Sunday, October 28, 2007

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.


At 3:59 PM, Blogger A.C. Douglas said...

Weight is a superficial issue that distracts, gratefully, from the primary problem: the singer can't do his or her job.

Oh? Is that so.

When a singer is as grotesquely, as morbidly fat as Jane Eaglen, then even had the singer a great vocal instrument, "the singer can't do his or her job" -- not in a Wagner music-drama, that is. In some Italian soap opera, maybe, but never in a Wagner music-drama.

I think you need to rethink your statement.


At 6:23 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

Point taken. That is, sort of, why I said,

If you can't stage a Wagner music-drama because of the physical considerations, then do a concert performance.

Now, before you get there, I'll admit that a concert performance is antithetical to the whole theory of a music-drama as Wagner would have conceived. It is, though, the only way to get certain singers to do certain parts without making a sloppy mockery of Wagner's staging guidelines and ideals of his characters.

Does anyone honestly believe that Domingo can even pretend to be Parsifal at this point? It's embarrassing to see a man nearer seventy than forty acting like he's a young holy fool. He might be able to hit the notes, he might even be able to act with his voice, but open your eyes - bang! The illusion falls apart immediately.

It's no less wrong than putting someone of, shall we say, classically operatic dimensions up there or a 65-year-old man trying to look 20. It's just more honest, and if one has to fall short of the Master's guidelines, then he should be honest about where he is falling short.

The best solution, and you know it as well as I do, is to seek out and to train singers who have the musical chops, acting ability, and sufficiently close approximations of Wagner's physical ideals to pull the parts off in the theater.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger mostly opera... said...

A concert performance imo. does unfortunately not solve the weight problem..I´m more than 100% with AC Douglas here...

At 11:29 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

Again, point taken. Now, let me reiterate my point, and - with some luck - clarify it. If a morbidly obese singer has the voice and the stamina to sing the role on the level of a Flagstad, a Varnay, or a Nilsson, then a concert performance has - to a greater or lesser degree - circumstances more conducive to allow that singer to sing the part. Now, there is the reasonable concern about whether such a singer even has the stamina or lung capacity to sing the role - sitting when s/he isn't "on." That is, by no means, settled law. It isn't, as I'll gladly concede, what Wagner wanted. I will say, though, that a concert performance solves the problem of egregious stagings.

At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Opera is not TV. I get reality from the nightly news. Films have grown increasingly boring, even as the subject matter grows increasingly crude and sound-tracks get louder and more mundane.

I began my opera-going life as a 12 year-old standee at the Met more years years ago than I care to mention, and having regularly experienced opera in major U.S.A. houses and in Europe over all of the intervening years, I can say that having been burned by too many director-driven, trashy productions, I've reached the point of knowing that long after these self-absorbed directors who want to cast "Twiggys" are forgotten, true opera lovers will remember and cherish the singers and the voices who are the ones who truly bought the composers' concepts to life.

Yes, I've been blessed by attending some wonderful performances where sets, costumes, performers, and musicians all came together to create the thrills every opera-lover craves; but one of the most memorable and spine-tingling opera performances I've ever experienced was a concert version of "Electra", performed by The Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel, which still stands head-and -shoulders above any production I've ever seen either before or after, and I don't even remember what the singers looked like!

The suspension of belief which is carried forward by the blending of voices and instrumental music is what makes opera unique as an art form. I take the liberty of quoting a well-known singer, who said she would start worrying when Brittany Spears can sing Isolde.

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