On 16 October rising British opera star Mary Bevan makes her role debut for English National Opera as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. She is, however, no stranger to the part or indeed to Fiona Shaw’s production, having played Barbarina in 2011. She first played Susanna for Cambridge University Opera Society in 2006 while she was studying for her degree in Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic at Trinity College.
She is very excited to be returning to the character, and feels that because her voice and technique have become much stronger, it has presented the challenge of approaching the same part with a very different instrument. Nevertheless, although Bevan is the first to suggest that her voice is better controlled now, reviews of her performance eight years ago were very positive.
Shaw’s production of Figaro is not set in the modern day, as would have been the director’s natural preference, because the droit de seigneur is too alien a concept. She therefore decided to represent the house where the action takes place as a maze, which is an intrinsically eighteenth century motif since these labyrinths graced many an aristocratic garden. More importantly, a maze represents an area in which people can become physically and symbolically lost, so the Count acts as the Minotaur at the centre who devours women. I remember it as an immensely detailed and dynamic production, and Bevan recalls with happiness just how much Shaw, of whom she speaks with nothing but praise, gave her to do three years ago in the role of Barbarina.
This time around, in preparation for playing Susanna, Bevan has read the original Beaumarchais play, as Shaw did when she first devised the production. She is adamant that it cannot be taken as sole gospel when understanding how to play the part because the Mozart/Da Ponte take does alter aspects of the maid’s character, but she has taken note of the description of Susanna as “always laughing, always happy, always gay”. This is seen in the opera in the way in which she makes coolheaded decisions, and remains bright with her love for Figaro, in direct contrast to the Countess who let things overwhelm her long ago.
Bevan believes, however, that a performer should never fix entirely on how to play a character until rehearsals are underway because so much depends on the relationship established with the other cast members. In this respect, she is very much looking forward to working with ENO stalwart David Stout who plays Figaro, and whom is a good friend. She performed in a Windsor and Eton Operatic Society production of The Gondoliers with him when he was Giuseppe and she, at the age of seventeen, was a chorus member with solo lines (as was her mother). More recently, in December 2012 they appeared at the Coliseum as Yum-Yum and Pish-Tush in a revival of Jonathan Miller’s The Mikado.
I mention that I found Aleksandra Kurzak and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo particularly convincing as the central pair in the 2012 revival of David McVicar’s production at the Royal Opera House (Bevan incidentally played Barbarina in the 2013 outing). They really gave the impression of being a couple who were fully aware of each other’s foibles, and who were always ready to stand up to, or conversely rescue, each other. Bevan agrees that Susanna and Figaro enjoy a standard domestic relationship, and she is looking forward to exploiting her real life friendship with Stout to bring this out. She also stresses that ultimately all the couple want to do is get on and get married that day. It may seem an obvious point, but it is one that performers must keep at the forefront of their minds as their characters react to each and every obstacle that is thrown in their way.
Bevan’s last operatic appearance at the London Coliseum was in May as Despina in Phelim McDermott’s new production of Così fan tutte, which divided the critics. She is very stoical about the press it received feeling that the opera is “never well received. Some people want it to be funny, some people want it to be dark, and even when you try to do a bit of both some people aren’t happy”. She personally believes it is a comedy and not misogynistic, and hence felt very much in tune with McDermott’s ‘fairground’ take. She adds, however, that the presence of circus performers whom Don Alfonso manipulated did give the production a certain dark edge.
This leads us to discuss the issue of reviews, and Bevan says her main disappointment when a production receives poor ones is that on the fifth or sixth night the cast could be staring out at empty seats. This saddens her because it means people are missing out on what could be a fantastic experience for them, and she feels strongly that everyone should go and make their own mind up about a production. She points, in particular, to ENO’s Castor and Pollux in 2011 which “some people loved, some people hated”.
Regarding how Bevan personally takes criticism in reviews, she says she will think about the comments and sometimes revise aspects of her performance in line with them, provided they are not of the single adjective variety (eg. ‘splendid’ or ‘poor’). Since it is impossible to learn anything from these, she is happy to ignore them. She says she would only feel really down if a review of her performance was totally negative and vitriolic, and that has never happened. When on one recent occasion she stepped in to do a concert at the eleventh hour and received the comment “she seemed to have time to put too much make-up on” she was a little miffed but soon saw the funny side. Well, if that was the worst they could find to say about her performance!
At the other end of the spectrum, Bevan recalls the enjoyment of going into a production that had already enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim. This was David Alden’s Peter Grimes of 2009, in which she took the role of Second Niece in the first revival last January. Many of her movements were kinetic and mechanical and she says she grew very close to Rhian Lois (First Niece) after they spent half of the production swirling around in the same big coat. Every step they took was tightly choreographed, with she and Lois receiving private lessons for this during the rehearsal period, but by the end they were also writing in their own little touches such as blinking in sync.
She also feels lucky to have been a part of the first ever ENO satellite screening when the opera was broadcast to cinemas, although she suggests that any knowledge of how much vaster the audience was that day had very little effect on how she felt or performed. It was only on the day of filming that she glimpsed a man exiting the stage with lots of equipment, and when she subsequently asked someone who he was she was surprised to receive the reply, “that was the cameraman and they’ve been on stage the whole time you’ve been on”!
Bevan’s entire family is musical, with her parents between them being heavily involved in singing, teaching, conducting and composing. The Bevan Family Choir, which has a number of tours and recordings to its name, has existed since long before Mary was born, but her generation has ensured that the (currently nineteen-strong) group is as active as ever. Her uncle Benjamin is an opera baritone with forthcoming engagements for Welsh National Opera, the Royal Opera and Garsington Opera. Her older sister is Sophie Bevan who also has a strong association with English National Opera, last being seen at the Coliseum in June as Leïla in The Pearl Fishers.
The sisters are very close with Mary suggesting that she and Sophie are like “best friends”. When I ask if there is even just a little friendly rivalry between them, she says not even that. When they are together they interact as any sisters might and usually do not even discuss music because that would be like “talking about work”. On the other hand, she regards Sophie as the best source of advice that she has and will regularly ask for the most honest comments on her performances. She also says if she is taking on a role that Sophie has already played she will frequently ask her for ideas, or indeed request advice on whether certain parts would be suitable for her.
As with any singer, Bevan spends as much time performing in concerts, oratorios and recitals as she does in the opera house. She says these present different challenges as there are not typically three weeks of prior rehearsal to “get it into your body”, but she very much enjoys doing them and is now at the stage where a lot of the parts she takes on she has done before. After playing Kate in The Yeomen of the Guard at the Albert Hall in 2012, her second appearance at the Proms was just a few weeks ago performing in the Act II Suite of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Caroline Mathilde. Her soprano was accompanied by the mezzo-soprano of Kitty Whately, recently seen as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia at Opera Holland Park. Bevan describes how Maxwell Davies wanted their voices simply to be two instruments within the orchestra, meaning that she and Whately were not positioned at the front of the stage and remained seated as they sang. This presented challenges for singing technique and projection, but she relished the experience and I can vouch that the voices sounded very good together.
Bevan’s first appearance for English National Opera came in 2011 as Rebecca in the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys. She has since become a Harewood Artist, and speaks very enthusiastically about the ENO Harewood Artists scheme, which was established in 1998. She stresses that its importance lies not only in the coaching that it provides, essential though that is. It is also about nurturing a group of performers (there are around twelve at any one time) in a supportive environment and giving them opportunities: “we’re given substantial parts, not just tiny ones”. She says that, contrary to the image outsiders may have of opera singers being egotistical and backstabbing, the support she has from colleagues is second to none. There is, she feels, no more nerve racking experience than performing in front of her peers in a master class, but she says that the feedback and encouragement she receives from doing so is brilliant.
Bevan was consequently pleased to be able to honour Lord Harewood, ENO’s managing director from 1972 to 1985, at a gala night last June that reflected on his life and raised money for the scheme. As well as participating in the finale to Falstaff, she sang the Second Wood Nymph in ‘Mám, zlaté vlásky Mám’ (Mine, golden hair is mine) from Rusalka alongside Rhian Lois and Catherine Young, with Brindley Sherratt playing the Water Spirit. She describes the experience as “high pressure” as rehearsal time was limited and so many friends (including all of the Harewood Artists) were there, along with a host of world class conductors, directors and singers (Dames Anne Evans, Felicity Lott and Felicity Palmer among them). She feels immensely privileged, however, to have played a part in supporting such a worthwhile charity.
I ask Bevan about her upcoming engagements and she says she is set to play Music and Nymph in L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse next January in a joint production with the Royal Opera. She is excited because she has always wanted to fly on stage and conductor Christian Curnyn has hinted that she may be entering from the ceiling on wires. My mind automatically turns to memories of Susanna Hurrell’s entrance as Music in Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in March (in a joint Globe/Royal Opera production), but it will be interesting to see how the idea is executed in this far larger venue.
Beyond that Bevan is not at liberty to mention further engagements, but happily tells me those parts she would love to play which include Poppea, Adina, Cleopatra and possibly the Countess when she is older. She says she sometimes feels sad at the thought that, as with any singer, there are certain roles she will never be able to take on because they do not suit the voice, but feels it is far more important to work on everything she is good at doing rather than “wishing for what you haven’t got”. She also says, at the end of the day, the one part she dreams about more than any other is that of Susanna. Not for the first time, the dream is about to become a reality for Mary Bevan, and I cannot wait to see – and hear – the results.
Fiona Shaw’s production of The Marriage of Figaro for English National Opera, starring Mary Bevan as Susanna and David Stout as Figaro, takes place at the London Coliseum between 16 October and 23 November 2014. For further details and tickets click here.