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MUSIC / CHRIS PASLES : A Soprano's Highs and Lows : 'I Just Sing the Things That Seem Right,' Says Opera's Vocally Versatile Jane Eaglen

March 02, 1994|CHRIS PASLES

In 1949, Maria Callas made the history books by singing Elvira in Bellini's "I Puritani" only three days after she sang Brunnhilde in Wagner's "Die Walkure." That kind of vocal versatility--shifting from Wagnerian breadth and weight to bel canto high extension and coloratura--hadn't been heard since Lilli Lehmann in the 1890s.

Jane Eaglen had a little more time. She got about two weeks between singing Bellini's Norma for the Seattle Opera and coming to Costa Mesa to sing Brunnhilde for Opera Pacific, starting Friday.

Callas had been substituting for an ailing colleague when she took over the role of Elvira. Eaglen was brought in at the last minute for both roles--replacing Carol Vaness, who withdrew from "Norma" because of a back ailment, and Ealynn Voss, who withdrew from "Walkure" for personal reasons.

"I guess it's a big deal but I don't really think about it," the former member of the English National Opera said over lunch at her hotel here. "I just sing the things that seem right at the time and which seem to be right for my voice. I think I sing Brunnhilde and Norma very differently without consciously thinking, 'Oh, this is such and such, I must sing it like this.' By responding to the style and the nature of the music, it just kind of happens."

She sang her first Brunnhilde with John Mauceri and the Scottish Opera in 1991 (Mauceri will conduct the Opera Pacific dates). Then, she had a 10-week rehearsal period.

"The Valkyries were on stilts, so they had to have the 10 weeks. It looked fairly impressive, I must say. . . . But it was hard not to want to kill people by the end of 10 weeks. It was just too long."

There won't be any stilts in Costa Mesa but, in another departure, the whole opera will be done behind a scrim.

"They say it looks very beautiful," Eaglen said doubtfully. "Sometimes, it can give a kind of mystical sort of quality to it. From a performer's point of view, however, you always feel that you're cut off somehow."

She envisions Brunnhilde as "about 15 years old. I like to try to portray her as a young girl who has a lot of growing up to do before the end of the ('Der Ring des Nibelungen'). You have to think that the character actually progresses much more than just in this opera--though in this opera she really has to be seen to have a long way to go. She has to grow up considerably by the end."

This point of view, she said, has led to some friction with stage director Roberto Oswald. "I have to be careful here. . . . He and I haven't really got on. I think he had a problem with me from the start because he thought I was very young. I'm 33. Feb. 15 marks my 10th anniversary as a professional singer. In that time I think I've done something like 28 roles. I said to him, 'I think you think I'm very young and inexperienced. I'm actually neither.' But for me to say to him, 'This is what I think about her. . . . ' He's actually not interested in listening."

But she doesn't expect that "the production will be affected in the end (because) everyone is very good at his or her role and everyone's very professional and gets on with it and does the job."

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Eaglen was born in England to a family that, she said, "had nothing to do with music." Her father died of cancer when she was 10 and her mother had to start working to support the family. "It wasn't easy, certainly. It's a shame because I think I'm much more like him, in a way, than my mother. He had the kind of performing nature, and although the family was unmusical, completely, I think he'd much more understand what makes me want to do it."

She began studying voice at the University of Manchester with Joseph Ward, who has remained her sole teacher. "Until then, it had never really occurred to me that this was something you could do as a career--or even that you could learn to sing. It's like people say to me even now, 'What do you mean, you have to train to be a singer? Can't you just sing, stand up and do it?' "

Even then, Ward predicted that someday the soprano would sing Brunnhilde and Norma. "So I started working. I sang things like (Norma's) 'Casta Diva'--but without the top notes, which I didn't have--because he said, 'This is what you'll do. You might as well start learning the style and the repertoire now.' "

She made her professional debut as Lady Ella in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience" for the English National Opera. "Then I did a lot of First Ladies in 'The Magic Flute' and Berthes in 'The Barber of Seville' and all sorts of things basically to get a bit of experience.

"The idea was to put me on contract so that financially I was secure and didn't have to sing the wrong things too soon. You know, the bills have got to be paid and sometimes you say, 'I have no choice, I have to do this even if it's the wrong thing to do.' It happens to so many people. But I was always very concerned that it shouldn't happen."

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