'Singing a recital is not just about standing in front of a piano and performing a short song. Each song has a story or an emotion that needs to be conveyed to the audience in much the same way as in opera. The difference is that we are more exposed'
Sophie Bevan joins Opera Holland Park for the first time as part of our Opera in Song recital series. In this interview, Sophie tells us about the joy of recitals and her journey back to performing after having two children and facing illness.
Hello Sophie and welcome to Opera Holland Park. We’ve had the pleasure of working with your Uncle Ben in several productions but this is your debut here. Can you tell us a little about your recital programme with Julien and Dylan?
This is a programme of Julien and Dylan’s devising which they both very sweetly asked if I’d like to be a part of. The idea is to showcase the likes of Verdi and Puccini; very much thought of as operatic composers, but in this recital as writers of song also! Most people will have never heard these songs as they count for only a tiny fraction of their compositional output. We have put the songs into context by including others by composers writing at the same time and more well known for the genre.
You have an extraordinarily wide repertoire on stage and in concert, from Handel to Strauss and new works by your husband, the conductor and composer Ryan Wigglesworth. How do you keep your voice in trim in so many different styles?
To be honest, it has become harder as I’ve grown older! When I was very young I could sing anything for hours on end and would never tire, it seemed. But now I have to be careful to practice a lot for each and every concert/opera/recital so that it feels comfortable in my voice and body. I think it’s important, though, to sing a varied repertoire to keep one’s voice and mind healthy. Singing as often as possible is key to keeping my voice ‘in trim’. Since having babies and recovering from my illness this year, I’ve especially found this to be so.
Julien is adamant that singing recitals and performing in opera are not as far apart as many people think. Would you agree with this?
Yes, I would. Singing a recital is not just about standing in front of a piano and performing a short song. Each song has a story or an emotion that needs to be conveyed to the audience in much the same way as in opera. The difference is that we are more exposed in recital with the lack of costume, direction and orchestration.
You’ve had a lifetime of experiences in the last few years, from giving birth to two babies to being diagnosed with and treated for cancer. How has this impacted on your thoughts about being a musician?
What all this has really given me is the impetus to return to singing and understand why I do it and why it is so important to me. Before 2020 I had been working flat out since the moment I started college, from school in 2002, and I was badly in need of a break. I was then forced into one for 2-3 years, as you say. I was given so much support and love by the music world, especially when I was going through cancer treatment, and I missed the energy and camaraderie of the rehearsal room and the joy of performing. I remembered why as a little girl I wanted to work as hard as possible to fulfil my dream of singing professionally. I now feel incredibly lucky to sing for my living and a need to hold onto every wonderful second!
Is there music that you feel you understand more keenly now as a mother?
When I was pregnant with my first baby, Ryan made me a playlist of beautiful calm pieces of music to help me relax whilst giving birth. These pieces mean so much to me and I regularly play them both when alone and to the children. I’m not sure I understand music any more keenly in general, but it means more now to me than ever before and I think I listen more intensely.
Can you tell us a little about the charity that you have chosen to support in this year’s Opera in Song series?
I had bowel cancer and so Bowel Cancer UK, who help so many, was my choice.
Richard Morrison recently described your family as Britain’s Von Trapps in The Times. You are a famously musical family and famously large in number. What was it like growing up among so many musicians?
I’m often asked this question and it’s a hard one to answer as I’ve never known anything else. I had a wonderful childhood filled with music from school, to singing in opera choruses as a child, to church choir, to instrumental lessons, youth choirs, singing at home, in the car with my siblings – I mean it was all consuming and I feel very lucky to have had these opportunities.
Can you remember when you decided to become a professional singer? Any regrets? Any secret desire to become a baker or a train driver or a scientist instead?
Yes I remember very vividly singing in the opera chorus next to my Mum at our local operatic company, Park Opera which was held at South Hill Park in Bracknell. Having sung as a child in La bohème and Carmen, I was allowed to join the main chorus at the age of 11 for Verdi’s Macbeth and I revelled in it. The costumes, the makeup, the smells, the feeling of anticipation from turning up at the theatre until the curtain lifted. The joy of performing, the adrenaline, everything! I was obsessed. Also, having always believed up to that point that I would be a pianist, I realised that singing was what I was passionate about, what I found easy and relished doing on my own in front of an audience. From that age onwards I forced my step father to accompany me every night singing as many operatic roles as we could. Looking back, I can’t believe some of the things I was singing which I would find so difficult now!
The recent release of choral music from The Bevan Family Consort sounds dreamy. How long did it take to get all the members of the consort together at the same time and what did it feel like to return together to choral classics such as Charles Stanford’s Beati quorum via?
Alongside my career as an opera singer and recitalist, I never gave up another of my passions which was for church music. My father ran a choir in London which all the family sang at every week and I continued to do so throughout my years at the RCM and whenever I was free subsequently. When he left that job, Ryan and I started a church choir local to us at our Catholic Church in Dorchester-on-Thames which we do every week, when we’re free. And so, I haven’t really returned to this music, as such, it’s always been part of who I am and who we are as a family. The decision to make a CD came about because we wanted to do something in memory of my father and his musical legacy. What has been incredible has been the reaction to it and the enjoyment it has given.
Lastly, it seems as though the audience for song recitals and the audience for opera are quite distinct. What would you say to opera lovers who might be hesitant about booking for a song recital?
There’s as much drama to be had from a Schubert song as from a Verdi opera!
Interview by Anna Picard