Before her retirement from the stage in 2003, Dame Anne Evans was one of opera's best-known interpreters of the formidable Teutonic heroine. For a number of years the soprano was the leading Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie princess from German composer Richard Wagner's Ring cycle, and also delivered a number of notable appearances in another Wagner classic, Tristan und Isolde. She enjoyed a three-decade career with the English and Welsh National Operas, with stops at the Bayreuth Festival and the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Reviewing her grand finale—a BBC Symphony Orchestra presentation of extracts from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier —Guardian writer Nicholas Payne asserted that Evans "looked impossibly young to be retiring. The voice has retained its loveliness and steadiness."
Of Welsh heritage, Evans was born in 1941 and grew up in London, where her mother ran a dairy business. As a young woman, she studied with Ruth Packer at London's Royal College of Music, and then under Maria Carpi, Herbert Graf, and Lofti Mansouri at the Geneva Conservatory in Switzerland. Her performing career began in 1967 in that city with secondary roles in operas presented by its Grand Théâtre, and a year later she went back to London and joined the Sadler's Wells Opera, which later became the English National Opera. During these early years she was cast as Mimi in La Bohème, and in the title role of Tosca. She also became known for her prowess as Der Rosenkavalier 's Marschallin, and in the smaller role of Sieglinde in Wagner's Die Walküre.
Evans worked with Sir Charles Mackerras at Sadler's Wells, and recalled this particular company stage as an excellent training ground for an up-and-coming singer. "We were given plenty of time to study new roles," she wrote in a career remembrance for the Evening Standard in 2003, "and enormous attention was given to words—throughout rehearsals Edmund Tracey, the company's production director, would sit out front with a little black book, noting down any text he could not hear. Offending singers were practically sent to the Tower," she recalled.
In 1979 Evans accepted an invitation to appear in a Welsh National Opera (WNO) production in Cardiff as Senta in Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer. Her next part, however, caused a sensation: she appeared as Chrysothemis in Strauss's Elektra under Harry Kupfer, the Dresden Opera director known for his daring opera stagings. "The role allowed her to reveal depths she had not hitherto suspected," noted Payne in the Guardian article. Evans and the company made a tour of several German cities, and the trip was instrumental in bringing her together with her future husband, London newspaper editor John Lucas.
Evans worked with Kupfer again in Beethoven's Fidelio back in Cardiff, appearing as Leonore. Kupfer was known to work his performers intensely, and the role called for Evans to be disguised as a man, and so during the hot August rehearsals, Kupfer forced her to sing in a long military overcoat that was part of her costume. The critics loathed the production, and thus Evans was a somewhat controversial choice when she was offered the role of Brünnhilde in a staging of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen ("The Ring of Nibelung") opera cycle in the early 1980s with the WNO. Wagner's famous epic was taken from the Nibelungenlied, a medieval German epic poem, with Brünnhilde the daughter of Wotan, the supreme deity of the Germanic pre-Christian religion. Brünnhilde, a warrior, appears in the Ring operas Götterdämmerung, Siegfried, and Die Walküre, in which she defies her father, engages in an ill-fated romance with Siegfried, and dies in a spectacular fire.
Despite the controversy about her being cast in the lead, Payne asserted that Evans added to the role "a warmth, humanity and naturalness of inflection" missing from previous interpretations by other sopranos known for their Ring cycle. She reprised the role with the WNO at Covent Garden in London, where it became one of the 1986 season's most memorable events. Payne commended her "powerful emotion, as witnessed by the great outpouring of hurt, scorn, and vengefulness in act two of Götterdämmerung, perhaps her supreme scene in the cycle."
At Germany's famed Bayreuth Festival in 1989, Evans was reunited with Kupfer in his production of a much-anticipated Ring cycle at the annual Wagner summer tribute. Conducted by Sir Daniel Barenboim, the stagings were recorded live by Teldec for a special boxed set, and its 1994 release prompted Opera News critic C.J. Luten to declare Evans's Brünnhilde "more lyrical than heroic," as well as "a refreshingly girlish Brünnhilde, with surprising intensity in all but the most stressful passages." It was one of three Bayreuth Ring cycles she had done by 1992, when she made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera of New York in a February performance of Tannhäuser, another epic Wagner opera. Edward Rothstein, the New York Times critic, noted that the soprano "has made Wagner something of a specialty. It was easy to see why: she has the vocal power to survive in these mythic worlds yet could project a charm and vulnerability that made her seem more human than her surroundings." Rothstein found fault with several aspects of the performance, but added that "it was Miss Evans's prayer for mercy and her leading of the ensemble vocal pieces at the end of the movement that gave the best impression of the sort of spirit that should suffuse this work."
In 1993 Evans appeared with the WNO in Tristan und Isolde. The Cardiff event was reviewed by Opera News critic Tom Sutcliffe, who declared that "Evans' Isolde was thrillingly regal, richly colored with a glittering bloom at the top, soft phrases and climaxes managed with discretion." In 1994 she reappeared with the English National Opera as Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, followed by another Covent Garden date as Brünnhilde in 1996. Roles became scarcer, however, and in 2003 Evans announced her retirement from opera after months of rumors. Her decision came on the last day of July, which made her already scheduled August 5 BBC Proms performance at the Royal Albert Hall her last night. "Frankly, I didn't want to open the paper one day and read that it was high time I left the stage," Evans explained about her choice, in the Evening Standard article. "I wanted to go while I could still do it."
For the Record . . .
Born on August 20, 1941, in London, England; daughter of a dairy business owner; married John Lucas (a newspaper editor). Education: Studied at the Royal College of Music, London, England, and at the Geneva Conservatory, Switzerland.
Began career in secondary roles at the Grand Théâtre in Geneva, Switzerland, 1967; performed with the Sadler's Wells Opera in London, England, after 1968; joined the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, Wales, 1979; made Bayreuth (Germany) Festival debut, 1989; made Metropolitan Opera of New York debut as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, 1992; retired from the stage, 2003.
Addresses: Management— Scottish Opera, 39 Elmbank Crescent, Glasgow G2 4PT, Scotland.
The Proms event was a selection of excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier, with Evans's longtime friend Mackerras conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Der Rosen-kavalier is a romantic comedy centering around intrigues at the Vienna royal court of an earlier time, and the Marschallin, an older woman, in the end steps out of the picture and graciously passes on her lover to a younger woman. "Less elegant artists than Evans would be unlikely to choose such self-effacing repertoire for their last performance," remarked Independent Sunday journalist Anna Picard, "and certainly not material where the next generation has the final word in Strauss's last ravishing duet. As an example of dignified leave-taking this was unparalleled; perfectly timed, graciously executed, generous to her fellow performers, elegant, subtle and illuminating." Picard noted that for older sopranos, roles indeed became scarcer, though Evans "could, of course, continue singing. She could take the character roles; the shrews, the servants, the step-mothers. Instead she has left—like the Marschallin—while still too beautiful of voice to be cast in opera's caricatures of post-menopausal femininity."
At the time of her Rosenkavalier finale, Evans was already working as a chorus coach for the Scottish Opera. "I have had a fantastic run," she concluded in the Evening Standard, "and now I look forward to helping young singers."
(Richard Wagner) Die Walküre (1992 Bayreuth Festival), Teldec, 1994.
(Richard Wagner) Das Rheingold (1991-92 Bayreuth Festival), Teldec, 1994.
(Richard Wagner) Götterdämmerung (1992 Bayreuth Festival), Teldec, 1994.
(Richard Wagner) Twilight of the Gods, English National Opera, Goodall, Chandos, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial Edition, Schirmer, 2001.
American Record Guide, September-October 1993, p. 48; January-February 1995, p. 202; March-April 1996, p. 30.
Evening Standard (London, England), August 20, 2003, p. 35.
Guardian (London, England), August 7, 2003, p. 13.
Independent Sunday (London, England), August 10, 2003, p. 12.
New York Times, July 28, 1983, p. C17; February 8, 1992, p. 13.
Opera News, August 1993, p. 38; April 2, 1994, p. 32; May 1994, p. 52; November 1995, p. 51; October 1997, p. 57; April 11, 1998, p. 56; December 2001, p. 78.
Evans, Anne, esteemed English soprano; b. London, Aug. 20, 1941. She was a student of Ruth Packer at the Royal Coll. of Music in London and of Maria Carpi, Herbert Graf, and Lofti Mansouri at the Geneva Cons. After singing secondary roles at the Geneva Grand Theatre, she returned to London in 1968 to join the Sadler’s Wells Opera (later the English National Opera), where she was notably successful in such roles as Mimi, Tosca, Elsa, the Marschallin, and Sieglinde; she also appeared with the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff as Senta, Chrysothemis, the Empress, Donna Anna, and Brunnhilde (1985). Her Brunnhilde elicited critical acclaim when the company visited London’s Covent Garden in 1986, which role she also sang at the Bayreuth Festival for the first time in 1989. On Feb. 6, 1992, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. as Elisabeth in Tannhauser. In 1993 she appeared as Isolde with the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, and then with the company at London’s Covent Garden. She appeared as the Marschallin at the English National Opera in 1994. In 1996 she sang Brunnhilde at Covent Garden. She portrayed Isolde at the Semper Opera in Dresden in 1997.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire