go to the library and start listening to the Ring because you’re going to have to know it at some point. And it’s just amazing to me that he could tell that when I was so young and had so little voice.

And how many years later did you sing your first Ring?

I guess I did my first Brunhilde 12 years later. I was still in my 20s.

That is early isn’t it?

Yeah, but every voice is different and I think it’s very important not to just say you shouldn’t do this because you’re young. Every voice is different and he had me singing Wagner right from the start. He somehow knew that’s what I’d be singing, I might as well start learning the style now. It’s much less damaging if you sing Wagner properly than, for example, Mozart or some of the lighter music, if you have a voice that’s wrong for it.

The thing about Mozart is it’s very immediate on the voice. The thing with Wagner is that if you have a bigger voice, you have time to develop and figure out what needs to be done. But if you try to make the voice do things suddenly when it’s young, you can get into all kinds of problems. That’s not to say that everyone shouldn’t be able to sing Mozart, I mean the bigger voices should be able to sing coloratura music. But you have to kind of approach each voice and kind of let a voice figure out how to sing in a sort of natural state. If it’s loud it’s loud, if it’s a light voice, well then you figure that out and then you add more to it and so on. But people say to young voices, well you’re singing too loud. But it can be much more damaging to sing piano than it is to sing loud.

Because you’re essentially strangling something?

Yes, and because you often don’t support properly. And because you’re coming off your voice so you’re not having the quality in the sound and so on. So it’s important with young voices to have them find their natural level.

So are you able to teach people of any type of voice? They don’t have to be anything like you?

I prefer them not to be really. I have a lot of sopranos here, I tend not to demonstrate to them because I don’t want them to imitate. But if I have a tenor, I can demonstrate because he can’t imitate the sound. So although I try to show some things technically, because of the color of my voice I don’t want a light-voice soprano to try and imitate that without understanding the technique behind it.

Are you expecting singers to have a certain technical proficiency or are you taking people who only have one or two notes like you did when you started?

I have a just-turned-18-year-old tenor here right now, so he was a freshman at 17, and that’s a very different kind of voice from a 30-year-old lyric soprano which I also have. Of course there are going to be different levels but I teach across the range.

I guess what I was asking is, are you teaching them basic techniques of vocal production or coaching repertoire?

Both. With a very young singer, like a freshman coming in, obviously you have to work on technique, but technique goes right through to the end of your career. You’ll never have to stop figuring those things out and you’ll never have to stop refreshing. But at the same time I’ll talk about musical matters and about the style of the composer and interpretive choices. And very often the actual technique behind the voice and the musicality that’s required tie in; they’re absolutely one and the same. So if you do something right technically it’s musically going to be right. The two are not separate. And the great composers knew that and liked to write a phrase in a certain way knowing that technically it’s what a singer needs to do and it’s going to work musically.

But the basic support of the diaphragm is not something instinctive. There’s only one way to teach that and that’s demonstrating it and letting people feel it for themselves.

They absolutely have to feel it, but I don’t think it comes naturally to most people. Some aspects of singing to some people are instinctive and then you have this sort of fine line between—ok you’re young and everything works, but at some point down the line it isn’t all going to work, so you need to know what it is you do even though you do it instinctively. So that’s a fine line to tread sometimes, saying, well this person does know how to sing a floated high now, but maybe when they’re 40 it isn’t going to work, so they need to know how they achieve it. But sometimes people overthink it—well I once could do this and now I can’t—but I still think a singer has to know what it is they do because that’s what technique is for.

And when you’re very young instinctive technique works perfectly. An untrained infant can fill a large opera house, so how is that ability lost in some of us?

That certainly is true. What tends to happen, for example, I sounded like a boy soprano, which is that hooty kind of sound, which was not supported, which had no real focus to it, which was very stuck-in-the-mouth and so on. And what my teacher found was there were a couple of notes that didn’t do that so it was a case of trying to find how to make my support work. I remember one day he said to me, look just stop singing like a boy soprano and sing like an opera singer, and I said, oh, so you want it like this? And I engaged the rest of my body, and he said try what you do in this part of your voice throughout. And so when I was 18, I realized that’s how support works. If I have a new student or if I have a private student or if someone comes to NEC, one of the first questions I ask them is, ok how do you think you support? And most of them say either, I have no idea, or they’ll say, well I breathe low. And I say breathing and support are two different things, now you support your breath but you have to understand how to breathe and how to support and the thing about singing is so much of it is a slightly grey area and there are so many things you can’t actually see, but equally there are a lot of things where if you do it right it’s always going to work. And when you’re on stage in front of 4,000 people that’s a comfort to you. You don’t want to leave things to chance, you want to know if I use this muscle right if I take my breath this and these muscles do what they’re supposed to do it’s going to work. And that’s what I think technique is for and why it’s so important and then it allows singers to become the artists they want to be; it’s really about giving a singer the tools to go and do what they want to do. It’s not about dictating how to sing, you should give your opinions and teach about styles and so on. Ultimately, singers can only become the artists they want to be if they have the tools to work with their individual voice.

Do you find in Boston that there is sort of a bias in favor of early music and that voices like yours are very rare in the world but they’re particularly rare in Boston.

Well I’ve only been here for just over a year and I certainly haven’t found that at NEC. A lot of bigger voices tend to find me. I get e-mails all the time saying, I have a bigger voice, I’ve been told I should come and see you. And I think actually even in the small time I’ve been here there are some bigger voices coming into the school.

I don’t think you have to have a big voice to teach big voices but a lot of people like to study with someone who knows the repertoire or who’s been around Wotans and Siegfrieds and can hear what that is. I think that with bigger voices, and this is true of any voice, you get a certain amount of resonance in your head, which with a smaller voice is less. And sometimes that resonance can feel a bit overwhelming. I have a young singer, soprano, who has an extraordinary voice, it’s a huge, really true operatic voice but she’s young. And she will say sometimes, I can almost not tell the pitch of the note because I have so much sound in my head. I can say to her I know exactly how you feel because I felt that and know how to deal with that kind of thing. I’m not saying you have to have felt that to know how to deal with it, but I think it helps, having experienced something you can help someone else understand it.

Is that why some singers cup their hands—to hear the notes?

A lot of male voices cup the hand to try and listen to themselves, but a singer should never listen to himself because you can sing in a studio or you can sing onstage at the Met and you’re going to sound different, but how you sing should be the same. What’s dangerous is trying to push to make more sound. Pushing your voice is the worst possible thing you can do, the more you try to sing loud, the less loud it becomes because the voice is kind of pressed. So people cup the ear in recordings and I’ve seen people do it for years, though it took me awhile to figure out, oh they’re listening to themselves. A lot of what would happen is a baritone particularly would do this and then their mouth would go towards their ear, and then their hand would go away but they still kept singing out the side of their mouth.

Well some singers onstage, men especially—I don’t think I’ve ever seen women do it, sing out of the side of their mouth.

That’s usually why, because they’re trying to hear themselves. It’s one of the first things most people say to their singers is to never listen to themselves. You hear yourself but you shouldn’t actively listen to yourself.

What about on playback, on a recording?

Well, very few people sound like they do on a recording. I mean there are very few recordings that I have that I feel sound like me.

Do you like what you hear in your head better than what you hear on a recording?

I don’t listen to it. I rely on the sensation. So if I feel a certain sensation or note I know that note’s okay. I know how it’s supposed to feel on my body but I don’t listen to it. And one of the sort of sad things in a sense, I say it to students all the time, you’ll actually never know how you sound. You can never go halfway down a hall and hear yourself. You don’t hear yourself the same on a recording. A lot of people with big recording careers have very small voices, they’re very pure in a sense and so the core of the sound goes straight into the microphone which is great and then engineers can turn knobs—which they like to do. Whereas if you have a voice that has a call to it but a lot of harmonics and sounds rounded, a microphone doesn’t capture that so you miss those on a recording.

Back to big voices versus small voices… you say a big voice shouldn’t try to sound smaller. Is that why opera singers are such terrible lieder singers for the most part?

It shouldn’t, but you have to sing with your voice. You can’t try to make your voice into something it’s not, either way. So if you have a bigger voice you can’t try and make it a small voice, if you have a small voice you can’t try and make it a big voice.

But you can sing sotto voce.


But some people find that difficult?

It’s not just control of the voice or interpretation—with a bigger voice you have to choose your repertoire a little bit. There are some things you probably wouldn’t do on some lieder, but there are plenty of things that should be done.

So some of the more intimate lieder might actually be more tiring or painful to sing than some where you’re able to sing out more of the time?

Young singers particularly should never be holding back the voice. You shouldn’t just be singing loud all the time, but you should be singing on your support and on your breath, allowing the core of the sound to come through.

Are you going to be as comfortable singing Brunhilde with the orchestra onstage as you would with the orchestra in the pit?

Well I’ve done it both ways a million times and it’s definitely difficult with the orchestra onstage because it wasn’t meant to be that way. The 120 people in the Bayreuth pit for which all these operas were written are covered up. The Bayreuth orchestra does its shows in t-shirts and shorts because no one can see them. However, there are lots of times where I’ve done the whole opera with the orchestra onstage. Conductors have to be aware of balance as much as possible and there are just certain things you cannot do, no matter how big your voice is. In certain parts of your range you cannot compete with a massive orchestra.

It’s easier for women in general to soar over an orchestra though.

It’s generally easier for higher voices, so yes, to some extent it’s easier for women. When the notes lie in a high tessitura you can cut through, but the conductor has to be cognizant of the fact that it’s not supposed to be this way. I’ve done the Immolation scene hundreds of times in concert and there are just certain bits in the rehearsal where you just don’t sing, and the conductor says, is that what you’re going to do? And you say, oh yeah I was singing, because you know the orchestra has to come down and they’ve been loud, they’re having a wonderful time, but you learn over the years.

Do you have to ask the conductor to hold back?

With the experience I’ve had of doing all these things so many times I know exactly which places are always dangerous, so I can go and tell them in advance. But they know that, the conductor has done his homework too.

But they hired you because they want the audience to hear you, not because they want to cover you up.

They understand these things but there are these certain bits that are always dangerous.

Although Beecham once famously referred to a second rate singer, “I covered her up out of duty to the audience.”

Right! I’m sure he did.

In Die tote Stadt as a concert opera about a month or so ago in Boston I just felt the singers were compelled to sound more Wagnerian than the composer would have expected. Richard Tauber and Lotte Lehman doing Marietta’s Lied from an early recording seem to have a lot more ease because they were accompanied by a small, comparatively distant orchestra and were standing close to the recording horn; they didn’t have to push. I don’t know whether voices have gotten louder or orchestras have gotten louder. I mean, we expect loud, you go to a Broadway show and it’s horribly amplified and it’s way too loud. Can’t we just cut back on all of this a little bit?

Amplification is a whole different story. The tastes of Broadway and how the sound and even the singing style have changed. But I think voices are the same: there are some big ones and some small. But Wagner has a bad reputation, oh it can wreck voices because you have to sing loud—you don’t. If you have the right voice to sing it, you just sing it, if you don’t have the right voice to sing it then don’t sing it. Because then you do have to push, and any repertoire whatsoever where you have to push you shouldn’t sing.

So if I had a conversation with you after you sang a major Wagnerian role would your voice sound any different than it does now in conversation?

No, in fact, because of the way I was taught to sing and because Wagner really writes well for the voice. I’ve had many people say to me at the end of a Tristan or a Götterdämmerung, “Wow, you sound like you could start all over again.” And I sort of jokingly say, well I could but no one has ever written a big enough check to make me try. But yeah I could sing it all over again.

But I haven’t sung much since my brain tumor three years ago. I don’t sound hoarse. The voice can get tired, but if you sound hoarse then you’re not singing right no matter what happened. Unless you’re sick. But if you’re getting hoarse after a performance something is seriously wrong and you shouldn’t be singing.

Even if it’s a marathon.

Absolutely, even if you do a Ring—you do a different five-hour opera on Tuesday,

Thursday, Saturday and you have to keep going and do it again the next week, because often a company will do like three cycles, so you can do three different operas a week for three weeks, so you have to be able to sing.

jerusalem2Well that would give anyone a brain tumor!

It will after all [laughter]. But I think if you don’t have to push, if the music’s right for you then it’s never going to do you any harm. When I did a Liebestod for Prince Charles and Lady Diana at a concert which was conducted by Sir Reginald Goodall, I didn’t make anything like the sound I would eventually. We had a rehearsal and when we got to the big climax, which is one of the biggest climaxes in opera, he stopped me and said, my dear, it’s only marked with two f’s. And I looked at the score and there were two f’s—double forte. It’s not that loud, it’s not three or four which you can have. At 23, he said, you’re too loud there, you can give less. And that stuck with me all my career. If you have the voice that’s right for it, you just sing it. You don’t have to make it be something that it’s not. It doesn’t need to be that, it’s not intended to be that, and that was very interesting and a very great lesson to learn that young.

Lastly, what was the most vivid awakening you had as a Brunhilde and who was the Siegfried who awakened you most romantically in your years on stage?

I think my favorite was Siegfried Jerusalem, whom I had admired since I was a student. I actually took a day off school to go down to London and see him do a recital. He was my first Siegfried which is like your first kiss, it’s really special. And so I actually told him when we were about to start the scene, you know it’s really an honor for me to sing this with you because I’ve been such a fan. He was such a lovely colleague and I just really adored working with him, and he’s not an unattractive man so it wasn’t too horrible being woken up by him [laughter].

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