In another significant upgrade to its opera-vocal program, New England Conservatory has hired soprano Jane Eaglen as a full-time faculty member. Currently on the faculty of Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the British-born Eaglen has had a major career in opera, widely praised for her Wagner singing in particular. She plans to move to Boston in time to take up her new duties next fall.
Eaglen did three public master classes at NEC last month but said in a recent phone interview that “I didn’t know that they were going to make me an offer until I was there, so it all happened very quickly.” She had the opportunity to work with many of the school’s graduate students, and “the standard was just extraordinary — one great thing after another. Really wonderful voices, and a really focused attitude. All of them were very keen to learn and do the work, and a couple of them I saw more than once; they came back having thought through a few details about the first time.”
The chance to work with graduate students was one of the catalysts that induced Eaglen to move to NEC. “I’ve had a great time here [at Baldwin Wallace], and I’ve enjoyed the students,” she said. “But it is just an undergraduate school here, and I was starting to miss working with more advanced students.”
The details of Eaglen’s duties are still being worked out, she said. But she plans to have a large studio, around 15 singers, to give master classes, and also to help out as a coach when the school produces operas she’s done a number of times. “What I think is great about NEC is that they seem to use the talents of each individual faculty member very specifically, geared to the things that they can help with in ways other people can’t,” she said. “If you have the people who have experience with something, use them that way.”
More generally, she’s looking forward to mentoring singers on both the technical and the business aspects of their careers. “I’ve had one voice teacher since I was 17,” she said, referring to the British tenor Joseph Ward, whose resume includes working with Benjamin Britten and Joan Sutherland. “There was nothing he hadn’t done in the business. I learned so much from him — about how to be ready, what’s expected of you. And I certainly think that I’ve had experience that not everyone has had.
“There are things that I’ve learned that I think are important to pass on — how to approach learning roles, how to deal with directors and conductors, how to get the best out of everybody and be a good colleague.”
Though Eaglen was emphatic that she was not retiring from professional singing, she did acknowledge that she now considers teaching to be her principal vocation, and that future singing engagements would take second place to that. “Several years ago I decided I didn’t want to sing as much as I had been, because really, for the past 20 years I’ve been traveling for about 11½ months of every year, and never at home,” she said. She is scheduled to perform in a miniaturized “Ring” cycle — all four of Wagner’s operas condensed into a four-hour concert production — next September in Minneapolis.
Nevertheless, she continued, “I’m not sort of actively going out and looking for big things to do, because I feel like my priorities have changed. I’m definitely still singing but I just wanted to do less of it.”
One of the pleasures of talking to Eaglen is that she’s about as far from a diva as you can imagine a major singer to be. She rather casually mentioned that she’d had an enforced break in singing about a year ago because of surgery to remove a large tumor, thankfully benign, from her brain. One might expect this news to be either withheld or reluctantly disclosed. But Eaglen jokingly called it “a little hold up, shall we say.”
“I’d been having some problems with my right hand and I couldn’t write very well,” she said. “And eventually my balance got really bad. I think it was nine days after it was diagnosed that I was in eight hours of surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. But I’m doing great now.”