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Artist of the month: British soprano Mary Bevan

7 November 2014, London, UK

Mary Bevan
Mary Bevan(Photo: Victoria Cadisch)

Interview by Owen Mortimer

The Bevan family are every music marketeer’s dream. A musical dynasty with their own family choir, at least three members of the current generation are already pursuing successful careers in opera. Elder sister Sophie was the Young Artist category winner at the first ever International Opera Awards and now Mary, who received this year’s Critics’ Circle Exceptional Young Talent Award, is enjoying her own meteoric rise.

With so much talent going around, it’s surprising to learn that singing wasn’t always part of Mary’s career plan. ‘I suppose I can be a little bit contrary: I don’t like to be put in a box and necessarily do what’s expected,’ she explains. ‘So I decided to study mediaeval history because it was a subject I was passionate about, and it was nice to have a passion that wasn’t music. At the back of my mind was also the thought that I might become a singer but not like it, or not be good enough, or lose my voice: then what? I decided that doing a degree would give me another string to my bow.’

The turning point for Mary came during her final year at Cambridge, when she played Susanna in a student production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Up until then, she admits to having spent more time having fun than focusing on music, ‘but when I got the role of Susanna I had to stop partying for a couple of months to learn the role and perform it well – and suddenly my voice improved’. The experience of performing live for an audience also thrilled her: ‘I felt completely at home: my brain was at full capacity, which it had never been while I was studying, though I was interested in my subject. Being on stage made me feel excited and so full of life.’ Laughing, she adds: ‘Maybe that’s just a posh way of saying I’m an attention-seeker!’

At Cambridge, Mary’s operatic ‘wobble’ had marked her out as different from her peers who cultivated a straighter, more choral sound. During her postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music, she continued to be something of a misfit: ‘There was a feeling at college that if you had a big voice then you were bound for opera, whereas I wasn’t big-voiced.’ People would ask her whether she really intended to be an opera singer. ‘I thought, why not? Just because my voice isn’t massive it doesn’t mean I can’t do opera. In fact it did me a favour, because when I left college my voice was ideal for smaller roles like Barbarina and Papagena, which has now led to me doing Despina and Susanna, whereas if you come out of college with a big voice it’s hard to land major roles when nobody knows who you are.’ Mary is currently singing Susanna at English National Opera (performances run until 23 November), using the same translation by Jeremy Sams that she learnt at Cambridge.

Away from the operatic stage, Mary is also passionate about song, and it’s in this guise that she’ll be performing as part of our next Rhinegold LIVE recital series on 10 November. Her programme – ‘The Stages of Love’ – explores different facets of this universal human experience through songs in English, French and German, accompanied by ENO répétiteur Richard Peirson. Their programme includes the world premiere of Peirson’s own ‘Echo’, a setting of the poem by Christina Georgina Rossetti. ‘Richard’s song was already half-written, but he’s finished it for me,’ explains Mary. ‘It’s beautiful and fits in brilliantly with the theme of “Parting and Death” that forms the fourth and last part of the recital.’

One of the things Mary loves about giving recitals is the focus on the singer, stripped bare of the support structures that opera offers. ‘Every song has a completely different character, so it’s quite similar to opera in that way,’ says the soprano. ‘On the other hand, it’s such an intimate setting so you’ve got to bring people into your world rather than relying on the staging and production to do some of that work for you.’

For most young singers, recital opportunities tend to be rarer than roles in opera, and for Mary this will be one of the first recitals that she’s given since graduating. Many of the songs have been in her repertoire for a long time, however, and all of them have been included because she wants to share them with the audience. ‘This programme is so accessible. You only have to have been in love, or been married or had a child or anything that most human beings have experienced for any of these songs to touch you in some kind of way. And even if you haven’t, the music is just so beautiful.’

It’s a project that seems to have fired Mary’s imagination, who says she’s already thinking about her next programme on the theme of madness, as well as trying to find a label to make her first recital disc. ‘The song repertoire is huge and there’s so much to discover,’ she says. ‘It’s an intellectual pursuit that’s exciting because it’s got to come from you.’

Catch Mary Bevan's Rhinegold LIVE recital at Conway Hall in London on Monday 10 November (6.15pm for 7pm concert). Bevan is joined by pianist Richard Peirson for a programme of songs and arias exploring ‘The Stages of Love’ – from infatuation to parting. Register online to reserve your free tickets:

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Iconic British Wagnerians revisit Bayreuth legend

5 November 2014, London, UK

Anne Evans and John Tomlinson in Bayreuth's legendary 1988 'Ring' cycle
Anne Evans and John Tomlinson in Bayreuth's legendary 1988 'Ring' cycle

‘It was the highlight of my working life.’ That, simply put, was how Sir John Tomlinson described his experience of singing Wotan in a production of Wagner’s Ring that has become an operatic legend.

Sir John was speaking at ‘Bayreuth Revisited’ presented by the International Opera Awards at the Royal Society of Chemistry in London on Wednesday night (4 November). He was joined by Dame Anne Evans who sang Brünnhilde in the same production.  Sunday Times opera critic Hugh Canning chaired the after-dinner conversation, as two of Britain’s most distinguished operatic luminaries reminisced about their experience of working in Bayreuth.

In 1988, East German director Harry Kupfer launched a new cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuth Festival. Its stark sets pierced by laser beams, depicting a road stretching away into an endless horizon, together with the unprecedented energy of the music and drama, marked this Ring as a landmark event that received the highest critical praise. The production was filmed over two seasons in 1991 and 1992 and was among the first operas to be captured in High Definition on video.

‘The timing and political backdrop made Kupfer’s Ring especially significant,’ said Dame Anne. Its ideas came together just as Europe emerged from the Cold War on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘It was a time of incredible change and uncertainty, a mixture of hope and anxiety, which had a huge impact on Kupfer as an East German.’

Sir John recalled that Kupfer had a surprising take on the role of Wotan, king of the gods. ‘I was used to thinking of him as a noble figure, rather solid and venerable; but Kupfer had quite another view of him. This Wotan was a bundle of energy, athletic, youthful and roguish, which made his scenes with Brünnhilde especially urgent and exciting.’

The early 1990s film footage accompanied the discussion, so that the audience could get a sense of the white-hot excitement of the production for themselves, with Wotan and Brünnhilde, each with a shock of unruly red hair, locked in the father-daughter struggle that drives Die Walküre. The magnificent acting and singing of Tomlinson and Evans was underpinned by the whirlwind dynamism of Daniel Barenboim’s conducting.

Hugh Canning pointed out that Kupfer’s was probably the last great and enduring production of the Ring to be staged in Bayreuth. Recent productions have proved far less successful, and last year’s Wagner anniversary staging by the controversial Rank Castorf was widely judged to be a fiasco.

Kupfer’s production, Dame Anne recalled, was dubbed the ‘English Ring’ in Germany. She explained that Britain was able to field so many great Wagnerians because of the extraordinary influence of the English conductor Sir Reginald Goodall, who had nurtured the art of great Wagnerian singing among a generation of British singers. Sir John added that the Germans were, to start with, suspicious of what appeared to be a British invasion of Bayreuth. ‘As soon as they saw the quality of what we could do, they were won over,’ he said.

‘Bayreuth Revisited’ was presented by the International Opera Awards as part of their ongoing bid to raise awareness of opera and promote excellence in the field. This was a fundraising event where proceeds were given to the Opera Awards Foundation which nurtures great talent for the future.

The 2015 International Opera Awards will take place at the Savoy Theatre & Hotel on 26 April next year. For details and reservations visit

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Virginia Opera’s 40th anniversary season opens with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd

29 September 2014, Norfolk, US

Stephen Powell (Sweeney Todd) and Phyllis Pancella (Nellie Lovett)
Stephen Powell (Sweeney Todd) and Phyllis Pancella (Nellie Lovett)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

The Virginia Opera has chosen an eclectic programme to celebrate its 40th anniversary season: Sondheim’s chilling thriller Sweeney Todd and Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, highlighting the company’s strong commitment to musical theatre, plus Salome and La traviata.
Director Ron Daniels’ production of Sweeney Todd showed the tragic results of all-consuming revenge. Set in gritty 19th-century London, Todd had just returned from a penal colony in Australia, where he had been interred on fabricated charges by Judge Turpin. To add insult to injury, Turpin lusted after and abducted Todd’s beautiful wife Lucy and their young daughter Johanna. Obsessed with revenge for this injustice, Todd became a serial killer, murdering almost everyone who visited his barber shop for a shave, in addition to his planned killings of those who wronged him. Whomever sat in his elaborately set-up barber’s chair, efficiently arranged to dispose of the victims whose throats he proficiently slit, were then shoved into an oven (reminiscent of those used in the Nazi concentration camps), and subsequently used as ingredients in pies sold in a shop upstairs.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set designs featured a dark, minimalistic backdrop of what looked like soot-covered corrugated aluminum and a translucent blood-spattered curtain, which intermittently bisected the stage giving characters behind it a ghostly appearance. This dramatic and macabre setting, bathed in blood-red light, proved an ideal platform for the work. Its essence and message came across through good singing and acting, especially by Stephen Powell and Phyllis Pancella whose nuanced portrayals of Sweeney Todd and Nellie Lovett captured both the darkness and humour of their characters.

Other standout portrayals included Andre Chiang whose lustrous voice combined with innocent simplicity created an ideal Anthony Hope; Amanda Opuszynskui who assayed Johanna with sweet innocence; Jake Gardner who made an evil and sexually obsessed Judge Turpin; and Diana DiMarzio as the Beggar women (in reality Todd’s demented wife) whose state and tragic murder vividly demonstrated the heartbreaking consequences of unbridled hate. Maestro Adam Turner, despite occasionally covering the singers, did a commendable job with the Virginia Opera Orchestra.

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Welser-Möst quits as music director of the Vienna State Opera

8 September 2014, Vienna, Austria

Franz Welser-Möst
Franz Welser-Möst(Photo: Roger Mastroianni)

Report by George Jahn

Simmering differences between Franz Welser-Möst and Dominique Meyer over the artistic direction of the Vienna State Opera have led to what those who know the scene say was inevitable – the resignation of Welser-Möst as music director.

Meyer sought to keep the dispute private, saying little after issuing a general statement. The Vienna State Opera general director said Welser-Möst’s departure was ‘a huge loss’, adding that he greatly valued him as an artist and conductor.

But Welser-Möst’s comments hinted at the breadth of their disagreements. ‘It has to do with singers and directors; it has to do with the entire domain that determines the artistic direction of the house,’ he said. ‘Believe me: this is a very painful decision for me.’

The break was announced on 5 September but had apparently been long in coming. From the start of his tenure two years ago, Welser-Möst sought to have a greater voice in determining the repertoire, the performers and the presentation of one of the world’s greatest opera houses.

As the conflict festered, leading Austrian cultural figures were called in to mediate, with the latest session taking place last week – in vain.

Welser-Möst’s decision hit like a bombshell, leaving Meyer scrambling to find conductors for 34 performances this season, including two opera premieres: Verdi’s Rigoletto and Elektra by Strauss.

It is nonetheless in keeping with the outwardly quiet 54-year-old Austrian music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Unspectacular when not conducting, Welser-Möst is known for putting his foot down rather than consent to painful compromise.

He stepped back two years ago from Così fan tutte at the Salzburg Festival rather than accepting what he said was insufficient rehearsal time. He also criticised Salzburg director Alexander Pereira’s 2012 opera picks – including Carmen, La bohème and Die Zauberflöte – as too tame for the sophisticated Salzburg audience.

With his contract scheduled to run until 2018, Welser-Möst’s departure adds to the reputation of the Vienna house as teeming with intrigue, with a notoriously high turnover of music directors as a result.

Welser-Möst is in good company. Those forced out or quitting before their terms ended include Gustav Mahler, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Lorin Maazel.

World Premiere | Trans Mahgreb at Bregenz Festival

1 September 2014, Bregenz, Austria

Organised confusion: 'Trans Mahgreb' at Bregenz Festival
Organised confusion: 'Trans Mahgreb' at Bregenz Festival

The nightmare unfolds in 'Trans Mahgreb'
The nightmare unfolds in 'Trans Mahgreb'

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Outside the theatre, before Trans Maghreb, the audience was ‘transported’ to Libya in rebellion, where this Austrian-Arabic chamber music theatre piece took place, with a recreation of the sights, sounds, and smells of the country. The audience became part of the action, herded around the stage, intermingling with the performers. (I was given a bullet-proof vest marked ‘Press’ to wear.) Unfolding in a black-box space amidst real sand evoking the endless Libyan desert and wall projections of Gaddafi encircled with fire (symbolically evoking his demise), the work became a terrifying experience of what it would be like as a Westerner caught up in the middle of the Arab Spring uprising.

Based on the same-named novella by Hans Platzgumer, who also wrote the libretto, it told the story of an Austrian engineer and his workers who, while building a rail project in the Libyan desert, were locked up by rebels fighting against Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Their only hope was their Austrian supervisor Anton Corwald, who cared more about money than his workers, and escaped leaving them die.

Spoken and sung in a mixture of German, Arabic, Turkish, French and English, the piece alternated post-modern minimalism, improvised jazz and what could only be categorized as noise. Interspersed were arias and spoken dialogue. The music lacked unity and continuity with jarring results. Radically different sounds accompanied the separate actions, changing according to the events and psychological aspects, more akin to a movie soundtrack than music theatre. The audience was herded to and fro like cattle to bear witness to the different events and horrors unfolding around them.

Trans Maghreb was commissioned as part of the ‘Kunst aus der Zeit’ (Art of our Times) series at Bregenz Festival. Director Ran Braun conceived the work as organised confusion, resulting in controlled chaos that immerses the audience. The overall effect was powerful and moving, and demonstrated how diverse the concept of ‘opera’ has become.

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