Sibling Revelry

From the Bachs and Strausses to the Wainwrights and the Shankar-Joneses, music has never been short on dynasties. Wolfgang Mozart had to originally contend with his older sister “Nannerl”; Fanny Mendelssohn is often believed to be the ghostwriter of many of her brother’s works. And there are more combinations of sibling performers than Von Trapp-loving tourists in Salzburg.

And, unsurprisingly, contemporary research has shown that this may not be a coincidence. In 2001, a team of researchers from London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital Twin Unit published results that indicate that nature may even trump nurture, with genetics taking precedence over musical exposure in their sample group. A similar study conducted in Finland in 2008 determined that there are certain DNA sequences that correlate with musical aptitude.

But, all biological matters aside, how is the act of forging such a talent—whether effortlessly hereditary or acquired through rigorous training—affected personally when you grow up with a sibling who is working toward the same goal?

Well, for starters, according to our wholly unscientific sample group, there’s very little room for rivalry. In an industry where figuring out whom you can and cannot trust can take a lifetime (if not more), sharing a foxhole with a peer you’re connected to through blood or marriage offers an enviable sense of security. Such was the case for baritone Dwayne Croft, who initially followed in the footsteps of his older brother Richard and studied the tenor repertoire.

“I started so young, my voice hadn’t quite developed,” Dwayne explains. He recounts weekends, when he was a tween, when his brother would come home from college and listen to a collection of Puccini’s greatest hits and imitate the likes of Richard Tucker and Jussi Björling. As he tells it, he (Dwayne) had a solid Plácido Domingo impression, singing up to an A with ardor and depth but finding himself in a holding pattern while waiting for his high notes to develop.

“I may have been the first person to broach that subject,” says Richard in a separate interview. “I suggested he try some higher baritone things and then he could get some work, he could sing some places, he could sing Don Giovanni for crying out loud—who wouldn’t want to do that? I even remember saying, ‘Then when your higher voice develops, you can change to tenor and everyone will talk about it. It’ll be a great PR moment. You can use this, but don’t waste this time now.’”

Dwayne also remembers the Don Giovanni argument. Coming from another industry professional, such advice may have not carried as much weight—and the argument made by Richard didn’t yield instantaneous results. But once Dwayne made the switch, “it was actually a relief in a way. I was there. Instead of thinking it was going to take a long time to develop my tenor voice, it was all there and I was able to work right then.” The switch back to tenor never happened for Dwayne, but given the roles he’s been able to sing—from Don Giovanni to Eugene Onegin to Professor Harold Hill—neither of the Crofts seem to take issue with the vocal disparity.

“If we’d both been tenors, maybe we wouldn’t be such good friends after all these years,” chuckles Richard.

Helpful, too, is the ability to witness someone else’s transformation from amateur to professional music as you yourself walk the same path. For Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, the examples set by his older brother Askar made a career in the arts seem more palpable—especially growing up in his hometown of Ufa.

“I can’t imagine how it would be,” Ildar says when asked what he thought his career would be like if he were the only classical musician in his family (his parents, incidentally, also both made their livings in the creative sector). “I saw which competitions he won, and I did the same. It was an example for me of how I can move up.”

“We each had our own way,” Askar explains of the inevitable divergences between his and his brother’s career paths. “But there was always a sense of responsibility,” he adds. While studying music in Ufa, Askar used his little brother as a pupil for his vocal pedagogy class, working in front of the teacher that still teaches both of the Abdrazakovs. “It was fun for him; it was fun for her—but for me it was not so fun,” laughs Ildar, who recounts the corrections that their teacher would make to his brother’s own teachings. “It was like, ‘What? Is it like that? Or is it like that? Who is wrong?’”

Such an experience also provides a valuable lesson. While on the one hand having a sibling in the arts means having someone consistently in your court, the flip side of that deal is also recognizing the fact that, for all the genetics you share, you are ultimately two different people. For a pair like the Crofts, this is more apparent. But sometimes realizing that what works for your sibling may not work for you is a more nuanced realization.

“Every person has their own destiny and their own life to live and decisions to make for themselves,” says Askar.

And for others still, the need to differentiate yourself takes precedence. Soprano Mary Bevan not only has a sister in the industry (fellow soprano Sophie), she has a family that, according to the Telegraph, spans at least 58 world-class performers spread among aunts, uncles, and cousins who all trace their roots back to the late Roger Bevan, former head of music at the Downside School. His 14 children (and their subsequent progeny) have carried on the family business, including David Bevan, choirmaster of Church of the Holy Redeemer and St. Thomas More.

“We had no telly and didn’t even listen to records: the point was to make music yourself,” Sophie is quoted as saying in the same Telegraph article.

“We were surrounded by music when we were growing up. It was just a part of life—it wasn’t a choice that was made,” says Mary. While Sophie studied voice at the Royal College of Music and signed on with the English National Opera prior to matriculating, Mary (less than 18 months her sister’s junior) read Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at Cambridge University. Curiously, Mary says it always seemed “natural” that her sister would do something different, albeit both showed early and preternatural promise in grade school. She explains that their family life never placed a rush on going into singing (both sisters also play a number of instruments between the two of them).

“If I’d gone [to the RCM] at the same time as her, I think things would have been very difficult for us both,” Mary says of Sophie. “It’s a very formative time for your confidence, that time from 18 to 22, isn’t it? You’ve really got to find your own niche in the world, and I think we did that from being so different. We made our own personalities and became young adults, and we were better able to cope with the fact that we were both singing in our early 20s.”

While Sophie could not be reached for an interview, she echoed the sentiment for her Telegraph feature, attributing the fact that she and her sister were able to come into their own separately yet concurrently as a means of dispelling any potential for rivalry.

And despite the variations each of these three pairs of siblings boasts—the decidedly different Crofts, the Abdrazakovs who occupy opposite ends of the bass spectrum, or the Bevan sisters who are vocally more . . . well . . . sisterly—the manifold works in the canon offer opportunities to perform together in a number of ways. Often this involves one of the aforementioned musical dynasty composers: Mozart. Last year, Mary and Sophie Bevan shared the stage in Garsington Opera’s Don Giovanni, the former singing Zerlina to the latter’s Donna Elvira. The interplay between the two characters was heightened thanks to the comfort that the Bevans had with one another in rehearsals, which Mary adds, “makes for a nice atmosphere in the room because we feel very relaxed.”

“I think for the audience, it’s fun to see two brothers,” says Ildar, who has performed in concert with his brother and who has also shared the stage with Askar, notably in Don Giovanni. “For us, Don Giovanni is a joy to sing, mostly in order to watch one another,” adds Askar. “What’s more, you get a positive energy. With other singers, it’s not bad. But with Ildar I always do better.”

Likewise, one of the other benefits to Dwayne Croft shifting into the baritone rep was that he and Richard were able to share a stage more often, as they did one night in a performance of Così fan tutte at the Met under James Levine.

“I hadn’t been on the set. I’d seen it, but there’s a difference when you’re on that set and you’re the first one to start singing,” explains Richard. Following a turn of Ferrando’s “Un’aura amorosa,” Richard turned to his brother, unsure of what specifically to do next. Dwayne, who had been singing Guglielmo in the production for a few shows prior to his brother stepping in, handed him a prop apple.

“I go, ‘Oh, thanks!’ And he says, ‘Well, don’t actually eat it!’” Richard laughs. “And then I turn offstage and I go, ‘OK, how do we get off?’ And he says, ‘Right this way!’ We walk upstage and there is a really dangerous cable. If you didn’t see it, you could have broken your neck there in front of everyone. So he says, ‘OK, be careful. Watch this. Careful of that.’”

“I was just lying on the floor listening to him singing,” Dwayne recalls of the staging. “I remembered hearing him singing [the aria] in college, which was one of the first operas I saw him do. So then doing Guglielmo with him at the Met with Levine conducting and lying there listening to him sing the aria I grew up listening to him sing was just . . . I relished it.”

There is still, however, room for compartmentalization. “Other than being onstage and rehearsing and that, on breaks we’d just go back to talking about what we’d talk about if we’d met as sisters for coffee,” says Mary. “It’s like doing opera with your best friend.”

“Knowing how to love and appreciate the people you love is most important of all,” says Askar, who very rarely discusses professional matters when enjoying leisure time with his younger brother. “He has his own opinions; I have mine,” adds Ildar. “The music works. It’s already there. You need to create something else. You need to follow what the composer wrote.”

“We’ve shared a room,” Mary chuckles. “But we’re given our own dressing rooms now.”

Olivia Giovetti

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.