Ben Heppner (Tristan) and Jane Eaglen (Isolde) in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, 1998
© Gary Smith
A few days after Jane Eaglen made her unscheduled American opera debut as Seattle Opera’s Norma, in January of 1994, I asked her if she would sing Isolde. She eagerly agreed. I then asked Ben Heppner if he were ready to take on Tristan. He thought about it for some time and finally agreed to do it during the performances of Lohengrin
. Heppner insisted on a conductor who had experience with the work, and I was extraordinarily fortunate to bring Armin Jordan back to Seattle. The rest of the cast—Michelle de Young as Brangaene, Greer Grimsley as Kurwenal, and Peter Rose as King Marke—were strong. With Francesca Zambello directing and set and costumes by Alison Chitty, with lighting by Mimi Gordon Sherer, we had a production that received worldwide notice. Everyone wanted to hear Eaglen and Heppner as the two lovers, and they did not disappoint. In my time as a general director, never have I received as much heartfelt gratitude from an audience as during these performances. I personally had never dreamed that I would ever hear this difficult opera sung so well, and that was the reaction of literally hundreds of audience members. Because Tristan to me stands at the top of the operatic mountain along with Don Giovanni
, and Carmen
, the satisfaction of presenting the opera this way will stay with me all my life.
The rehearsal period was a pleasure. Zambello knew her singers and what she wanted them to do. At no point would she countenance a lack of involvement nor did they want it. Everyone worked hard over six or seven weeks to make a theatrical statement; Jordan worked hard to make the musical side very personal, and, amazingly, neither Eaglen nor Heppner found the music really challenging. That may sound odd, but they, like great Wagner singers before them, found that one can either sing these roles or not. If one can sing them, they work in one’s voice; they are not roles that one can learn how to sing. Some moments really stood out to me: Eaglen’s vocal and dramatic variety in the Narrative and Curse, the duet at the end of Act I, which I had never in my life heard sung with two truly heroic voices that were so well balanced, the legato of both singers in the Love Duet in Act II, the emotion and moving quality of Rose in King Marke’s lament, the relationship between Heppner and Grimsley, vocally and dramatically in Act III, Heppner’s brilliant work in Tristan’s delirium, and, of course, Eaglen’s Liebestod. These are as vivid to me now almost four years later as if they had just happened.
It was a first for almost everyone in the cast except Rose and Grimsley, and in production week Heppner worried about taking on all of Tristan for the first time. He could have done it and since has sung many complete Tristans, but the first time through with all the opera world at attention seemed more than challenging. The length of Isolde did not tire out Eaglen, in fact it seemed to refresh her. With this in mind, I made the decision after the dress rehearsal (why is it that in Wagner, and only in Wagner in my experience, do you have to make changes after the dress rehearsal, just when you never should make a change?) to take two cuts—a standard one in the Love Duet and one in the third act. This was a painful decision but it was the right one for the moment. It relaxed Heppner, and he sang a brilliant opening night and the rest of the performances. Though Eaglen didn’t want the cut, she lived with it, and we did ten performances, all sold out.
I have no regrets for my decision: what I wanted and had were ten great performances of one of the most challenging operas ever composed. Less in this case guaranteed a lot more.