Rebecca Evans: 'Mozart is my favourite composer. I couldn't live a day without him.'

Interview on singing Despina in Cosi fan tutte and Zerlina in Don Giovanni at Covent Garden

2 July 2007

Rebecca Evans

Rebecca Evans is in every way the 'down-to-earth diva'. For instance, the first five minutes of our conversation have nothing to do with opera and are instead devoted to her apologies for having inadvertently forgotten about the interview and gone to lunch with the rest of the cast - evidently an unusual lapse of organisation caused by the unexpected early ending of the morning's rehearsal - and she then goes on to sympathise with me about the postman, who hasn't bother to deliver my review copy of Evans' new recording of Hansel and Gretel, forcing me to spend the morning going to the sorting office to collect it.

'Why do they do that? They do it to us all the time. They say 'We rang the bell' and I tell them 'I was here all the time!'. Then they put a card through the door, telling you to collect it at such-and-such. It does annoy me!'.

All of this is spoken at top speed in Evans' beautiful Welsh accent and with utter charm. She then goes on to discuss the Haymarket bomb, the traffic and the postal strike. A more thoroughly normal, unaffected opera singer could not be imagined.

And yet, the Welsh soprano has a staggering CV of leading roles around the world, for which she has won almost universal acclaim. At Covent Garden, she has sung Pamina (The Magic Flute), Zerlina (Don Giovanni), Nannetta (Falstaff) and Johanna (Sweeney Todd); in Munich, she played Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier), Zdenka (Arabella), Susanna, Ilia (Idomeneo) and Servilia (La clemenza di Tito); and her roles in America include Susanna and Zerlina at the Met, Adele in Die Fledermaus in Chicago, and Anne Trulove (The Rake's Progess) and Adina (L'elisir d'amore) in San Francisco. In addition, she appears regularly with her home company, Welsh National Opera, with whom she will be singing Pamina and Gretel next year. She has also made a number of important recordings, most notably The Magic Flute with Charles Mackerras and Simon Keenlyside, and the new Hansel and Gretel with Mackerras and Jennifer Larmore, both for Chandos.

She's about to return to Covent Garden for a revival of Mozart's Così fan tutte, directed by Jonathan Miller and conducted by Sir Colin Davis (fresh from his triumphant Benvenuto Cellini last week). Evans says that the cast are 'having a ball; there's a really good chemistry between us. I've worked with the Fiordiligi (Dorothea Röschmann) before, and the Don Alfonso (Thomas Allen); Fiordiligi's worked with a couple of the others. So we all know each other. It makes for a much better time, a happier, more convincing relationship, especially for comedy.'

She agrees that despite being very amusing, the opera is ultimately sadistic in its gulling of the four main characters by the philosopher, Don Alfonso. 'It's not very nice! I think the tricks he plays on them are terrible. My character (Despina) takes part in it, too, up to a point, which is a bit difficult, but she only does it for the money, and he tricks her as well. So yes, I think it's sadistic. But it's all so amusing at the same time, and the characters are very, very true.'

Evans is full of praise for the director, Jonathan Miller. 'Because of his experience as a theatre director, his portrayal of character development is very advanced. And yet, it's just what's inside all of us. He's bringing out the best in us.' She saw his recent appearance on Michael Parkinson's chat show, during which Miller described how he tries to make singers behave in a more natural way. Does it really help? 'Yes it does. He helps us to move in a less exaggerated way, just like we're having this conversation now. In my first aria, I come on and I'm eating a doughnut, singing, and having a chat.'

Before she became a singer, Evans trained to be a nurse. What made her change direction? 'My mother had been a professional singer and she sang in the Ivor Novello company and the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. I never remember my mother really singing very much, but music was in the blood. I was always surrounded by opera, and my father adores orchestral music. I love all kinds of music - it was burning inside me from an early age.'

What does music mean to her? 'I've got to be careful what I say, because I always end up offending my family! But it's such an important part of my life that I couldn't live without it for a single day. If I had to stop being a singer, I would go back and study to become a doctor. I do have a vocation for nursing, but the profession was in turmoil at the time I was studying and there was low morale. I was singing as an amateur and having singing lessons at Swansea University.

'Then I met Bryn Terfel at a concert - he was one soloist, I was the other. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I'd just got a junior assistant's post in an operating theatre. 'You fool!', he said. 'You need to go to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and you need to go NOW!'.

'Of course, I'd always wanted to hear that from someone, though I had never heard of Bryn before this day (it was 1986). I'll never forget the afternoon's rehearsal: I thought he was the accompanist's son! This young lad was standing there and walked up to the pulpit of the chapel and the most amazing sound poured out. What could you say? I went home in the break and told my mother, 'I've just heard the most amazing singer I've ever heard in my life and his name's Bryn something!'.'

Further down the line, Rebecca Evans sees herself teaching. 'I think I can help a lot of young singers. I've been blessed with the most wonderful singer, Laura Sarti. She's still teaching at the Guildhall at the age of 83 (though she hates to admit it!). I recently had the opportunity to go into the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to coach them in Cendrillon [Massenet's Cinderella], which I sang myself in 1996. It's an incredibly ambitious opera for a college to undertake. They asked me to come and coach the Cendrillons, and I ended up doing the Prince and the Father as well! I really felt I had something to offer. Of course, you have to be careful not to tread on any other teacher's feet. We all have ideas about technique, and I can't say that mine is better than someone else's. It's about what works for you at the end of the day. I've been lucky: I've stuck with one teacher, and I've learnt a lot from her. And also, because of my nurse training, I know the anatomy and physiology better than anyone!'

Recently a commentator on BBC Wales' coverage of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, Evans is clearly moved by young singers. 'Their enthusiasm is incredible. I came out very inspired - we take a lot of things for granted, but I learnt a lot from the experience. We are all at different stages of development, and I think the age group at Cardiff is something like 18 to 36, which is a whole generation span.' And did the jury make the right decision? 'I think it was the right result, although I thought [English soprano] Elizabeth Watts was outstanding. That's a very exciting talent.' And her compatriot, the Welsh entrant Sarah-Jane Davies? 'I thought she did extremely well. But my favourite was the countertenor. He has the complete package. He was an incredible performer, a real communicator, the voice is beautiful, and his choice of repertoire spanned the centuries. The Berlioz was amazing - I told him he has to do the whole cycle of Les nuits d'été. Aled Jones said to me, 'Can a countertenor win?' and I asked him back, 'Why can't a countertenor win?!'. I was disappointed that he didn't get to the final, but in a way I think he made enough impact in his round. It was sad that tragedy struck for the Chilean mezzo, because she had the best instrument, but even Marilyn Horne would have been exhausted after singing those four arias one after another! She was young and she should have been advised. I wanted her to win!'.

Evans is bursting with enthusiasm for her forthcoming engagements. 'I'm singing in Bryn Terfel's festival this summer - it's a return visit, because I did the first-ever year, too - with Christine Rice and Ramon Vargas. I'm singing the Letter Duet from Figaro with Christine, and Bryn also wants me to learn Marietta's song from Die Todte Stadt. Then I go to San Francisco to do Die Zauberflöte. Pamina is absolutely my favourite role. It was such a joy to do it with the wonderful Simon Keenlyside in David McVicar's beautiful production here at the Royal Opera - I think it's my favourite production of the opera and we had an amazing cast here a couple of years ago. I recorded it with Simon and with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting. Simon is a sublime Papageno; he brings something to it that is heaven-sent. I'm doing Pamina again with Welsh National Opera next year, with Neal Davis as Papageno.

'Also this year, I'm doing The Turn of the Screw at ENO. To be honest, I haven't yet started doing my research for it. But I've looked at the score and I used to go to Aldeburgh years ago, where I saw it. It's an extremely long role - she's never offstage! Nancy Evans, who was at Aldeburgh and was very prominent in Britten's life, made me promise that the two roles I would definitely do are Miss Wordsworth, which I've done and absolutely loved, and the Governess in Turn of the Screw. I told her I'd never do it, but now I am! I think it's an incredible acting challenge; the drama in the piece is intense. I'm looking forward to finding out how dark David McVicar makes it. He does dark really well! Yet in the final scene of Zauberflöte, when the sun comes up it's amazingly bright! I would absolutely love to come back and do his production of Zauberflöte here again.'

Evans is returning to Covent Garden in autumn 2008 to sing Zerlina in Don Giovanni with her regular collaborator, Sir Charles Mackerras. 'It will be my third visit to that production but will probably be my last Zerlina. I'm getting on now, and you've got to graduate to one of the other roles sometime! I'm doing some concerts with Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and I asked him if we should look at some of the Donna Anna arias. I'm also going to do my first Countess [in Le nozze di Figaro] in Wales. I said that if I can progress to that - I had a good working session on it with John Fisher, an outstanding musician at WNO - why not Donna Anna too?'

Three singers have particularly inspired Rebecca Evans: Mirella Freni, Lucia Popp and Ileana Cotrubas. 'You haven't lived if you haven't heard Cotrubas singing Mimi! She recently came to visit Dennis O'Neill's Voice Academy in Cardiff (which is going extremely well - the students are so lucky to be taught by such amazing singers!) and they played her recording of Mimi's aria. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. The quality of her voice is unbelievable. I don't think I could ever choose between her and Freni. When I'm choosing my roles, I look at the repertoire of Freni and Lucia Popp - my voice is somewhere in between, which isn't a bad combination!' Will she ever sing Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, which was one of Freni's great roles? 'One day, yes, but not yet! On the other hand, you can leave things too long. It's all to do with damage control: I've always erred on the side of caution.'

For the moment, though, Così fan tutte is her focus. She says she'd like to sing Fiordiligi in the future and that this will be her last-ever Despina (not to be missed!). 'Fiordiligi has the two killer arias - 'Come scoglio' and 'Per pieta'. I sang the duet between Ferrando and Fiordiligi last week in Chelsea, and afterwards I thought, 'Actually, that wasn't too bad!'. It lies just in the right place. So I'd like to look at the whole role in the future, but people would probably think I'm too short to be Fiordiligi. There are an awful lot of tall mezzos out there. I guess you think of people like Flotty [Felicity Lott] - other sopranos are taller than me. Because I'm a shorter woman, people see my as Susanna and Despina. This is a wonderful opportunity to sing Despina with Jonathan Miller and Colin Davis, but I'll never do it again. It is a great role, and you can steal the show with the scenes where she plays the doctor and the lawyer - they are really brilliant. But I don't get quite the musical satisfaction out of it. I'd like something a bit longer. Mozart is my favourite composer. I couldn't live a day without him.'

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Evans what her greatest ambition is. 'The chance to fulfil one of my greatest ambitions just came up and I had to let it go. My ambition throughout my career since knowing Bryn [Terfel] has always been to sing Figaro with him. I was just invited to sing Susanna at the Met with Bryn doing his last-ever Figaro and Simon Keenlyside as the Count. And I was already booked to do something else, so I had to turn it down. I have wept so many tears over that because it was my absolute wish to have done that glorious piece with him - it would have been my last Susanna and his last Figaro. I can't believe I couldn't do it when it finally came around.'

By Dominic McHugh

Cosi fan tutte opens on 14 July at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for four performances only.