I found my true voice, says leading soprano Anna Devin
Anna Devin, who will be performing here next weekend, is one of the most talented sopranos of her generation but, as she tells Donal Lynch, there was dyslexia, her parents' divorce, and personal heartache on the road to success
It was a moment worthy of one of those tearful behind-the-scenes X Factor montages, but the culture was high rather than low, and instead of Simon Cowell there was formidable opera producer John Copley issuing the edicts. Caught in his crosshairs was Dublin-born soprano Anna Devin. The singer was in the national opera studio and he was coming in to direct scenes of Puccini's La Boheme.
Devin would go on to win rich praise for her vocal gymnastics and clarion voice but try as she might, she could not emote quite enough for Copley's taste. "He came into the studio and no matter what I did it was never enough for him," she remembers. "We went through it a few times. I wasn't sure what else to do. There is a scene where Musetta, the character I played, has received news that her best friend is dying and, however much I gave, it was never what he wanted. I was performing in a way that felt for me completely over-the-top, not real, but he wanted more, more, more."
It was three years later before a personal tragedy made sense of Copley's demands for Anna. A relative of hers passed away and she was on her own when the news came through. "And as awful as it was in that moment, I understood that I had what Copley was looking for. The whole emotion of the situation just came up through my body and came out of me like a wail. I heard it as if it had come from someone else. I was on my own. And I sort of realised after that that there's only certain things you can give out as a performer before you've experienced them yourself."
Growing into herself as a person and a performer has been the story of the last few years for the 34-year-old Devin. She's performed everywhere from Vienna to Carnegie Hall. She recently won an award for best supporting role in an opera at the Helpmann Awards - a prestigious accolade for live performance in Australia.
Anna Devin is staring in Irish Youth Opera's production of Handel's Agrippina, a co-production with NI Opera, which will be in Armagh this month. The singer will play Poppea in the opera at The Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, next Saturday, September 19.
She is just back to these shores to perform for the first time in 10 years.
Anna spent the early part of her life in Dublin before the family moved to Co Wexford where her parents ran a software development company. It meant that Anna grew up around computers and thought that was where her future might lie. As a child she was a gifted singer and competed at various music festivals. After completing secondary school, she opted to follow somewhat in her parents footsteps by doing a degree in multimedia. There was just one problem: Anna is dyslexic and a course that involved lots of reading and writing was "possibly the very last thing I should've been doing."
One moment in her early struggles really stands out: "I'll always remember I was sitting in the library trying to read a book and I read a page and I read it again. I was thinking, 'you're 20 years old, what the hell are you doing?'"
She would eventually defer her degree and instead became a choral scholar in Christchurch Cathedral for a year, reapplying for a bachelor of music and performance in the Academy before eventually quitting university. She was then accepted to the Guildhall opera studio in London for two years. After that she went to the National Opera Studio and finally to Covent Garden, into the young arts programme. Her first show after Covent Garden was The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne, which, with pleasing symmetry, was also the first opera she had ever seen as a child.
While these were exciting times in Anna's burgeoning career, in her personal life things were a little more difficult. While she was in her early twenties her parents' marriage broke down. "Yeah, it was tough. It kind of came out of nowhere. They were so happy for so long and it took a long time for them to actually break up. It all happened when I was an undergrad and I moved to the UK. It kind of feels strange because you're a grown-up on the outside but you're a child inside."
Anna's coping strategy for dealing with the divorce was to put all of her energies into her career and her music. "When it was going on I was going around saying 'I'm fine. I'm fine' and the approach was to just sort of push everything down inside and I'd put too much pressure on my music because it was the only thing I felt I could control," she tells me. "I have a hard, tough exterior, which you need in this business, but I'm actually quite soft and when something upsets me I just tend to cry. Which is actually great because it provides a great release."
Her parents would both go on to marry other people, something Anna says gave her quite a bit of solace, as did the help of a therapist. "I have had a lot of counselling, which really helped me to deal with it all and during that I learned that it's ok to feel sad about it and it's ok to have regrets about it and that it's ok to be happy about the way things are now. I'm grateful that both of my parents have someone to look after them. Because if they were both single you'd really worry about them." Anna enjoys a close relationship with her stepfather, who is very into classical music. "He obviously really loves my mum deep down inside because he never loved anyone else enough to marry them. I actually feel really lucky that I have these two extra people (her parents' partners) in my life. I also have a step-sister in Seattle and she is 17 now."
Another huge help to Anna through her twenties was her then-boyfriend, now husband (who prefers to remain nameless). They met in a nightclub, a seemingly unlikely venue for a budding opera star to be hanging out, although Anna always loved hip hop music and says she was "a big clubber, out four nights a week". She had spotted her husband-to-be. "I used to work in Karen Millen. I'd seen this guy in town and I was, like, 'there's something about him' and I'd never seen him in the nightclubs even though he looked like the type of guy who would be in the nightclubs. My friend Olivia introduced us. We went back to his place and had a party but after that it took us nine months to get together."
Her husband has been a key part of keeping her emotionally centred in the sometimes cut-throat world of opera. "He's outside of the opera bubble and if something goes wrong he's very good at just setting all the facts out in front of me, being logical about them. And if I need to cry he just lets me cry." The couple don't have children yet. "My biggest worry is that if I have children I won't have the same career drive that I have now. It's taken a lot of work. But I also became an aunt recently and my sister told me how special it was becoming a mother, so I'd love to experience that for myself."
For now though, it is onward and upward in her career. Anna got American management recently and when asked about her ambitions for the immediate future, quick as a flash she responds, "to sing at the Met, it's always been a very special place for me." And she will also continue to 'sing her life': "I think the older I get there is more and more to draw on. And when people can see your emotions come through in your music, well, I think that's what they relate to."
Anna Devin is staring in Irish Youth Opera's production of Handel's Agrippina, a co-production with NI Opera, at The Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Armagh, on Saturday, September 19, at 7pm and 8pm. Tickets from £15, visitirishyouthopera.ie. Also see annadevin.com