Sophie Bevan is one of the most exciting young British singers to emerge in recent years. Equally at home on the lyric stage and the concert platform, she has garnered a wealth of rave reviews since her ENO debut as Love in The Coronation of Poppea a few years’ ago. I manage to grab some time with her backstage in a break for rehearsals of the Silver Jubilee performances of Jonathan Miller’s staging of The Mikado in which she sings Yum-Yum.
Singing, it transpires, has been in her blood since for as long as she can remember. “I started when I was very young, singing in choirs including the Bach Youth Choir. My Dad runs a church in Chelsea so I used to sing there every morning from the age of ten, which is where I learnt to sight read and I was brought up as a pianist but I realised that piano playing made me really, really nervous so I suddenly thought ‘wait a minute – why don’t I try singing a bit more’, so I started singing solos at school and doing a few more things.”
She soon discovered that she loved singing, preferring it to the piano, and is quick to add that she was lucky in that she had a very developed voice quite young so was encouraged to pursue vocal studies. It helped that she also loved to act as she explains that “when we were young we didn’t have a television – I have lots of brothers and sisters so we played a lot and I was acting all the time so I just loved being on the stage.”
Having gone straight to the Royal College of Music on leaving school she did four years as an undergraduate and then one year on the opera course which she decided to leave before the second year as by then she had already come to the attention of John McMurray, the casting director at ENO, “and I’ve been working at the English National Opera ever since.”
Finding the right teacher is vital for any young singer and Sophie counts herself lucky that she found the perfect mentor in her teacher, soprano Lillian Watson, whom she describes as ‘fantastic’. Her first role at ENO, as she mentioned earlier, also rewarded her with more than she was initially expecting as Kate Royal who was singing Poppea was unfortunately ill for a lot of the rehearsal period and as Sophie was understudying her, “I got to sing here at the side of the stage which enabled John Berry and John McMurray to hear me properly which then led them to think ‘oh we can use her for something else.’”
After the break she got with Monteverdi’s opera Sophie relished the opportunity she was given to sing Despina in Cosi fan tutte. “That was really fun because we could do whatever we wanted to as the director was Iranian and at the time couldn’t get a work visa to come here to the UK. In a way it worked out quite nicely because I could play it just how I liked and it was great fun.” She went on to sing the soprano role in Deborah Warner’s staging of Messiah – a work intended for the concert platform not the stage, but as she explains, “Deborah was very clever as she didn’t want the drama to take over but wanted it to enhance the experience one gets. We weren’t acting out a play. It was more like a series of tableaux. It was a fantastic experience for me, but I think it was a love it or hate it thing for the audience – religious people tended to love it as in many ways it was a more religious experience than secular.”
We move on to the role of Yum-Yum which Sophie sings for the first time in the 25th anniversary performances of Jonathan Miller’s staging of The Mikado. “It’s such an honour to do it as the people I’m doing it with are so iconic. I was watching a documentary the other day of the very first rehearsal and there are so many faces in it that are still doing their roles today. It’s kind of scary coming into rehearsals and thinking that Yum-Yum has been played by so many illustrious sopranos such as Janis Kelly, Lesley Garrett and Sarah Tynan at the last revival so you try not to start thinking ‘I’m hope I’m as good as them’, but at the same time it’s fantastic to be involved in such an amazing production. And Jonathan Miller is just a genius.”
Looking to the future Sophie is making sure that she appears on the recital stage as often as she appears on the opera stage. She made an auspicious debut at the Wigmore Hall last year and is returning in the not too distant future, “and I also want to do more concert and oratorio work as I absolutely love that.” Operatically she is due to appear at ENO next season in two exciting role debuts, which she can't mention just yet, “but I can’t wait as one of them is in my favourite opera.” Watch this space!
Sophie Bevan sings the role of Yum-Yum in ENO’s revival of The Mikado from February 26. www.eno.org.