COSTA MESA — 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 today.
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) following 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 '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."
Eaglen was born in England to a family which, she said, "had nothing to do with music." She began studying voice at the University of Manchester with Joseph Ward, who has remained her sole teacher. Even then, Ward predicted that someday the soprano would sing Brunnhilde and Norma.
Her role models included Birgit Nilsson and Callas. "I think Nilsson is just the greatest voice, ever. And I think that basically Maria Callas was way up here and then opera singers are about down here. For the drama of it, Callas would be first every time.
"But it can be dangerous to listen to too many records," she added. "You just end up, without even consciously meaning to, doing an impression of them. I just prefer getting it from the score, really."
Unlike Callas, who eventually dropped the heavier repertory, Eaglen wants to continue singing it and the bel-canto heroines. "I think in probably 10 years time, I'll be quite happy to sing Isolde, Brunnhilde, Turandot--and Norma. I hope I'll always keep that in there to keep the flexibility in the voice for as long as possible."
So far, Isolde as a stage role has eluded her, although she did sing Isolde's Liebestod under Mauceri in July at the Hollywood Bowl.
"I'm desperate to sing Isolde now," she said. "That's on the horizon."
* Eaglen will sing Brunnhilde in Wagner's "Die Walkure" for Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Friday and March 10, 12 and 18 at 7 p.m. and March 20 at 2 p.m. $15 to $75. (714) 740-2000 (TicketMaster).