Mary Bevan on Britten, mélodie, and musical variety.

We spoke to soprano Mary Bevan about her latest album Visions Illuminées, her performance in the Olivier Award-nominated ROH Alcina, and the importance of career variety.

British Soprano Mary Bevan is renowned worldwide for her commanding opera and recital performances, regularly performing with leading conductors, ensembles and orchestras. Mary was awarded a MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list in 2019, and won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artist award and UK Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent in music.

Mary’s new album Visions Illuminées centres around the concept of illumination, featuring Britten’s Les Illuminations and a selection of mélodie, French art songs, which have been ‘illuminated’ from their original form. The album features three world premiere recordings: Charbrier’s lost string orchestra arrangement of Tes Yeux Bleus, Robin Holloway’s new arrangement for piano quintet of Debussy’s Quatre Mélodies de Verlaine, and Augusta Holmés’ arrangement of Sérénades for piano quintet. Les Illuminations, Britten’s setting of Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry, was premiered by Sophie Wyss in 1940. Setting poetry to other languages was not common for English composers before Britten, nor was setting prose poetry to song. Rimbaud’s poetry has an unusual depth with evocative language which is hauntingly beautiful and jarring at times, blurring reality and surrealism.

Mary is a remarkably versatile singer. For Mary it is essential to have variety, seamlessly moving between opera, Baroque repertoire, and song recital. Friendship and connection is central to Mary’s collaborations, frequently working with pianist Joseph Middleton, and with her family consort. We spoke to Mary about her new album, balancing her repertoire, and her experience performing Morgana in Alcina at the Royal Opera House.

Mary Bevan by Victoria Cadisch

What inspired the selection of music on Visions illuminées? Does Les Illuminations hold a particular significance to you as a singer?

Les Illuminations has come up quite a few times in my career, it feels like quite a seminal moment. It was the first piece I sang professionally when at music college. I was asked to do it by the English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, which in those days was quite a big deal. It was a huge challenge, I’d done things like oratorio but never a solo work like that. Later I did it on tour for ECO with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting, which was an incredible experience for a young singer like me. I listened to Vladimir Ashkenazy as a child. He was one of the few people I really was a fan of, so singing with him was amazing, and I was only 21. That was my first proper experience working with an orchestra, it felt very real and professional. That stuck with me.

Various times I’ve sung it since have been quite amazing. I did it with Nicholas Collon and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast. I was thrown in there at the last minute, it was such an amazing experience to sing it with Nick. Every time I’ve done it it’s felt like a really big challenge, even though I’ve sung it before. I’ve never sung it and rested on my laurels and thought it was easy, I’ve always felt I’ve got to work on this again. Every time I come back to it there seems to be something I’ve missed, learnt, or not thought about in the score. It just keeps on throwing up new challenges! It’s just one of those pieces that is just so tricky, but so satisfying to sing. Afterwards, you feel a real sense of achievement. 

“I’ve always been really into French music of that era. It’s so lush and beautiful to sing, but also challenging.”

I did it without a conductor for the first time with the BBC Scottish Symphony, and that was another major experience. It felt like real communication between me and the orchestra. I started thinking that this was becoming a piece I feel I have some ownership over, and a deep connection to. I’d always thought in the back of my head that I’d record it. In Lockdown, after I’d done my first two solo albums with piano, I thought I should probably do something with orchestra. That came up as a natural centrepiece of the album. It became about orchestral and chamber music that I love, but that also comes from the strange world of French Mysticism. I’ve always been really into French music of that era. It’s so lush and beautiful to sing, but also challenging. 

Mary Bevan by Andy Staples

The word ‘illuminations’ can portray a variety of meanings, from medieval manuscripts to ideas of mysticism and visions. What does ‘illuminations’ mean to you in the context of this album?

Most of the pieces on the album apart from Les Illuminations and Chanson perpétuelle are pieces that have been taken from their original form of piano and voice, and sort of illuminated as you would with a medieval manuscript. They’ve all been given extra life and colour, but not intrinsically changed. Most of the time by the composer themselves, so they were intended. The Ravel and Debussy have been illuminated by Robin Holloway, but with the Duparc, Fauré, Chabrier, and Holmés the composers themselves wanted to augment them. I think they’ve done so in a really stunning way that doesn’t detract from their original. I just thought it’s quite an interesting idea, and it went well with the idea of Les Illuminations, which is the illumination of scenes by music. So it’s like illuminations on top of illuminations.

Whilst there is no narrative to Rimbaud’s words, the text is absolutely key to Les Illuminations, with extensive room for interpretation. Can you tell us how you explored and approached the text in the Britten, and about your work with Professor Helen Abbott, a specialist in word-music relationships in poetic language?

My work with the score and the words has been layer upon layer. It began when I was 20 listening to the CD, singing it, and getting my head around the French, which is really obscure. When it comes to song and singing poetry, especially this type of poetry which is not exactly storytelling but more describing pictures, I’ve tried to create pictures in my head which I can immediately see when I look at the score. The picture comes into my head instantly, and that I did through coaching. I have images in my head that are so familiar to me now they make me feel calm and allow me to paint the picture, I hope, for the audience. The pictures don’t make sense, in the same way that the score doesn’t really make sense, but in my head I can see visions that are pretty strange, grotesque and quite interesting, and constantly changing. 

“I have images in my head that are so familiar to me now they make me feel calm and allow me to paint the picture, I hope, for the audience.”

Professor Helen Abbott has been great, first of all helping with French pronunciation. She was there in the recording process helping me with that. The work we did on this piece together was many years ago. She talks about poetry, whereas I provide the pictures. She also located and suggested the Holmés, and suggested the Chabrier. Chabrier’s Tes yeux bleus probably wouldn’t have come to light, but it’s something Helen happened to know about. Two musicologists had rescued the score from a publishing house in Paris that was closing down. They found this score of Chabrier’s string arrangement. Who knows if anyone would have known it existed without her! I hope now people will sing it and bring it out of retirement, although it’s never really been done so I don’t think it even counts as being retired! There’s a certain amount of freedom to do it your own way when you’re the first. Helen is an amazing source for unrecorded, unknown musical gems. I imagine she and I will work together for a long time. Without her, I’d be doing the ‘normal’ stuff. She throws up some really interesting works! 

Britten originally wrote Les Illuminations for soprano, but it is often sung and recorded by tenor, famously by Britten’s companion Peter Pears. Do you think the female voice adds a unique sound to the text and setting?

With all respect to my tenor colleagues, I think it’s better with Soprano because I think that there is something special about the soprano tessitura being the same as the violins. There are bits where we’re singing the same note, or they’re an octave above. I’ve heard it lots both ways, and with soprano it just feels like it should, the tessituras should match. 

Mary Bevan by Victoria Cadisch

When people think of art song they often think of German lieder and poems set for voice and piano. Compared to your previous albums The Divine Muse of german Lieder and Ralph Vaughan Williams: Folk Songs of English song can you tell us about the difference in experience and approach when singing mélodie, and specifically here in adding the dimensions of chamber ensemble compared to your first album of mélodie Voyages.

I don’t really approach it differently, it just takes a little bit longer to get together because there’s more of you involved in the rehearsal, performance and recording process. It’s less about me and the pianist, and more about everyone slowly fitting together. There’s less mind reading. With Joe and I, we don’t really need to rehearse much these days, we read each other’s minds musically. Sometimes that’s bad as it can lead you to do things too fast. With this disc, it took a lot more concentration and work, and a detailed rehearsal process. I had to get used to not being shy about giving directions and suggestions, and to be open to their ideas and not being closed off to the fact that they’re also part of the ensemble, especially as there was no conductor. 

“With Joe and I, we don’t really need to rehearse much these days, we read each other’s minds musically.”

It was very much a team effort, but I had to lead it because it was my album and musical choices. The general process in the way of singing songs is basically the same, it’s all about text and everything is led by the meaning and the poetry. The chamber instrumentalists may not have so much experience having to know what the words mean. Before each piece I read out the poem, and every so often would remind them what each bit I’m saying is. They don’t have the translation written in like I do. So, before we do anything, it’s really worth discussing the actual meaning of a phrase or verse of a poem. I think that really helps. Orchestral musicians don’t normally have text in front of them at all, they play music, and that’s just the musical line. They think about music, whereas I have to think about all the words too. So we had to open things up to them as well.

In terms of the experience with singing French song versus German or English song, do you have a preference, is it quite different for you musically?

My preference is probably French song at the moment, but I go in and out of phases of loving different things. French song is probably top of my list for performing because there’s something about the sweeping lines of the music, particularly of this sort of era. It’s very romantic and somehow the language is very easy to sing, something to do with the vowel sounds being quite forward. It allows for vocal technique to come more easily with French vowel sounds, whereas sometimes with German the consonants can get in the way of your vocal line. It’s just a little bit harder, and it’s the same with English song. I love doing all of it, but French is my current favourite.

Visions illuminées features two arrangements by contemporary composer Robin Holloway, of Ravel’s Un grand sommeil noir, and Debussy’s Quatre Mélodies de Verlaine. Did you work closely with Holloway on this recording? 

I worked with him closely on the Ravel a few years before, which is when I first heard his arrangement of those songs. We worked quite closely together then. When it came to the recording, he was only able to come up for one day, and was there to make a couple of corrections to the Debussy arrangements. Aside from that, he just left us to it and was very trusting, which is great, and he’s very pleased with the outcome.

Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton performing at Wigmore Hall by Robert Piwko

You have worked with pianist Joseph Middleton on all three of your solo albums, can you tell us about this collaboration?

The thing that’s very important for me when I’m working is that I have a good relationship with someone outside of music. The pianists I work with I also have friendships with. You can’t really travel around for recitals if you don’t have a laugh or get each other, it just makes for a slightly uncomfortable experience. Joe and I are just really good pals, and he laughs at my jokes which is the main thing! With the music, I take it for granted that he’s a wonderful musician. Similarly with Simon Lepper who I work with. They’re wonderful musicians, and that is something that I don’t even question anymore. 

When I’m on stage I’m in it totally, which makes me slightly out of it and Joe doesn’t question that…Suddenly something will bloom out of nowhere, and it just feels very organic.

It’s more about when we’ll get to have a drink together and chat! I think that’s what makes the relationship on stage work really well, because we as singers are funny creatures! It’s all about relaxation, we have to be as relaxed as possible otherwise things don’t quite work vocally. So if the person behind you is making you feel relaxed then it’s a win-win situation. That’s what it feels like with Joe, and musically something special happens. When I’m on stage I’m in it totally, which makes me slightly out of it and Joe doesn’t question that. He just goes with me and without me even knowing makes me do things that I wouldn’t have thought that I could do. He could play exquisitely quietly, and suddenly I’ll be singing really quietly as well. Suddenly something will bloom out of nowhere, and it just feels very organic. We don’t need to drill anything into each other. It just happens, and that’s really an amazing thing.

Mary Bevan by Victoria Cadisch

As well as your work on song recital, you perform a lot of opera, oratorio, and baroque repertoire. Is it important to you to have this balance and variety, or do you have a preference for what you sing?

It is important to me to have that. I’ve always made it clear to my agents that I don’t want to let any of the three strands of my career fade out. I think people like to pigeonhole singers as either an opera singer, a baroque singer, or a recital singer. I want to do all three. I love acting, it is really my number one love, that’s where the fun really comes in. I try to bring acting into all three strands: oratorio, recital and opera. If I ever feel like one is dropping off a bit, I call my agent and say, “I need more of that!”. It balances out eventually. I really like variety, I’ve always liked variety. I don’t ever like doing the same thing over and over again.

I’ve got this weird thing, when I go to the supermarket if I’ve gone past an aisle and realised I’ve forgotten something I just miss it – I hate going back! I don’t know why, it’s some weird thing about not wanting to repeat myself. I have to do things differently each time. When I do an opera every night, I have to add something new in my head or the music. Otherwise, I feel like I’m stagnating, and I hate to stagnate. It’s probably a bit of a weakness, because sometimes it stops me from doing really good practice because I don’t like sitting and repeating, but actually sometimes I need to do that to get something right. So it doesn’t always work in my favour!

Last November you played Morgana in the Royal Opera House’s Alcina, a work which hasn’t been performed there since 1960. It’s a unique opera which doesn’t get performed very often, do you hope it will get more attention?

I think that baroque opera in general is going to get much more attention in the coming years. I think it’s growing, certainly in America. France has a huge baroque tradition that’s blooming. I find that other opera houses, like Copenhagen, are all catching on to this, and it’s no longer a rarified thing. You get normal opera singers singing baroque opera, it’s not a specialised thing that only a few can do these days, so I think it will get more attention. The Alcina doing so well will only add to that. I believe the Royal Opera House is going to be doing much more Baroque these days, I think the appetite for it is really growing.

“I learned so much working with Lissette Oropeza…her attitude is just incredible, she shows that you don’t need to be a diva to be absolutely top of your game and to be a really beautiful colleague.”

I had an amazing time doing that show. It was a seminal career moment for me as it was my first time back on the mainstage of the Opera House since 2015. I learned so much working with Lissette Oropeza. I spent a lot of time on stage rehearsing with her, watching her sing close up. I learned so much just technically, watching what she does with her voice and body. Also, her attitude is just incredible, she shows that you don’t need to be a diva to be absolutely top of your game and to be a really beautiful colleague. That was very influential. I learnt a lot technically, but also it was just really fun with a lovely set of colleagues. It was a really special experience, and it’s not that often those experiences come around for all.

Last year you released Sweet Stillness with baroque violinist Davina Clarke with beautiful Handel arias, how did this collaboration and album come about?

That was again due to a friendship. Davina and I have often toured together for the Academy of Ancient Music, and she always said we should do this together. She’s such a doer, she organised everything and raised all the money. I just got on board, and was happy to. She’s a lovely player and it comes across in her playing that she’s a lovely person too. I’m always keen to do things with friends because I think that’s partly what this career is all about. For me, it’s about camaraderie, celebrating friendships and music together. That disc is what that came from, and we’ll be doing another one.

Bevan Family Consort

You have an album coming out with The Bevan Family Consort, can you tell us about this consort and your experience both growing up in such a musical family, and singing together as adults now? It must be an interesting experience!

Yeah, it’s really interesting. At the beginning stages of trying to organise something, it is a nightmare! I’m mostly in charge now of getting us gigs, trying to get people together for rehearsals and an album launch, and we’re now organising our second disc recording with Signum. Luckily there’s no beef at all, but finding a date to come together is impossible! Everyone has children or jobs, some are singers, some travel. Once we’re actually there I’m in total heaven, we all are! There’s nothing more fun than hanging out with 15 cousins, four of whom are my siblings. We’re a very close family and we’re all really similar. We have the same sense of humour, the same tastes in food, and we all want to drink loads and make jokes the whole time, so it does mean everyone is just constantly laughing. 

“The music and the experience of singing together is very personal to us, yet we also had loads of fun.”

When the music starts, however, everyone suddenly turns serious. It’s really sweet to see people who don’t sing in their normal day to day lives, because they’ve got proper jobs, really like lifting their game and being professional. Listening back to the tracks, everyone’s saying “Oh my God, is that us?”. It’s so satisfying, so that’s why I go through the pain of organising, because the outcome is just amazing. The disc is actually really good, I think. I hope it does well because it’s music that we all feel very deeply connected to. We all grew up singing in my dad’s church in Chelsea, we all know this particular repertoire really well from there. We dedicated the disc to my dad and my auntie, both of whom died last year. The music and the experience of singing together is very personal to us, yet we also had loads of fun. 

Mary Bevan by Victoria Cadisch

Do you have any performances or projects coming up this year which you’re particularly excited about?

This year I actually don’t have much in the UK, which is very unusual for me. I’m off to Munich to make my debut at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper as Calisto in Cavalli’s La Calisto. It’s a very fast turnaround, I’m learning it now and I’ve got to turn up with it all in my body. I’m learning from a video, so the pressure’s on a little! Then after a week off I go to Venice to do Euridice in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Teatro La Fenice. I can’t wait, I’ve never been to Venice before! Then at the end of this year I’m making my debut in Zurich. Three debuts and three international opera houses, which is just amazing! I haven’t done this much opera for years, the pandemic stopped that a bit. I’m very excited about these, and working with Emmanuelle Haïm in Zurich.

I’m recording a disc of Noel Coward and friends with Nicky Spence and Joe Middleton, another friendship project. Nicky and I wanted to do an album together, and Noel Coward came up because we both like doing comedy. We previously recorded Vaughan Williams’ Farmyard Song, a really silly song. In the sessions, during lockdown, Nicky couldn’t do all of the singing and the animal noises, so I did the animal noises. We didn’t know how funny it was going to be, and we couldn’t stop laughing. You can hear the outtakes on my Twitter! We’re performing it at Leeds Lieder on March 4th. It’s called A Marvellous Party, which is also the name of a Noel Coward song. It’s Noel Coward, and people who we feel he would invite to an imaginary party.

Our playlist in this spotlight Mary Bevan explores Mary’s career, as well as the music mentioned here.

We feature a variety of Mary’s recital recordings in our playlists Art Song, Willow, Historic Women Composers, and Weekend Classics.

Visions Illuminées can be purchased from Signum Records.

Music mentioned in Spotlight

Music mentioned in Spotlight

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