UK-based soprano Anna Devin is back in Ireland when I talk to her. She's had to quarantine for two weeks before starting rehearsals for what should have been Irish National Opera's first production of Puccini's La bohème. The constraints of lockdown mean that the production has had to become a livestreamed concert performance, but now with the bonus of a separate recording taped for later release.
Strangely for an interview with a musical performer, the talk quickly settles on giving birth at home during a pandemic. Devin was six months pregnant when the lockdown hit, and felt very fortunate that her last concert, of arias by Zelenka with Zurich Opera House's Orchestra La Scintilla under Riccardo Minasi, was actually able to take place.
“I had done a great concert with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, we did Handel’s Gloria [a solo cantata rediscovered as recently 20 years ago] and the Dixit Dominus. I went straight from there to Zurich, literally disinfecting every plane and train that I was on, because this was before lockdown started. I was so relieved to get to Zurich.
“I really, really worked hard at these arias. They’re fantastic vocalisation arias, but they don’t come as natural as, say, Handel. He doesn’t quite understand the voice to the same extent. I had to work really hard at them. Three or four days later, after I’d flown home, things shut down.”
She had already backed out of an opera contract because the run was so long it would have included performing on what had become her due date. And then all the concerts she lined up instead all disappeared. The changes turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“The upside for me was that I got this special time with my eldest daughter [PIA], which she really hadn’t had since she was born, because I’ve been so busy – she just turned three after lockdown started.
“My baby couldn’t have been more perfectly timed in that respect. The days disappear when you’ve got two young children.”
She describes herself as having spent a lot of time grieving for the music industry, and says, “I found it very hard to practise for quite a long time, or listen to anything.”
Early on, she says, “my soul kind of gave up a bit.” So she decided “I was just going to sing when I wanted to sing and sing stuff that I wanted to sing, not stuff that I needed to learn. So I spent a lot of time singing Alcina – the title role of the Handel opera – which I really enjoyed. I would love to sing Alcina some day. I’ve sung Morgana from that opera but not Alcina. I sang a bit of Traviata for fun. I basically just took out some soprano repertoire and decided I want to keep singing. But I found it too depressing to sing stuff that was planned in my diary, in case it was cancelled.”
And the birth itself? “I’m very lucky, I don’t know if it’s because I’m a singer. A lot of singer friends I know have very good births and do well, because we’re basically Ferraris of breathing. And if you can breathe, you can get your baby out. I was very lucky to have a really wonderful home birth. I didn’t have to go near a hospital. I felt very safe at home.”
We start talking about all the issues around what you might call vocal fitness, the fact that “you have to keep the instrument going” and that voices change over time in ways that are not always easy to manage. “You’re always adapting. You go through periods of time with your voice where it’s fairly settled, and then others when it starts changing.”
She references the great Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, "who a couple of years ago, before she got into the really heavy stuff, had to cancel a load of contracts. And some of her fans are really disappointed. But as a singer and a fan of hers as well, I would have thought she's done exactly the right thing. Because certain music doesn't work for her body and her voice any more, so why is she going to continue to sing it? It's a very honest approach, I think.
“She’s one of the best singers in the world. She can cancel and she’s not going to be worrying about paying her bills. If we could all do that, singers would be in a much better position, long term.”
Even more than Netrebko, she admires American soprano Renée Fleming, who she describes as “my favourite singer”. She cites Fleming’s “honesty” with her voice, by which she means that Fleming sings what she does best rather than what might bring her the greatest glory or create the most rewarding career opportunities.
One of the upsides of the current situation, says Devin, is “actually that it’s much better for our instrument. It’s not good for your instrument to be jumping from one production to the next production to the next production, and hopping on planes. Having a bit of time and space is good for us. We all have to adapt.
“For me, the most difficult thing is not working with other people and being at home and trying to just practise on your own all the time. That’s not what singers do. We practise on our own and prepare the music. And then we go and work with coaches. We talk about everything. It feels different when you’re singing with a piano. I cannot wait for the date when you can just go and ask for coaching and a meet-up.
I'm a very visual person, so I can still see details of those sets from when I was six or seven, even if I don't remember such a huge amount about the singing
"That's what's so great about this Bohème. Just to get into a rehearsal room, just to get feedback from other people. The conductor – Sergio Alapont – was being quite picky, and was like, maybe I'm saying too much. I was like, no, please. I've had a year without any of this. Just give me as much... tell me as many things... I just want to absorb it all so we can be artistic together and come up with a performance." Her tone stiffens slightly as she adds, "And it's not the same over Zoom."
So it’s not surprising that, as a real extrovert, “I just love being around people. I love bouncing ideas, taking their energy.” She’s suffered most from not having been able to see “any close friends or family until two weeks ago for a year. We didn’t see either sides of our families. My second daughter only just met her first member of her family last week. That’s been incredibly difficult. We’ve been completely on our own.
“It’s been brilliant to have had all this time as a family. But I’ve had an awful lot of tears. I’m an emotional person, and luckily for me I can just let it out. Every day I’ve been full of happiness and I’ve had this deep sadness all at the same time.”
Singers are often late starters compared with, say, pianists or violinists. But Devin's head was turned early. She set her heart on an operatic career from the age of six, after seeing Regina Nathan in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. "I said I wanted to sing Susanna, which I've now done about 40 times."
Then, as now, she was taken by the fact that opera is “whole theatre”.
“I’m a very visual person, so I can still see details of those sets from when I was six or seven, even if I don’t remember such a huge amount about the singing.”
She did take detour along the way, studying for a degree in multimedia for two years before "it got the better of me. I was struggling with the essays." She has dyslexia, is an ambassador for the British Dyslexia Association and has also been in touch with the Dsylexia Association of Ireland. She's in a list of dyslexic musicians on the association's website, right beside fellow Irish soprano Celine Byrne, who is starring alongside Devin in INO's La bohème, as Mimi.
Puccini is huge in Byrne’s career but not in Devin’s, where the big names are Handel and Mozart. In fact, the last time she sang Musetta in La bohème was in a programme of opera scenes when she was studying at the National Opera Studio in London. “Handel and Mozart is what people want to hear me sing, and they keep asking for it. I always had an affinity with it and I absolutely adore singing it, which is great. And musically I love it. When I sing Handel I feel as if he wrote the roles for me, personally, and Mozart, as well.” So “it’s nice to have a complete change”.
The idea came from INO artistic director Fergus Sheil after another project bit the dust. “‘I really want to have you back,’ he said. ‘Would you consider singing this Musetta for me? I know it’s a bit leftfield for you but I really don’t want it to be that long before we have you home again to sing.’ I just said I’d love to.
“I love Puccini. My composer of choice to listen to when I’m having a grey day is Puccini. And it’s Bohème! For me if you want to have a cry you just turn it on and you’re sobbing within two minutes. I’ve wanted to sing Musetta for a long time. It’s nice to finally get to do it.”