Irish soprano Anna Devin, a rising star in the opera world, took a few minutes away from preparing for her role as Zerlina in Scottish Opera’s Don Giovanni to talk to Neil McEwan about opera, websites and the benefits of a nice cup of tea.
How did you get started in Opera?
I didn’t go straight into singing when I left school. I took a degree in multi-media and about half way through the course I realised that I hated it and decided to stop and study to be an opera singer. I went to the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin and then to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to the opera course and then on to the National Opera Studio. From there I was lucky enough to get a place at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to do the Jette Parker young artist programme for two years. That finished just over a year and a half ago and I’ve been freelancing since and Don Giovanni is the second production I’ve done with Scottish Opera.
A lot of the info for my questions came from your website. As a relatively new performer and a freelancer how important do you think the web is to promoting your work?
I think it’s kind of a double-edged sword – well more of a two sided coin really. I think it’s really important for your fan-base and for new audiences. Whether that’s through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or whether you have your own website. It’s good for letting people know where you’re going next – agents websites do have that kind of information, but they don’t always keep a calendar of a whole season for a singer so that’s really important. From the perspective of casting I’ve found that more people than I originally thought go to the website. If they need someone to sing a certain part last minute, because someone has pulled out, they might know who you are and check your website to see if you have a role in your repertoire.
You covered the role of Zerlina at the Royal Opera House. Have you taken a different approach to the role with this production?
When I did the role at the ROH I understudied two casts, but it was quite a simple production and a revival so in terms of character building we didn’t get much done, so in a way I feel that this is a clean slate. From the vocal perspective and from learning the music, when you’ve done a role; even if it’s been covering it, when you come to it the second time you’re already better off than you were first time. You can look at everything in so much depth and you can look at the relationship to the other characters, rather than trying to remember the music. I think it’s really helpful that I’ve covered it before because I’m completely comfortable with it vocally and so I can come at it from whatever perspective I really want to.
How would you describe the character of Zerlina?
Tom (Sir Thomas Allen – Director) likes to describe her as an opportunist. I think he’s probably right there. What Don Giovanni says to her when he tries to seduce her is quite honest in terms of she’s always looking at what’s best for her and I think she wants to marry Masseto as it’s a nice sensible thing to do, but I think she’s very clever – compared to her friends and I don’t think she’s happy to settle for what’s put in front of her. When she experiences the Don, this world is opened up to her that she thought she could never be a part of because of her class and in 17th Century Venice, where this production is set, class was a massive deal. So the Don showing her any affection – one half of her just wants to grab the opportunity, but then deep down inside she is a very honest and loving person and realises she’s made a big mistake and spends the rest of the opera trying to make up for it.
Zerlina has a famous song in the opera where she begs Masseto to beat her for her behaviour. How much do you think about the differences in morals between now and then in terms of performance?
I don’t think you have to read it straight – I feel like it’s a game that they have. It’s quite obvious they have a fiery relationship and I think she’s very manipulative and spends most of her time manipulating Massetto. Even though I do think she’s quite a good person she is quite a manipulator and I do think she’s completely playing a game with him, because she really is at her wits end as to what to say. I wouldn’t take it literally, whether the audiences of today think it’s relevant to say Fifty Shades of Grey or anything like that – I wouldn’t say it is. I think it is a game between the two of them and there’s an awful lot of sexual nuance in the things that she says and it’s up to the audience to make their own decisions on how they read that.
The character of Zerlina is off and on stage quite a bit. How easy is it for you to keep up the energy levels in performance terms?
Each show’s different. There are some where you do a whole show and barely go off stage and others where you are on and off and that’s not always a bad thing. It means you get adrenaline highs and lows, but you just have to make sure you don’t get distracted backstage and you go and sit quietly. In a way there’s so much journey building between each scene because there’s so much back story within the opera that the audience never sees, that it’s important to live through the journey that – in my case – Zerlina is going through in her particular situation, so every time you go back on stage you’ve moved on. A banana and a cup of tea doesn’t go amiss either.
You’re still in the early stages of your career, but do you have any ambitions for the future?
Up until now I’ve been extremely lucky because I’ve been cast very comfortably in everything I’ve done and to those people it’s quite clear as to what I’m good at. I have lots of ambitions – I love playing children. I did Hansel & Gretel at the end of last season, singing Gretel for the first time and it’s a monster role and you get to dash around the stage like – well in my case I played her as a ten year old. I’ve had to make the most of the fact that people think of me as young, whilst I am young and hopefully that will be to my advantage. What I say to my colleagues is I would love to die on stage. I have lots of dream roles, whether I should air them I’m not sure because it just depends on what people are casting, but I think it’s really important as a young singer to sing things which are suitable for you. If someone said come and sing Traviatta tomorrow I would turn it down, even though it would be an amazing opportunity, it’s not the right time. You have to be very clever and look after yourself.