Renowned soprano Jane Eaglen joined the NEC voice faculty in 2013 after a career in which she performed Norma, Donna Anna, Turandot, Isolde, and Brünnhilde in the opera houses of La Scala, the Metropolitan, Vienna, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. A devoted teacher and most undiva-like diva, she has quickly become an enthusiastic member of the Conservatory family. When she saw an opportunity to support the building fund for NEC’s Student Life and Performance Center, she conceived the idea of assembling some of her musical colleagues from the 2005 Seattle Opera “Ring” cycle to give a gala benefit performance of “Die Walküre,” Act III. In anticipation of that performance, she chatted about performing Brünnhilde around the world and working with her two admired colleagues, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley and conductor Robert Spano. You can find that interview here. She also shared her thoughts about the art of teaching voice students, some of whom may dream of growing up and singing Wagner.
Q: You studied with one teacher, Joseph Ward, your entire life. Was it always clear to the two of you where you were headed vocally?
A: It was to him. But I had no idea when I went to study with him at age 17, I kind of sounded like a boy soprano, a choral voice. At my audition, he had uncovered notes in my voice that he thought were going to grow into a bigger voice. And after two weeks of lessons with him, he said, “Well, one day you are going to sing Norma and Brünnhilde.” And my response to him, because I had grown up as a pianist and didn’t know much about the operatic literature, was “Is that good?” He said ‘Yes, you should go and listen to these recordings right now.” So he sent me off to the library to listen to the Georg Solti, Birgit Nilsson Ring and the Callas Norma. I was hooked. He could obviously tell something in my voice at a very early age. Now, having had the experience of hearing many young voices and having a career, I can hear in some voices the direction I think they will take. Mr. Ward would absolutely have no doubt in his mind. What was so great about him is that whatever came up at whatever stage of my career, he always gave me the right advice. When I was young, I was offered several projects that were really premature for me. He would say, “Well, I won’t say you can’t do this because I think you can. But whether you should do it, I don’t think you should.” So, I would say, “Then I won’t do it,” because I trusted him.
Q: You have been teaching for several years now. Some of your students must be dramatic sopranos in the making. How do you approach training voices like that? Kirsten Flagstad famously said young singers should stay away from the repertory. Others have said a steady diet of Mozart is not the answer either.
A: It’s a very fine line. Every case is different. Almost the first aria my teacher gave me was Sieglinde’s Der bist du Lenz from Die Walküre, when I was 18 years old. He said, “This is what you’re ultimately going to sing and so you might as well learn the style now.” With bigger voices, one of the most important things is to let them sing. You can’t take away from the sound that a young voice makes. Young singers need to learn to sing at the natural level of their voice. If that happens to be bigger than some, that’s how it is. In teaching these students, it’s all about finding the right pieces. I’m all for doing some Mozart, if that’s appropriate. But that can really get people into trouble too. It’s like that saying: Mozart is too difficult for professionals and too easy for amateurs.
One of the issues these bigger voices often come in with is they have been told since age 18 that they need to sing quietly. So then, they get tight and don’t support properly and develop all sorts of issues you then have to fix. But people will say: they need to be able to sing quietly. And they will be able to. But until you can sing at the natural level of the voice, it’s very hard to do so. I’m not necessarily advocating giving 18 year olds Wagner to sing, but sometimes it makes sense. Singing Der bist du Lenz can be much less damaging for the voice than doing, say, Dovè sono. That’s because Wagner writes long lines and a bigger voice takes longer to get into the breath, to get into the line. And Wagner never requires that you absolutely have to do it until you feel the stretch of the breath. So you never have to slam the cords, you never have to slam the voice. If you sing Wagner properly it can actually be much healthier than lots of other composers. The reason some people get into a tizzy about it is if you don’t have the right voice for it, people try to make the right voice, so they push because they think they have to sing loud.
If there’s one thing my students come away with it’s that Wagner is not loud. If you have the voice to sing it, then you can do it. If you don’t, don’t sing it. When I was about 22, I did a concert with Sir Reginald Goodall, who was a wonderful coach and conductor. We did the Liebestod in a concert for Prince Charles and Princess Diana. During the rehearsal, we got to the big climax and he stopped me and said, “My dear, it’s only marked with two f’s.” And I held that in my mind for the whole of my career. In fact, Wagner almost never wrote louder than two f’s. That should tell you something. He also required a Brünnhilde who could trill, all three Brünnhildes have a trill. So, if he expected a voice that could trill, he didn’t want a voice that was pushed because then you couldn’t trill. It’s more to do with whether the quality of the voice is the right sound for the repertory rather than trying to make it big and heavy which is never how it should be.
For bigger voices, indeed for any voices, it’s important to do some florid music. Coloratura is good to study. It’s just that it’s harder for big voices. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve sung the eight bars of coloratura in Donna Anna’s Non mi dir, I could probably retire to Jamaica. I think I’ve literally sung it a million times. My teacher gave me a Handel piece after the first few weeks I had studied with him, and he told me this is how you practice this piece, these runs. Now you have to go and figure it out. So I locked myself away for two or three weeks and eventually I was able to do it.
I remember being kind of shocked the first time a student said to me he didn’t know how to practice. Practice is what you do to get something perfect. Of course, we’re all human and perfection isn’t possible but you keep trying. So you don’t stop until you get it right. That to me just seems common sense. That tenacity was not something I had with my piano playing but somehow with the singing I felt I have to get this right. I try to instill this determination in my students, but sometimes when I tell my students that I’ve done something a million times they think I’m kidding. No, I’m not. Over the years, it’s that!
I’ve always wanted to teach and I absolutely love it. And I’m really lucky to have some wonderful students. But not only do I teach them how to practice it’s also about how to approach the career. I’ve had experience that not everyone has had, and it’s always felt important to me to pass these things on.
Find out more about Jane Eaglen.