A premier dramatic soprano since the 1980s, Jane Eaglen has thrilled audiences in opera houses worldwide with her trademark bel canto style, transcending the seldom-crossed German and Italian operatic genres.
Born on April 4, 1960, in the north Midlands town of Lincoln, England, Eaglen began piano lessons at age five. At 16 her piano teacher suggested she begin voice lessons; prior to that her only singing had been at school and church. Eaglen began studying at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester in 1978. There she met her lifelong mentor, tenor Joseph Ward. Recounting her experiences to Helena Matheopoulos in Diva: The New Generation, Eaglen said, “When I first came to him, I was very young and had a totally immature voice. But he immediately recognized a dramatic voice lurking somewhere inside and knew just how to teach it. His basic method of teaching is bel canto. Bel canto literally means beautiful singing, but it also describes a particular singing style. But he thinks, as I do now, that all singing is bel canto.”
Ward immediately recognized the roles that lay ahead for Eaglen and began her training with pieces by Wagner and Bellini. She mastered the midrange well enough to leave the RNCM a year before completing her postgraduate work. She joined the English National Opera (ENO), to whose then-managing director, the Earl of Harewood, she had sent an audition tape in which she sang “Liebestod” from the Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde. By her own reckoning, though, the high notes did not come until she was in her late twenties. Following Ward’s advice—“He was convinced,” Eaglen recounted in Diva, “that my physical strength would carry the middle voice upwards and make it seamless. It was just a question of being patient”—she chose not to push her voice, instead working her way slowly to the top range. It took ten years but the result reinforced her faith in Ward.
Beginning in 1984 Eaglen spent six years with ENO singing such roles as Lady Ella in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (her ENO debut), Elizabeth I in Mary Stuart (the English-language version of the Donizetti opera). Sinaïde in Rossini’s Moses, Leonora in II trovatore by Verdi, and Berta in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Of her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. David Murray wrote in Financial Times, “She makes the character vivid, with crisp diction—in fact her line is incisive enough that she could afford to point key words more expressively still.” In addition to her work with ENO, Eaglen sang in Australia, where during a performance of Tosca in Perth she hit her first high C. Eaglen left ENO in 1990 but returned a year later to sing the role of Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and in 1994 for the title role in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
Eaglen’s even-keeled temperament and attitude toward her career gained her a good reputation early on,
Born on April 4, 1960, in Lincoln, England; married Brian Lyson, 2000. Education: Attended Royal Northern College of Music, 1978-84.
Began studying piano, age five; began singing lessons, age 16; began studies with tenor Joseph Ward, 1978; joined English National Opera, 1984; debuted as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, Scottish National Opera, 1991; U.S. debut in Norma, Seattle Opera, 1994; sang first complete Ring Cycle, Chicago, 1996; performed complete Ring Cycle, Vienna, 1997; Tristan und Isolde, Seattle Opera, 1998; performed complete Ring Cycle, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2000.
Awards: Seattle Opera Artist of the Year, 1994, 1999.
Addresses: Management —AOR Management, Ltd., Westwood, Lorraine Park, Harrow Weald, Middlesex, England, UK HA3 6BX. Website —Jane Eaglen Official Website: http://www.janeeaglen.com.
and in numerous interviews she attributed it to her upbringing—she came from a working-class nonmusical family, though during her childhood she was somewhat the center of it: her father died when she was 10 years old, and her only sibling was a brother 17 years older than she. Eaglen’s down-to-earth nature helped her in 1991 when, on the eve of singing the role of Brunnhilde for the Scottish Opera’s production of the complete Ring Cycle (earlier that year she had made her debut in the role in Die Walküre, the first opera in the cycle), a tumor was discovered on her thyroid gland. Eaglen was faced with the possibility that her career might be over. Fortunately the tumor was benign, though it took months for her to recover from the surgery.
Eaglen’s first triumph with the Scottish Opera came with the role of Donna Anna. She also had success with the company in Tosca and in the role of Norma in the opera of the same name by Vincenzo Bellini. By the mid-1990s Norma and Brunnhilde had become her signature roles. She sang her first complete Ring Cycle in 1996 with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, repeated the feat in 1997 with the Vienna State Opera, and performed the cycle again in 2000 with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Eaglen outlined to Matheopoulos the roles that interested her: “[I]t’s nice to choose something that fits you like a glove vocally, dramatically, and physically. Then everything can come together in a way that makes you feel you have an intrinsic link with the character. And this is the kind of role I am interested in singing from now on: Norma, Turandot, the three Brünnhildes and, coming soon, my first Gioconda and Isolde.”
In 1994 Eaglen made her American debut with the Seattle Opera in the role of Norma, a performance for which she was named Seattle Opera’s Artist of the Year. Just weeks after singing Norma in Seattle she sang Brünnhilde in Die Walküre with Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa, California. In both roles she was a last minute replacement—for Carol Vaness in Norma and Ealynn Voss in Die Walküre. Performing two such demanding roles so close together was a feat that placed Eaglen in the company of legendary sopranos Maria Callas and Lilli Lehmann.
In 1997 Eaglen sang the title role in Puccini’s Turandot opposite Luciano Pavarotti. It turned out to be another of her great triumphs. Reviewing her performance in the New York Times, Bernard Holland wrote, “Ms. Eaglen had only to open her mouth to send listeners rushing to check their disbelief at the cloakroom. It is not so much the size of her voice, which is considerable; it is the beautifully focused clarity and brilliance. The pitch is dead-on, the rhythm and phrasing absolutely correct. Ms. Eaglen knocks us over, but with the most elegantly struck blows imaginable.”
Eaglen made her debut as Isolde (in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) with the Seattle Opera in 1998 opposite Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, for which she was again named Seattle Opera’s Artist of the Year. Eaglen and Heppner reprised their roles for the Metropolitan Opera in 1999, a prelude to performing the Ring Cycle at the Met in 2000.
For Eaglen the Seattle Tristan and Isolde held special meaning. During its run she met Brian Lyson, a linguist and Seattle resident. They were married in March of 2000 in the Seattle Opera House and continued to live in that city. By then Eaglen had already become enamored of American pop culture, especially professional wrestling, which Matheopoulos quoted her as saying is “a little bit like opera: it’s extremely colourful, over the top and full of outrageous characters!” Another thing that set Eaglen apart from her colleagues was her well-documented warm-up tape of Whiney Houston, Bonnie Tylerm and Meat Loaf, which Eaglen listened to and sang along with prior to her own performances. Eaglen also became a devotee of the Internet with her own website, where she posted two online journals: the first while singing Isolde in Seattle in 1998 and the second while singing the Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2000.
Bellini, Wagner: Arias, Sony Classical, 1996.
Bruckner, Te Deum, EMI, 1997.
Mozart & Strauss: Arias, Sony Classical, 1998.
Berg: Seven Early Songs, Sony Classical, 2000.
Strauss: Four Last Songs, Sony Classical, 2000.
Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder, Sony Classical, 2000.
Jane Eaglen Sings Italian Arias, Sony Classical, 2001.
Matheopoulos, Helena, Diva, The New Generation: The Sopranos and Mezzos of the Decade Discuss Their Roles, Northeastern University Press, 1998.
Chicago Sun-Times, November 27, 1999, p. 34.
Financial Times, June 6, 1986, p. 21.
Guardian (London), October 28, 1994, p. T15.
Herald (Glasgow), April 17, 1993, p. 7.
Los Angeles Times, March 4, 1994. p. F20; August 3, 1998, p. F1; March 15, 2001, p. T2.
New York Times, January 4, 1997, Section 1, p. 20; October 1, 1997, Section E, p. 20.
Opera News, Vol. 64, no. 10, April 2000.
Ottawa Citizen, June 11, 1997, p. B13.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 30, 2000, p. G2.
Seattle Times, January 10, 1994, p. E2; June 16, 1999, p.E3; April 5, 2000, p. B1; July 23, 2000, p. L3.
Sunday Times (London), February 25, 2001.
Times (London), May 28, 1998.
Eaglen, Jane, remarkable English soprano; b. Lincoln, April 4, 1960. She was a student of Joseph Ward at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (1978–83). In 1984 she made her debut at the English National Opera in London as Lady Ella in Patience, where she served as principal soprano until 1991. She made her first appearance at London’s Covent Garden as Berta in La Barbiere di Siviglia in 1986. After singing Mimi at the Scottish Opera in Glasgow in 1988, she returned there to sing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in 1991. She first appeared at the London Promenade Concerts as Sieglinde in Act III of Die Walküre in 1989. Following her debut at the Vienna State Opera in 1993 as Donna Anna, she made first appearances at Milan’s La Scala as Brunnhilde in Die Walküre, the Seattle Opera as Norma, and the Opera de la Bastille in Paris as Amelia in 1994. In 1995 she sang Brunnhilde in Die Walküre at the San Francisco Opera. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. as Donna Anna on Jan. 18, 1996, and appeared that same season at the Lyric Opera in Chicago as Brunnhilde in its mounting of the Ring cycle and at the Seattle Opera as Turandot. She made her first appearance with the N.Y. Phil, on May 22, 1997, singing the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde under Masur’s direction. That same year she returned to the Metropolitan Opera as Turandot. Her return to the Seattle Opera to sing Isolde on Aug. 1,1998, proved a triumph. In 1999 she returned to the San Francisco Opera and won further acclaim for her portrayal of Bunnhilde in the Ring cycle. Eaglen’s outstanding vocal gifts have rendered her one of the leading Wagnerian interpreters of her era.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire