She loves wrestling, she surfs the Internet, and she warms up to Meat Loaf. But she never, ever listens to herself sing

INTERVIEW Edward Seckerson meets Jane Eaglen, Wagnerian-in-waiting. Photograph by Laurie Lewis
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The Independent Culture
Jane Eaglen used to think 2001 was a Stanley Kubrick movie. Now its a viable date in her diary. Only pencilled in, mind, but it's there. She knows exactly where she'll be and what she'll be doing. And that, she says, is scary, very scary. Only the other week, an enquiry came through from San Francisco. Same date, same year. "Sorry, not free." "But you must be free - this is 2001 we're talking about!" "I know, I know. Crazy, isn't it?" Sure is. Stranger than fiction. Science fiction. The phone rings. It's her agent. "Is that this year? I thought it was next..."

Jane Eaglen has to be an opera singer. Only the opera calendar works in such mysterious ways. Well, maybe not that mysterious. There is method in the madness. Major houses want major voices, and major voices are few and far between - fewer and farther if you're planning Wagner's Ring and looking for a Brunnhilde. Jane Eaglen is a Brunnhilde - a dramatic soprano. In operatic terms, that's a voice-type or fach that is almost as rare as the truly Italianate tenor or Germanic heldentenor. Indeed, she offers perhaps the most exciting dramatic-soprano potential of any British singer since... well, you have to trawl the archives to name names. Amy Shuard? Rita Hunter? So you can see why the operatic world has stirred. We're talking here of a fach that many aspire to but few are naturally equipped to embrace. We're talking the heavyweight heroines of Italian verismo, we're talking Strauss's Elektra, Wagner's Brunnhilde and Isolde, and the ice-princess herself - Puccini's Turandot.

So when a voice like Eaglen's comes along, it's a question of nipping in ahead of the competition. Wily opera house directors try a little clairvoyance. It's no good waiting until she's finally ready to sing Isolde. The longer you wait, the longer you'll wait. No, you negotiate three or four years ahead, make your prediction, put in a bid, and hope to catch the voice at its best. Eaglen will sing Isolde in Seattle 1998, New York 1999, Chicago 2000. Trust the Americans. Bayreuth had better get its skates on.

All of which is now a very long way indeed from her not inauspicious English National Opera debut back in 1984. She was Lady Ella in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. And she was conspicuous: full voice, fuller figure, and the tiniest pair of cymbals you ever did see. She sang three lines, clashed those cymbals, and made it into almost all the notices. ENO took her under its wing. She needed time to grow into her voice: the all-important top (so easy to abuse and to lose) was still something of a separate event. It came, she says, "from another place". But she wasn't worried. Her teacher - Joseph Ward at the Royal Northern College of Music - insisted that time and technique would tell, that in due course her physical strength would carry the middle of the voice upwards. Then, and only then, would it be one voice. Her voice. "With a lot of teachers," she recalls, "you could spot who their students were: at college concerts it used to be quite a game. But not Joe. His students all sounded completely different. He always allowed the natural voice to develop." After just two weeks, he told her she would be singing Norma and Brunnhilde.

Eaglen attributes everything she's ever achieved to Joseph Ward. It was he who told her never to listen to her own voice - that, in different environments, different acoustics, her perception of it would change bewilderingly. Rely on sensation, he said, feeling - that way you'll be less inclined to push. Good advice. She looks on in amazement when she sees singers cupping their hands around their ears during recording sessions. She wants to share the wisdom: don't listen, feel. Or you may be in for a nasty surprise. That microphone isn't listening to the acoustic; it's listening to you. Know your voice.

Eaglen knows hers well. All the roles she's now choosing to sing with any frequency are roles she can carry with absolute comfort and security. If the role fits, she says, wear it. Bellini's Norma is a good fit. She made an enormous impression with it at Scottish Opera in 1993. Not quite her first encounter. That was at Covent Garden when she covered for Margaret Price. And the memory of it still rancours. She did all the rehearsals, including those with orchestra, she was poised ready and waiting in the wings. But when Price did finally cancel, the management brought in a little-known Italian. "I can only assume they thought I'd freak out under the pressure. They didn't know me. I was champing at the bit..." But better, perhaps, that her first Norma should have been entirely her own. That it was.

And then, last year, the conductor Riccardo Muti auditioned her for his festival in Ravenna. Now you have to understand the reverence with which this most prized of roles is held in the hearts of all music-loving Italians to appreciate what it meant for a lass from Lincolnshire to win their approval. All ears were on "Casta diva", the most testing entrance aria in the entire repertoire, the supreme high-wire act for voice, poetry in slow motion. Sing this, and you can sing anything. But the Italians - and Muti more than any - would be looking for an understanding and expression way beyond the suppleness and finesse of Eaglen's coloratura. "At no point can you offer a nice decorative sound and hope to get away with it. In Norma, every note is there for a reason, every note has dramatic meaning." For five weeks, Muti worked exhaustively with her on text, language, style. It was, she says, an experience "to die for!"

"Can you imagine, we spent almost an entire rehearsal on the moment where Norma reveals that it is she who has broken her holy vows and betrayed her nation. 'Son io!' she sings, and there's a single high G, pianissimo, which must have so much colour and so much understanding in it if the moment is to work. Muti spent about 10 minutes talking about this one note. And when he stopped, all I could think to say was, 'Is that all?' "

She's going back for more. Verdi's Nabucco this time. And she'll be looking to get stuck-in again, "to work, really work with someone who keeps asking more of me because he believes that I have more to give. I need to keep that process of discovery alive." If there's one thing that gets right up Eaglen's nose, it's the assumption that most opera singers are divas, and that most divas are lazy - that a minimum of rehearsal and a nice frock will do. And, speaking of nice frocks, it pains her that some opera producers take one look at her size and lose interest. "So few are prepared to develop a performance around the qualities that you personally can bring to a role. If you're not their mental ideal, they give up on you. I like to work, I like to be on stage. Is it too much trouble to at least try to make the best of me?" Ian Judge and Richard Jones are among those who've tried, and succeeded, in her view.

You'll have gathered by now that Jane Eaglen redefines popular terms like "diva" and "prima donna". She's not grand, she's not difficult, and she's not - repeat not - precious about her voice. The average performance day goes something like this: a bit of a warm-up about midday, see how it is, get the catarrh moving; maybe another five minutes at the theatre later. Her warm-up tape is interesting: Whitney Houston, Bonnie Tyler, Meat Loaf. Run that by me again...

Actually, she doesn't need to sing to know how her voice is. She knows the minute she wakes up. It's a feeling - a feeling that everything is somehow set in the right place. A few years back she had a thyroid operation. A tricky procedure, since the two nerves supplying the vocal cords are situated so close to the thyroid. The day after surgery, the specialist came to see her, concerned that it would be at least two or three more days before she could utter any sound at all. She scribbled two words on a piece of paper: "It's fine."

In March of next year (in Chicago) she sings the Gotterdammerung Brunnhilde for the first time as part of her first complete Ring cycle. This is some kind of Everest - not one, but three different voices would do nicely, thank you. Die Walkure kicks off with Brunnhilde's war-cry, the most fearsome two-and-a-half minutes of vocal gymnastics, incorporating trills, octave leaps, and the obligatory high C. But otherwise it's low, very low. Siegfried is high - and lyrical. Gotterdammerung is long. Eaglen is unfazed. I don't ever recall hearing a singer say of Brunnhilde, "It's comfortable." But Eaglen does. "I think a lot of these roles are often more difficult for singers psychologically than they are vocally."

But then, most singers are not equipped for them as Eaglen is. Again, her security is in her technique. "There'll always be things over which you have no control - but you can lower the odds... It's a bit like being an athlete. You can be in peak condition - and you have to be strong to manage a big voice - but still it all depends on the day." The correlation between singing and sport appeals to her (she's quite sporty, and loves wrestling - as spectator, you understand, not practitioner). Much of her "training" comes from keeping works like the Verdi Requiem in her repertoire ("the challenge there is that most of it is quiet and high"). Or Donna Anna in Don Giovanni: "It's like castor oil for the voice - not particularly pleasant, but necessary. If you can get around 'Non mi dir', then you are in pretty good shape!"

Isn't she ever worried about vocal wear and tear? "Listen, you can damage your voice singing 'Three Blind Mice' if you sing it badly. I sing within my voice. I couldn't push if I tried. I don't think I ever give 100 per cent vocally: if you do, then you're pushing. There should always be something in reserve. And I don't mean that an audience should ever feel short-changed. It's a case of still having somewhere else to go, something extra within yourself. I actually think it's quite exciting for an audience to sense that a singer still has more to give. That way they don't feel uncomfortable - they feel you are absolutely in control." She laughs (and it's a big, hearty, dirty laugh) recalling the great Birgit Nilsson's response when asked how she prepared herself for coming cold to Turandot's mountainous first aria "In questa reggia". "It warms up my voice nicely," came the reply. A lady after Eaglen's heart. She sings her first Turandot next year. Or is it the year after?

And life "on the road"? Those long, lonely hours in hotel rooms? Well, she has her laptop, and she's discovered the Internet: Compuserve and America Online. Perfect. You can talk for hours on end without ever using your voice. A number of major-league singers are currently hooked into the system. The other day she logged on to the Opera Forum programme and was taken aback by someone in Chicago asking, "Who is Jane Eaglen?" Stick around, fella.

Eaglen sings 'Gotterdammerung' Act 3 at the Edinburgh Festival: Thursday 7.30pm, Usher Hall. Her new recording of 'Norma', with Muti, is out now on EMI