Evans, Nancy (1915—)

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Evans, Nancy (1915—)

British mezzo-soprano, one of the major British singers of her generation, who was closely linked with the music of Benjamin Britten. Born in Liverpool, England, on March 19, 1915; married Walter Legge; married Eric Crozier, in 1949.

Born in Liverpool during World War I, Nancy Evans studied vocal music there with John Tobin, later studying in London with Eva de Reusz and the acclaimed Maggie Teyte . After singing as a member of the chorus at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1938, Evans made her London stage debut that same year in Sir Arthur Sullivan's comic opera The Rose of Persia. For the next several years, she was occupied singing small roles at the Royal Albert Hall and at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The first opera in which she sang was Wagner's Parsifal, in the roles of a Flower Maiden and the Voice from on High. During these years, she met musicians at the very end of their careers who represented living links with a brilliant era of 19th-century musical history. One of her conductors, Felix Weingartner, had personally known Johannes Brahms. At Covent Garden, she sang the role of a Valkyrie, the conductor in this instance being the illustrious Sir Thomas Beecham.

As a young singer, Evans represented the future of music as the older generation retired and left the stage. Some of her professional relationships evolved into warm friendships that enriched her both artistically and personally. During World War II, Evans sang on several occasions with the revered Irish singer John McCormack. World renowned and honored by the pope with the title of count, McCormack performed with Evans on several occasions at fundraising concerts for the Red Cross. After one of these events, he played some of his old recordings for his protegé. No doubt moved by memories of his own youth, he held Evans's arm, saying to her, "Listen to that child. I don't know how I did that. How did I do that?" His stories of singing with legendary artists like Luisa Tetrazzini inspired a youthful Evans who had yet to become a star herself.

The end of World War II found Great Britain in a perilous economic situation and geopolitically on the decline. In its musical life, however, the victory over the Fascist powers in 1945 signaled the start of a glorious musical renaissance. The key personality in this burst of creative energy was the composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976). The wildly successful 1945 premiere of Britten's opera Peter Grimes marked the start of a series of innovative Britten stage works. Still relatively unknown after the war, Evans answered the phone one day and heard words that would change her life: "My name's Benjamin Britten. I'm writing an opera, and I'd like you to sing in it." The opera Britten had composed was The Rape of Lucretia. Alternating with the great singer Kathleen Ferrier , Evans created the role of Lucretia with Ferrier in the highly acclaimed 1946 premiere performances at the Glyndebourne Festival. Evans alone sang this role in 1947 at Covent Garden's first presentation of The Rape to Lucretia, garnering excellent reviews. In June 1947, she created the role of Nancy in Britten's next opera, Albert Herring.

Over the next two decades, Evans was one of the leading ensemble members of the English Opera Group, starring in performances not only of Britten's stage works but those of other contemporary composers. Tours took her abroad to Belgium, The Netherlands, Scandinavia and Switzerland. Back in England, she performed not only in operas but in oratorios and recitals.

Nancy Evans' reputation brought her to the attention of several leading composers including the venerable Ralph Vaughan Williams as well as Lennox Berkeley and Malcolm Williamson. Vaughan Williams composed the solo part in his Nativity composition Hodie (This Day) with Evans in mind; she sang this at its world premiere performance, with the composer conducting, at Worcester Cathedral on September 8, 1954. That year, Vaughan Williams chose Evans to give the world premiere performance of his revised version of his 1927 composition for solo female voice and violin, Along the Field, based on settings of A.E. Housman poems. This work was first presented to the public at Benjamin Britten's Aldeburgh Festival, and Evans also recorded it.

In 1968, she took the starring role in the world premiere performance of Malcolm Williamson's opera The Growing Castle. Based on a play by August Strindberg, the work was made up of many short scenes. Only four singers were called for by the composer, with two male and two female parts. In a feat that was possibly unique in the history of opera, Evans created eight separate characters, the Poet and seven others. Years later, reminiscing about her performance, she noted that her demanding but exciting role called for "a lot of quick changes, both of costume and character."

Thoroughly satisfied with her warm-toned singing and convincing acting style, Benjamin Britten quickly began to view Evans as one of his closest artistic collaborators, choosing her to sing the key role of Polly Peachum in his version of the 18th-century classic The Beggar's Opera. An acclaimed operatic star by her early 30s, she starred as Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, as well as in the role of Lucinda Woodcock in Love in a Village. In 1947, Britten provided tangible evidence of his high esteem for Evans' artistry when he composed for her his song cycle "A Charm of Lullabies," Opus 41. This work hinted of an emerging new style in his musical evolution. One of the high points of this composition of five linked lullabies is a charming Scottish air, "Highland Balou," said to have been inspired by the composer's memories of Scottish herring girls singing during his childhood in the town of Lowestoft. Though she performed the work, unfortunately Evans never recorded it.

In 1949, Nancy Evans married Eric Crozier after her first marriage (to record producer Walter Legge) had ended in divorce. Her marriage to Crozier was a happy one, and she and her husband would work together for many years in the musical world. Crozier too was closely linked to the career of Britten, having been the producer of the 1945 Sadler's Wells premiere of Britten's first great opera success Peter Grimes. However, by the 1960s both Crozier and Evans had become estranged from Britten, who could at times be harshly insensitive to those closest to him. Fortunately for all involved, ill feelings evaporated by the final years of the great composer's life. Evans and Crozier would be provided for by Britten in his will, written less than a year before his death on December 4, 1976. Nancy Evans, by now retired from the stage, would continue her close links to Britten's musical legacy by remaining at Aldeburgh's Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies, teaching vocal master classes to a new generation of aspiring singers.


Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. NY: Scribner, 1992.

Herbert, David, ed. The Operas of Benjamin Britten. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979.

Johnson, Graham. "Voice and Piano," in Christopher Palmer, ed. The Britten Companion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 286–307.

Law, Joe K. "Linking the Past with the Present: A Conversation with Nancy Evans and Eric Crozier," in Opera Quarterly. Vol. 3, no. 1. Spring 1985, pp. 72–79.

Mitchell, Donald, et al., Letters From a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 1913–1976. 2 vols. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.

Nicolai, Annette. "Benjamin Britten's 'A Charm of Lullabies': Historical Survey, Analysis and Performance" (Master of Music Thesis, California State University, Long Beach, 1992).

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia