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Jane Eaglen: Miss Isolde Talks Shop


“Miss Isolde,” thus the legendary Sir Reginald Goodall addressed the young Jane Eaglen 37 years ago at the first rehearsal of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for one of the very last concerts he would conduct. During our recent lunch, “Miss Isolde” (Eaglen) said that Sir Reginald never called singers by their proper names, instead using the names of the characters they were studying, rehearsing or performing.

“That is way too loud. Look at the score; there are only two ff’s, Wagner never asks for more than that.” Eaglen still has vivid memories of that rehearsal and that concert ― among other things Prince Charles and Princess Diana were in the audience and she got to meet them. The ovations were tremendous and Sir Reginald was reluctant to reappear. “No Miss Isolde,” he said, “it’s all for you.”

It was a decade before Eaglen was ready to sing her first complete performance of Tristan, but she was mindful of Goodall’s advice then and in the subsequent years when she was one of the world’s major Wagner singers. One of the remarkable things about her during her prime years was that she always sang within her voice, unlike others who were pushing far beyond their instruments. Now that she is training young singers, she is bringing her extensive knowledge of Wagner to new generations.

She joined the faculty of New England Conservatory in 2013 has served for several years as president of the Boston Wagner Society, under whose aegis she has developed an annual  Boston Wagner Institute, which is about to embark on its third and most ambitious schedule yet. Nine potential Wagner singers will converge on the Boston Conservatory at Berklee July17th – 29th for a series of master classes, coachings, lectures, and staging rehearsals. There will be five sopranos, two mezzos and two tenors chosen through video auditions; most of this international group are still in their early 30s. Eaglen regrets that no suitable baritones signed up this year. Joining her on the faculty will be tenor Ben Heppner (the most convincing of Eaglen’s Tristans), the mezzo soprano Renee Tatum, who has appeared nearly 100 times at the Metropolitan Opera over the last decade (she recently sang her first Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal at the Vienna State Opera), and the baritone Mark Delavan, with whom Eaglen sang Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. The musicologist Helen Greenwald will lecture on “Wagner in Today’s World,” and Carol Kasemark, a voice pathologist affiliated with Mass. General Hospital, will speak on maintaining vocal health. Danielle Wright serves as stage director, and Brett Hogdon and Robert Mollicone will act as pianists and coaches and will accompany the culminating concert of seven key Wagner scenes in Seully Hall on July 29th. The scenes include the opening of Die Götterdämmerung with the Three Norns (Eaglen’s very first studio recording was of the Third Norn in Bernard Haitink’s recordings) followed by the Dawn Duet for Brunnhilde and Siegfried and the Brunnhilde/Waltraute scene. Other selections will include the Elsa/Ortrud scene from Lohengrin, the Siegmund/Sieglinde scene from Die Walküre, Senta/Erik duet from Der Fliegende Holländer, and the Isolde/Brangane scene that opens Act Two of Tristan.

A few events are closed and private, but many are open to the public for an admission charge of $10.00 or $20.00. Admission to everything is free to students and members of the Boston Wagner Society ($50 a year, $75 for a couple). Permission is required to attend staging rehearsals ― Eaglen is concerned about overcrowding the rooms.  See the complete schedule HERE.

At that lunch a few days ago, Eaglen spoke at entertaining length about her career and her goals for the Institute; it was clear that much of what she had to say she will expand on with the younger singers in the Institute.

To this day Eaglen echoes Goodall and recoils when students or other singers or members of the general public expect Wagner singers to be loud. “No, no, no,” she says. “If you have the voice for Wagner, you never need to sing loud, you never want to force. You know what that leads to. And if you do not have the voice for it, there’s no way you can make it right for Wagner.”

Eaglen still sings a little ― just a few weeks ago she sang Träume, the last of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, at a Boston Wagner Society event in the Boston Public Library. But she says she doesn’t particularly enjoy singing anymore although her crusading spirit remains intact.

Eaglen admits she didn’t know much about Wagner back when she was a teenager. She was focused on her keyboard studies until her piano teacher suggested she should study voice for a while. After a false start with someone who wasn’t helpful and a couple of rejections from music schools, Eaglen found her destiny with the British tenor and pedagogue Joseph Ward. In their first encounters, Ward heard something in the way her voice produced a couple of pitches in the middle range that told him she had potential. He suggested that she listen to recordings of Wagner’s Ring and Bellini’s Norma. “What are they?” she asked, but she did what she was told to do and grew excited at what she was hearing. Slowly the two of them began to develop her voice outward in both directions from the middle — one of the ways she prefers to teach voice. She bridles when people tell her she has no business assigning Sieglinde’s “Du bist der Lenz” to young singers. “No, I’m not assigning the complete role of Sieglinde and urging someone to perform it in a big theater. That music is only 49 measures long and almost entirely in the middle voice. The point for a young singer is to grasp the style and learn how to sustain the line.”

Eaglen joined the English National Opera in London when she was 23, initially singing supporting roles and later bigger ones, always in English. Catherine Peterson, director of Arts Boston, recalls her hilarious performances as the surly servant Berta in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Seviglia. She sang Eva in Die Meistersinger, Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Donna Elivra in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, all of them in English, which made it comfortable for her to record Tosca, Aida, and Turandot in English in later years. Her piano skills stood her in good stead, and she taught herself all of her roles at the piano; today she loves to accompany her students. “The real pianists work to play all the notes, incorporate all the orchestral parts; I make no effort to do that ― the advantage I have is that I know how everything goes!”

In 1992 she sang her first Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre at Scottish Opera under the direction of conductor John Mauceri and later made her American debut with Mauceri and the Boston Pops in front of the Hatch Shell on the 4th of July that same year. She sang Brunnhilde’s Battle Cry, which Mauceri described as the most difficult entrance music in all of opera because of its trills, octave leaps, and repeated high C’s. At the end of the program she sang “God Bless America,” looking and sounding as if the Statue of Liberty had burst into song.

Before very long she was singing complete Ring cycles in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as well as at La Scala and in other European venues, and for the better part of two decades was a reigning Wagner soprano singing Isolde, Senta, Elisabeth, and Ortrud in addition to the three Brunnhildes. She never sang a complete Sieglinde, but did sing the role in concert performances of Acts 1 and 3. She also sang a host of other roles including Turandot (“It’s only 17 minutes of singing, but Liu always steals the show, so I never liked it”), Madama Butterfly, Tosca, La Gioconda, Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Norma became particular favorites.

Eaglen believed, along with her teacher, that singing florid music is essential for keeping the voice flexible, fleet and in tiptop shape. She conservatively estimates that she has vocalized the treacherous closing fast section of Donna Anna’s aria “Non mi dir” “more than a million times.” These challenging measures were one of her warmup exercises before every performance of Donna Anna — or any other role. On a recent panel with two prominent Brunnhildes of a subsequent generation, she confessed that before going out to fling out the Battle Cry at the opening of Act 2 of Die Walküre, she always sang it in the dressing room pitched up a whole tone. The other two sopranos were aghast ― “you did that!” one of them exclaimed, but Eaglen just laughed and replied, “I needed to know it was securely there before I went onstage to sing it!”

Eaglen believed that the primary task of a Wagnerian singer was to act with the voice; leaping from rock to rock wasn’t her thing. She also speaks today of how important it is to listen and react. “All Brunnhilde does in Die Walküre is listen to the other characters ― and learn from them. She assimilates it all and grows, becomming the magnificent woman who appears in Siegfried and Die Götterdämmerung.

Eaglen does not have a high opinion of the quality and caliber of a lot of today’s Wagner singing, and it is difficult to disagree with her. It also informs her philosophy of teaching and her belief in the importance of her Wagner Institute and its potential for continuing growth. She does laugh at how much detailed work it has entailed: securing a venue, engaging artist teachers, choosing students, arranging lodgings, meeting flights, updating the websites and the thousands of other things she feels she needs to do.

Eaglen and Grimsley in Seattle Walküre

She’s lived in New England for only a decade, but she’s fully aware of the rarity of Wagner performances here. In Boston, the last fully staged Tristan und Isolde, one of the key works in the history of music, took place in 1951, although the Boston Symphony Orchestra scheduled concert performances of Act 2 a few times. Decades ago Erich Leinsdorf conducted Lohengrin at Tanglewood and recorded it afterwards in Symphony Hall; at the time it was the most costly opera recording ever made, and one that never made back the initial investment. I can remember only one complete Wagner Ring in Boston. Forty years ago the Boston Lyric Opera made a plucky effort in the unlikely venue of the Blackman Auditorium at Northeastern University. The performances had stronger elements than anyone could possibly have expected, although the cast was hardly the equal of the previous Boston Ring on the Met’s 1937 tour with legendary singers like Flagstad, Melchior, and Schorr. The Boston Symphony has done a complete Der Fliegende Holländer and so did the Boston Lyric, both with mixed results. Sarah Caldwell produced Die Meistersinger and Der Fliegende Holländer (twice in different seasons), and the Met tour did a very heavily cut Die Meistersinger in Hynes Auditorium. Benjamin Zander conducted Act 3 of Siegfried with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and Bernard Haitink conducted Act 3 of Die Götterdämmerung with Eaglen before she had performed the entire opera. James Levine did an eventful Wagner program with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Ozawa Hall. Eaglen sang Act 3 of Die Walkure with Greer Grimsley for a fundraising event at NEC a few years ago.

The sum of all this has not been enough to lift Boston above the level of the town that didn’t bother with Wagner—too often because it didn’t want to pay the price. But Jane Eaglen is doing what she can. Sometimes frazzled by all the detailed work in planning, she also believes her efforts and those of the Boston Wagner Society will reward the trouble, and she’s looking forward to the Institute with characteristic gusto. It’s obvious that she can’t wait to get to work with Miss Isolde, Miss Brunnhilde, Miss Waltraute, Mr. Siegmund and Mr. Siegfried, not to mention those Norn girls.

Readers might also enjoy publisher Lee Eiseman’s 2014 interview with Eaglen which includes an audio of her spontaneous narration of Die Walküre Act III. HERE

Richard Dyer wrote about music in the Boston Globe and elsewhere between 1973 and 2006. Since then he has been active teaching, speaking, writing program notes and podcasts, doing jury duty on music competitions, and still trying to learn more about music. In 2006 he vowed never to write another concert review again, and he hasn’t.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I think I heard  that early Liebestod mentioned since I heard her sing the Liebestod 21 DEC 1986 at an English National Opera Gala at the London Coliseum.  It was conducted by Reginald Goodall though other conductors conducted other parts of the program.  Princess Alexandra was the official Royal in a box with Lord Goodman, the Gala honoree. I was in the crowd for her official American debut on the Boston Charles River Esplanade 4 JUL 1992, but I had heard her previously as the Lady Ella in the G & S Patience in a JUN 1984 ENO tour to the NY Met.  Later that year I heard her Foreign Princess in Rusalka in London.  She is a singer who has happily stayed in my memory from first hearing.

    Comment by Dennis Milford — July 7, 2023 at 1:46 pm

  2. In addition to the other local Wagner performances listed in the article I would add the April 1972 Boston Symphony performance of the 2nd act of “Tristan und Isolde” conducted by William Steinberg and featuring Eileen Farrell, James King and Nell Rankin.
    I had the good fortune to attend the live concert and was thrilled to discover that someone had posted it on YouTube.

    Comment by Jim m — July 8, 2023 at 10:27 am

  3. Agreed that the BSO hasn’t been very successful in grabbing the Ring, but the Henry database lists 4560 performances of Wagner’s music…many of these, of course, overtures and orchestral selections. The BSO’s first decade alone witnessed 500 Wagner selections, including many with singers. Indeed the orchestra’s first conductor, Georg Henschel sang in several performances. More recently, got to hear Tristan and Isolde Act II: with Eileen Farrell and James King in 1971, with Camila Nyuland and Jonas Kaufmann in 2017, and with Jesse Norman and Jon Vickers in 1981. And then there’s the Liebestod’s 332 performances, beginning with Lilli Lehman in 1885 and concluding somewhat sadly with Kristine Opolais in 2015. Along the way Jessye Norman, Eileen Farrell, Michelle De Young, and Hildegard Behrens also sang it.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 8, 2023 at 12:02 pm

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