Jane Eaglen Speaks About Wagner and Brünnhilde

On December 10, New England Conservatory will reunite three of the artists from the Seattle Opera’s critically praised 2005 Ring cycle in An Evening in Valhalla, a concert performance of Act 3 of Die Walküre. Soprano Jane Eaglen, a member of the NEC voice faculty, will sing the role of Brünnhilde; Greer Grimsley, Wotan; and Robert Spano will conduct the NEC Philharmonia. Additional roles will be sung by NEC opera students. This gala performance will benefit NEC’s Student Life and Performance Center, scheduled for groundbreaking in the summer of 2015 and opening in 2017 to coincide with the Conservatory’s 150th anniversary. In anticipation of the event, Ms. Eaglen chatted about performing Brünnhilde, working with her two much admired colleagues, and teaching voice students who may dream of growing up and singing Wagner.

Q: How did this Wagner evening come about? It was your idea, wasn’t it?

A: I think I sort of mentioned it, half joking, thinking it would never happen. It would be a big project to pull off. I mentioned it to Tony [NEC President Tony Woodcock]. The next thing I knew he said, “We have a date for the concert.”

Q: Did you persuade Greer Grimsley to perform it with you?

A: Well, we both thought it would be great—if Greer was free to do it. He’s performing a lot these days. He and I have known each other for 30 years, for longer than we’ve been singing together. We got to know each other at Scottish Opera when we were both kids. I was singing in Così. He was doing his first Jochanaan in Salome. And then we toured together as well. So it probably helped that we knew each other so well.

Q: And with Robert Spano, this is a reprise of the 2005 Seattle Opera Ring that the three of you did together. What was that like?

A: It was great, wonderful. It was Spano’s first Ring, and he’s such a wonderful conductor. He understands so clearly. A cycle is a big undertaking for a Brünnhilde or a Wotan. But for a conductor to have to do his first Ring, to do all the operas at the same time! It has to be stressful—not in a bad way, but I can imagine that for any conductor, it puts a certain pressure on you. Fortunately, there was a lot of rehearsal time in Seattle, which certainly helped. However, it seemed as if it was very instinctive for him, that he really understood the music from the word “go.” And Greer had been in the Seattle Ring in 2001 but doing different roles—Gunther and Donner. I believe he had done Wotan in Die Walküre before, but this was his first full cycle. Having known him [for] so long, I think that really helped us in creating the relationship between father and daughter, which is key to the whole thing as well.

The musical direction of conductor Robert Spano, consistently imaginative and dramatic, attends to the singers while unleashing the power of a mighty orchestra in top form. — Melinda Bargreen, “Seattle Opera Strikes Gold with Brilliant Third Ring” (Seattle Times, August 12, 2005)

Q: How many Brünnhildes have you done?

A: That’s a good question. Someone asked me how many Walküres I’ve sung. And my husband, who is very good with record keeping, said, it was somewhere in the region of 85. I’ve certainly done it more than the other two operas, but not by much. I’ve probably done an extra 10 or so Walküres. I’ve done probably five or six different Ring cycle productions. So I’ve certainly done quite a lot of Rings.

Q: Those cycles must have been quite different in style and approach. How do you feel about auteur directors?

A: I don’t mind a director updating an opera in any way as long as he still tells the story. My issue is that sometimes directors think [that] with Wagner they can go completely crazy. I’m not really sure why people think that, because Wagner was very clear about what he wanted. He had even done stage designs for the first Ring that he did. I do prefer a cycle that kind of looks like where it’s supposed to be set. So I kind of like trees. Mountains. I like being surrounded by fire rather than having to imagine it. Sometimes I’ve had real fire, sometime red candles. The Seattle Ring had really an extraordinary design. I really was surrounded by fire. It was very close! They dialed it down a bit because you have to lie there for 20 minutes before you sing in Siegfried. But I do think the Seattle production was my favorite one. I also liked the old Met Ring production. It really told the story well. But within whatever production or design you’re given, you still have to create the same character that you believe Brünnhilde to be.

What I’ve always found so fascinating about Brünn­hilde—obviously you have three operas to develop the character—but she’s such an interesting, three-dimensional and extreme character. There is so much you can do. Every single time I’ve done it, I’ve found something new or different, something I can rethink a little bit.

Jane Eaglen, in fine form as Brünnhilde, clearly understands the text, music and characterization so fully that it’s a pleasure to see her develop from an impetuous youngster into a wiser, sadder daughter who understands what she must pay for her disobedience. Her voice was splendid in its amplitude and also in its evenness throughout the entire register.” — Melinda Bargreen, “Seattle Opera Strikes Gold with Brilliant Third Ring” (Seattle Times, August 12, 2005)

Q: I read an interview with you in which you said you thought of Brünnhilde as a 15-year-old girl. Can you elaborate on that? And how does she develop over time?

A: Well, I think of her as a big, fun girl—a bit like me. Which is why I think I’m drawn to her. The whole job, if you like, of being a Valkyrie—that is, bringing the dead heroes to Valhalla—is such great fun. You can hear that in the “Ride of the Valkyries” until the Valkyries realize something is wrong and Brünnhilde’s not there. Brünnhilde may be a little older than 15, but definitely in her teens. She’s very enthusiastic. She loves what she does. I think people sometimes get bogged down by the fact that the Ring is all about these gods and goddesses, but it’s really not. It’s all about relationships between people—between father and daughter, husband and wife. That some of them are gods is not really the point. The relationships between them are very personal, very human. People sometimes miss that or are surprised by that when they actually go to see the Ring. So I think Brünnhilde has a real enthusiasm for life. I think she is Wotan’s favorite daughter, perhaps because she is really smart. All the Valkyries are Erda’s daughters, but Brünnhilde definitely is her mother’s daughter, and I think she gets her intelligence and intuitiveness through her. So what I find interesting about the character is that . . . she listen[s] to people and learn[s] from them and make[s] decisions based on what she’s heard. So the reason she can go on at the end of Götterdämmerung and say, “Now I know everything,” is because of what she’s learned from Wotan, from Siegmund, from Siegfried, and she becomes such a hugely developed character. She’s started as this young, innocent, fun kid, and then she gets to be the woman who saves the world. So when Wotan asks in Act 2 where he can find a free hero who can give the ring back [to the Rhinemaidens] and save the world, she says, “I don’t know.” But then, later on, 15 hours later, she can say, “Oh, that was me.”

Q: Tell me about working with Greer and establishing the father/daughter relationship.

A: We know each other so well that I think we have a chemistry together, and we didn’t have to work on that. Obviously, father and daughter, the age thing is kind of an issue. But I’ve always thought of myself as about 12 years old. And he also has a daughter. I think the relationship between us was very well developed in that first cycle.

I think the third act of Die Walküre is wonderful. It’s my favorite act in the whole Ring. You have the excitement of the ride, and then the emotions in the second half are just amazing.

Greer Grimsley’s Wotan, making a sure-footed way through his first “Walküre,” is unflagging in his intensity and power: terrifying in his wrath, tender in his affection for his wayward daughter Brünnhilde. He already sings with the seasoned nuances of a longtime master of this role. — Melinda Bargreen, “Seattle Opera Strikes Gold with Brilliant Third ‘Ring’” (Seattle Times, August 12, 2005)

Q: What about the chemistry between the three of you? You and Greer and Spano?

A: I just felt it was a very cohesive situation. There was never any problem with what we all wanted to do. I always find the best music making is collaborative rather than when a conductor says, “Do this,” which never works. And I’ve always found that the greatest conductors are like that. They discuss with you how you conceive of a role or scene, and also they understand that every singer is different and sometimes needs something specific, perhaps vocally but also emotionally or dramatically. It just felt very easy working with him and finding the Ring that we all wanted to do.

Q: What sort of training do you put yourself through to get through a whole Ring? It’s got to be an enormous physical feat.

A: It is. Some research was done at some point that found that singing a major role in a regular opera, apart from a Wagner opera, is the equivalent of running a marathon. Physically that’s what your body goes through. I think that people who sing Wagner tend to be strong, to have that kind of stamina. I’ve always been lucky that way; I’m a big strong girl. But you’re careful. You do a performance and go right home and go to bed. And the day in between you pretty much don’t get dressed. You just lie there. If you feel like doing something, fine. I’ve always . . . been careful because you don’t want to get tired or get sick. And also you have to keep looking at your scores. When you’re singing Brünnhilde, you’re singing three different operas every other day. You just have to keep refreshing yourself, thinking through it on your day off.

I did my first Ring in Chicago. I had done Die Walküre quite a bit before, and I’d done Siegfried the year before. But my first cycle was also my first ever Götterdämmerung. And I was covering the middle cycle of three and conductor Zubin Mehta said to me, “It’s fine. It’s a good way to do your first Ring. Nobody will know about it.” But in the interim, I had done some things and people were coming to hear me. So quite a lot was riding on it. And I was nervous. I didn’t really get much rehearsal. I didn’t ever do the whole of Götterdämmerung staged with orchestra. The first time I did it was in the performance. But I’d worked hard and I’d had staging rehearsals. And I felt prepared. But when I got through the second act, I heaved a sigh of relief and thought, “I can actually do this thing.”

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 Solti-Nilsson Ring, and 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 “Du bist der Lenz” from Die Walküre, when I was 18. He said, “This is what you’re ultimately going to sing, and so you might as well learn the style now.” And also with bigger voices, one of the most important things [you can do] 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 [that] 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 “Du bist der Lenz” is much less damaging for the voice than doing, say, “Dove sono” [Le nozze di Figaro]. 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[Tristan und Isolde] in a concert for Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and [when] we got to the big climax, 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 [anything] 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” [Don Giovanni], 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.


For information about NEC’s An Evening in Valhalla, December 10, at 7 pm, in NEC’s Jordan Hall, go to NEC’s website at http://necmusic.edu/event/13166 or call 617-585-1260.

Ellen Pfeifer

Ellen Pfeifer is Senior Communications Specialist at the New England Conservatory