There's Something About Jane
Nick Scholl, longtime blogger at Trrill, has a piece in the Stranger (Dan Savage's primary home, for what that's worth) about Jane Eaglen and her absence from the 2009 Seattle Ring. He also has this blog post about the piece.
Now, in my other (real) life, I am a college journalist. Google being what it is, and piecing together what else I have said here, you could probably figure out what I do and where. Sometimes I wish that I hadn't said something, or that I had said something I didn't. I also can't cover some topics as heavily (if at all) as I would like in some cases. That having been said, I will stand by my whole page column on Richard Wagner. It might not have been successful, but I said what I wanted.
Now, Mr. Scholl has taken advantage of his blog to reexamine his column on Ms. Eaglen's non-appearance in the 2009 Ring. Good for him. He admitted, to my surprise,
The piece seems not to be my style, exactly. The sentences are choppy, and the whole thing seems to veer in this direction of Attacking Jane Eaglen and Pointing Out Jane Eaglen's Weight. That certainly was not what I intended, but I still do stand behind the real story (which I'm not sure is entirely clear)—Jane Eaglen is one of many singers who have become casualties of a changing art (and, more importantly, business). I wanted to indict the various administrations of opera companies more directly because—let's face it—Eaglen and all her colleagues, great and small, are simply trying to do the best within their particular circumstances.To my mind, the closest he came to dealing with that issue (i.e., the attack and the weight business) was this,
The increasing pressure for perfection in opera has had plenty of mainstream press. There was soprano Deborah Voigt's gastric- bypass surgery, tenor Jerry Hadley's suicide, and reports of drug abuse—steroids, cocaine, opiates—to cope with overextended schedules and demand for "star quality" (read: hot bods). Opera is an increasingly image-conscious industry, and Jane Eaglen's is a name that conjures a certain size as well as a certain voice.
Even by passé fat-opera-lady standards, Eaglen's girth is problematic. It limits choices for directors (she gets winded just walking on stage) and puts unnecessary strain on her body, which compromises her singing.
Or, a little later,
Now the masquerade is over and Eaglen finds herself in a peculiar spot: a major artist whose body and voice have been pushed beyond their capabilities and usefulness to the stage. Eaglen is getting less work—her schedule lists nothing at the Met and just a few regional houses and concerts—and has devoted more time to teaching at the University of Washington and Seattle Opera's Young Artist Program. Teaching is always a dignified way to bow out.
The opera houses that have employed her in the past won't get off so gracefully. They won't hire her but they can't explain why—they're too polite to say it's her weight, but they are not going to suffer the embarrassment of admitting they were wrong about her voice all along.
I don't necessarily think that Eaglen's voice is all that bad, especially under ideal conditions. Robert Levine, reviewing Daniel Barenboim's 2001 Tannhäuser, had this to say,
Jane Eaglen's Elisabeth is well sung and put forth, and the voice can sound very beautiful, but she's not nearly as moving as, say, Dernesch (for Solti, in her finest recorded role) or Silja (with Sawallisch).I would say, of modern Tannhäuser sets, Giuseppe Sinopoli's 1989 outing with Domingo in the eponymous role and Cheryl Studer as Elisabeth is probably the best. Barenboim has, of course, René Pape as Landgraf Hermann, which - to my mind - gives the set some horsepower that it wouldn't necessarily have (Listen to his "Gar viel und schön ward hier in dieser Halle," and tell me otherwise). Still, I found Eaglen adequate - to say the least. She doesn't necessarily have the same iron underpinning that Flagstad or Nilsson (for Otto Gerdes with Windgassen) had, but she is no flop. That is, of course, remembering that my Eaglen-experience isn't necessarily that broad or deep.
Mr. Scholl, though, hit the problem on the head with this,
It isn't just Eaglen, though—the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen a boom in singers who can negotiate the florid writing in baroque, classical, and bel canto opera, but a steep decline in the quality of dramatic Wagnerian and verismo singers. There are several reasons why: impetuous young careerists who fly all over the globe and stretch their voices thin, the decline of critical listening and quality training, and the anatomy of current beauty standards—casting tends to favor small, pretty women with small, pretty features that which often correlate with small, pretty voices that are completely unsuitable for stentorian sounds. (Ironically, this is also a problem for Eaglen: For all her girth, her throat and facial structure are average sized.)There just aren't any great dramatic sopranos left. There are a few really excellent tenors, like Ben Heppner, and some fabulous basses like John Tomlinson (though he's running down the clock) and René Pape; sopranos, though: no dice. Hell, even Thomas Hampson, whom I can ordinarily not stand, has made a solid Gunther (not Hermann Uhde or Franz Mazura). Deborah Polaski? Maybe. Anne Evans? She retired, but - even then - if no one else is around. Hildegard Behrens? Next. You see my point. Look at Flagstad; look at Varnay; look at Nilsson.
My point is this: you have to be happy with what you have to be happy with. Eaglen probably can't stand on the same level as other great Wagnerian sopranos. She is, though, head and shoulders above some of her colleagues. Danielle de Niese's new Handel record (Saints preserve us!) broke my heart, only because William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants were the backup band. You see, from Netrebko to De Niese, that these singers are expected to be sex objects who sing. Well, excuse me if I stick with Jenny Lind or Nellie Melba on such matters. You see, then, that I feel that weight is secondary to voice. If you can't stage a Wagner music-drama because of the physical considerations, then do a concert performance.
Mr. Scholl was, though, spot-on. If the voice can't hack it, then it doesn't matter anymore. Weight is a superficial issue that distracts, gratefully, from the primary problem: the singer can't do his or her job. Ms. Eaglen, though, I believe comes closer than anyone else of whom I know.