Saturday 27 February 2016

Susanna, dyslexia and a year of Handel - my encounter with soprano Anna Devin

Anna Devin as Semele with Lawrence Cummings and the London Handel Festival
Anna Devin in the title role of Handel's Semele with Lawrence Cummings and the London Handel Festival
with Rupert Charlesworth, Louise Innes, Ewa Gubanska & Maria Valdmaa
The Irish soprano Anna Devin has been making something of a name for herself in the lyric soprano repertoire. 2015 saw her performing a number of Handel roles including Clotilde in Faramondo at the Gottingen Festival and the title role in Handel's Semele at the London Handel Festival. She has recently opened in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in Tobias Richter's new production at Welsh National Opera, returning to the role of Susanna which she first sang with Glyndebourne on Tour. Anna is also dyslexic and is something of an ambassador having been interviewed by Woman's Hour on the topic last year. I chatted to Anna on the phone to catch up with her recent activities. We spoke on the morning of the first night of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in Cardiff, where Anna informed me it was a beautiful day and she was planning to take advantage of this and go for a walk after our chat.

Mozart Marriage of Figare - Anna Devin, Naomi O'Connell - WNO - photo Richard Hubert Smith
Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Anna Devin, Naomi O'Connell
WNO - photo Richard Hubert Smith
This won't be Anna's first time as Susanna, but it is the first time she has taken part in a production 'in her own right' as she put it. In 2012 she sang in the second cast with Glyndebourne on Tour, there were 29 performances of Le nozze di Figaro and three Susannas so there was not much rehearsal time with the rest of the cast. This time with WNO, though, she is the only Susanna and has a full rehearsal schedule.

But WNO is rehearsing a trio of Figaro operas (Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigila, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Elena Langer's Figaro gets a divorce) and some of the cast members are in the Mozart and the Langer so that rehearsal schedules are complex. But Anna has been putting these complications into the character of Susanna, who is equally busy in the opera. Anna enjoys the role from an acting perspective, Anna sees the challenges as being the ensembles, and acting, the need to be inventive and of course the stamina. You have to work hard and only get an aria in Act Four when Susanna sings 'Deh vieni' which Anna calls 'an incredible big aria'.

Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Anna Devin, David Stout - WNO - photo Richard Hubert Smith
Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Anna Devin, David Stout
WNO - photo Richard Hubert Smith
The cast of the WNO Figaro is all British and Irish, with an Irish Cherubino (Naomi O'Connell). Anna comments that it doesn't happen very often to have another Irish singer in the cast. They are doing two shows per week, and there are two places where she has to stay, Llandudno which is close to Snowdonia which offers the possibility of walks, and Plymouth where she has rented a cottage by the sea. (Anna comments that she loves the sea and  misses it in London). She is happy doing touring, and regards it as important for people to give them access to opera. And she has found that there are a surprising amount of amazing theatres and concert halls in Britain, whereas there are a lot less in Ireland.

I wondered whether, when rehearsing the opera, Anna ever thought of herself as a possible Countess. But for Anna this depends on how her voice develops, as the part is rather low. So she would be an older Countess, which works just as well. During rehearsals, Anna had a throat infection and was not always singing, so she as able to listen to Elizabeth Watts who is singing the Countess in the production. And Anna noticed that the role goes low and needs heft, so it is one that will have to wait until later. For the moment Anna feels she has lots of Susannas in her.

Susanna is very much more than a maid, but Anna would like to move into the more lyrical Mozart roles such as Fiordiligi (in Cosi fan tutte), Donna Elvira (in Don Giovanni) and she would love to do Aspasia in Mitridate Re di Ponto. Another role is Ilia in Idomeneo which she has sung in concert, but the role which seems to get her most excited is Pamina in The Magic Flute which she feels fits her like a glove, but for some reason it has not come her way yet and she has only sung Papagena (at Covent Garden).

Handel Saul - Christopher Ainslie, Anna Devin - Glyndebourne on Tour
Handel Saul - Christopher Ainslie, Anna Devin - Glyndebourne on Tour
Anna comes from Dublin and always loved Classical music; she saw Le nozze di Figaro when she was six and always wanted to be in opera. But when she left school she chose to study multi-media, because the opportunities for opera in Ireland were very limited. She had no understanding of the bigger picture and was worried that he would end up teaching. But halfway through her degree she realised that she hated it and that she faced a choice. She chose to do what she loved, took a year out and then studied music.

Looking back, she now feels that this was the right path. She had her wild years when she was at university and now is careful, you cannot to the wild, university things as a singer. When she made the choice, she knew she really wanted it. This is important because you have to sacrifice a lot as a singer.

Anna is dyslexic and I was curious whether this affected the way she learns music. But it affects only language; music has always been part of her life, she learned the piano from the age of six, played the clarinet and of course sang. But language is difficult, it was only when she got to Covent Garden on the Jette Parker programme and was having one to one coaching that she began to understand how her brain works. Now, her learning process is very aural and visual, and she learns a lot from the music and the text; she has to understand what is going on. Only then does she study the text on its own, and thinking about movements associated with the phrases helps as do colours. She uses a lot of visualisation and remembers pictures all the time. She now sees it more of a blessing than a hindrance, and feels that is important that people are empowered. You need to  find you own path, even if it is a different path. Without her dyslexia should would probably have finished her degree and regretted not being a singer.

Handel Saul - Glydebourne on Tour
The other composer she has been performing a lot is Handel, something she loves singing. She sang six Handel roles last year, and had not done any before that. But she sees this as useful, because if she had started singing Handel earlier she would have been in danger of being pigeon-holed whereas now she is able to be more flexible.  Not all the Handel roles she has sung have been well known, and she would like to do more than just mainstream Handel. She sang the role of Clotilde in Faramondo at Gottingen (see my review of the recording) which was full of incredible music. Clotilde, who is Faramondo's sister, has four arias all Allegro with lots of notes, and all four are different. Her top five role would include Handel's Cleopatra (in Giulio Cesare in Egitto) and the title role in Semele, a role she will be singing in Karlsruhe in February 2017 (Semele is a role which she sang to some acclaim at the 2015 London Handel Festival, see my review).

Verdi Falstaff - Anna Devin - photo Royal Opera House
Verdi Falstaff - Anna Devin - photo Royal Opera House
Having sung Nanetta in Verdi's Falstaff, and Anna would also like to more bel canto which she feels fits her voice. When singing Handel, there are usually big slow numbers where there is potential for the voice to open up, often though conductors want to take advantage of her ability to sing quietly. Bel canto, however, really gives her voice a chance to open up and she is eyeing up Gilda (Rigoletto) and Giulietta (Capuletti e i Montecchi). She has covered Marie in La fille du Regiment and sang Countess Adele in Rossini's Comte Ory at Blackheath Halls, where the community aspect of the production was also an attraction for Anna.

When I ask Anna what her desert island roles would be, from any voice time, she names two. Charlotte in Werther is a role she realises she will probably never sing, though she has sung Sophie at Covent Garden, and she loves the complexity of the music in the opera. Anna's other desert island role is one which is in her fach, Mimi in La Boheme which she describes as her all time favourite opera. Any time she hears the Act Three duet between Mimi and Marcello i makes her cry and she feels a deep emotional connection with the opera.

Anna is singing Susanna again at Scottish Opera in the Autumn, in Rossini's L'enfant et les sortileges in Milan conducted by Mark Minkowski, and in Pergolesi's Stabat Mater with Les Musiciens du Louvre, and will also be singing at the Teatro Real in Madrid. 

Elsewhere on this blog:

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