Question: Jane Eaglen is supposed to be one of the great living sopranos. She's sung Brünnhilde for Seattle Opera's world-famous Ring Cycle since, like, forever. But she isn't on the cast list the opera just sent out for its 2009 Ring. What's the deal? Is anyone shocked by an Eaglen-free Ring?
Answer: In a word—whether you hear it from gossipy opera queens or vocal technique experts—no. Jane Eaglen has become a sad symbol of excess and ignorance in the opera world, a casualty of bad thinking about bodies and voices.
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.
Seattle Opera General Manager Speight Jenkins said in a Seattle Times interview that the decision to recast Brünnhilde was not based on Eaglen's weight but just "to make a change." So, we're left to infer, her voice is the problem—except that Janice Baird, the thin soprano chosen to replace Eaglen, has a voice that is uneven, uninspiring, and blowsy, and not any better-equipped for the challenges of the role.
More importantly, Eaglen's voice has shown signs of wear for some time; hints of ungainliness have been ignored for over a decade.
Eaglen simply isn't a dramatic Wagnerian soprano. She never built her lower register, which is key to having a full and beautiful voice. Even her upper notes are becoming erratic and pinched. At best, hers is a lyric soprano, pushed to its outer limits. Nature cannot be undone, and it will invariably humiliate those who try to work outside its laws.
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.)
The mystery isn't so much why Eaglen was cut from the 2009 Ring, but how she got this far in the first place.
It was a series of fortunate events: Seattle Opera launched her into divadom with her American debut in Norma in 1994; she sang on the Sense and Sensibility soundtrack in 1995; critics raved about her first Brünnhilde in Chicago in 1996, which, of course, caused a stir. The opera world had been looking for a new Brünnhilde since Birgit Nilsson, the last of the great dramatic sopranos, retired in 1984. In recordings from the early to mid '90s, Eaglen's voice isn't great but it does the job. She became, wrongly, the new It Girl of the dramatic soprano repertoire.
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.
Janie will be fine—perhaps even better off than the gals who are crazy enough to stick around in the biz. I'm waiting for someone to crack under the pressure and become opera's first Amy Winehouse—cutting herself and shooting up in the dressing room between acts. Which is fine with me; she just better be able to sing the shit out of some Wagner when it's her cue.