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Why did I cast soprano Jane Eaglen as Ortrud?

By Speight Jenkins

Ortrud is in some ways the most mature role in Lohengrin. That is to say, it is the most like some of Wagner's later roles. Ortrud is evil, joyfully so, but Wagner gives her some of the most exciting and dramatic music in the whole opera. She is the most closely tied to the Ring characters, which is logical when one realizes that her big scene with Telramund at the beginning of Act II was composed after everything in Lohengrin save the Prelude. Perhaps because Elsa is always sung by a lyric soprano who can cut through a big orchestra, Ortrud has often been sung by a mezzo-soprano. But it's really not a mezzo role. It goes up frequently to A-sharp and most of it is in the middle vocal range, which is where most of Brünnhilde and Isolde, to give two famous examples, lie.

My first Ortrud was Margaret Harshaw, a much-loved Wagner soprano and a great teacher. I also heard Astrid Varnay, one of the great Wagner sopranos of the twentieth century, sing the role. Hers was a dark, yet persuasive reading. I will never forget the marvelous change of her voice from the bright curse to the submissive greeting to Elsa that happened two or three bars later. That was vocal acting. Birgit Nilsson, the great Swedish heroic soprano, never sang Ortrud, but that was simply because no one would pay her fee for such a short Wagner role.

When I came to cast the part this time, I decided almost immediately that given Varnay's example, it was a logical part for Jane Eaglen. Her voice is quite different, but she has expression in all her registers and great warmth of sound. I asked Jane, and she at first hesitated. When I talked about Varnay, she agreed to look at the part. Within hours,  Jane called me back to say,  "I'm in. I would love to sing it." It will be, I think, an exciting addition to her formidable Wagner repertoire.