Specifically, about how many barrels are needed to fuel a decent wedding party. "One barrel is only 72 pints," advises Sophie, who got married last month. "I know how you can get it cheap by going to the source-" For the record, she had eight barrels at her wedding, and they were all finished by the end of the night.
You'd be hard-put to guess that the boisterous gals drinking pints across the table from me are two of Britain's finest young sopranos. The Bevan sisters are sparky, mouthy, funny. They're blonde and very beautiful: Sophie, eldest of eight Bevan siblings, is petite and currently deeply tanned, just back from her honeymoon in Africa. Mary is willowy and pristine, about to be married in a matter of weeks. Their bubbly chat could make them any pair of close friends or sisters in their late 20s. These two just happen to be current darlings of the UK opera scene.
Both are sopranos of fantastically breezy technique; both are dazzling in baroque and classical repertoire, bringing luminous personality and unforced musicality to their roles. But they're distinct talents, too. Sophie's voice is fuller and she uses it in later, weightier repertoire: she's sung in Boris Godunov and The Mikado at English National Opera, and this Thursday performs Ivor Novello songs with tenor Toby Spence at the Proms. Mary has a lighter voice, "which in a way saved me," she says. "At music college I wasn't pushed into taking big roles in the student operas. Instead, I took the kind of roles I'm singing now – young, cheeky Mozartian characters – and I'm happy for that niche to last."
Their careers have grown independently but "people have started to take an interest in us as a pair," says Sophie. They performed Mozart at Garsington Opera in 2010 (Sophie as Susanna, Mary as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro) and again this summer (Elvira and Zerlina in Don Giovanni). They're in Edinburgh this week for two concerts with Ludus Baroque at Canongate Kirk: tonight it's Handel's oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth, and Mary stays for Bach's B Minor Mass tomorrow. Both are back later in the month for International Festival concerts: Sophie sings Purcell's King Arthur with The Sixteen on August 27, and both join the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream on Monday.
The Bevans hail from one of England's major musical clans: grandfather Roger was head of music at a Catholic school in Somerset and all of his 14 children turned out musically gifted (Sophie's and Mary's father David became a church choirmaster). But there was no musical pressure at home. "I was a tomboy," says Sophie. "We ran around, had no telly, no Barbie dolls. Making music was just a way of entertaining ourselves. Our friends were each other or our cousins, all of us in the same situation of having little money and loads of brothers and sisters."
"We didn't have many outside influences," adds Mary, "which is probably what saved us from becoming girly girls. We were pretty different from our school friends."
They were put to work early, for one, singing in their father's choir from the age of about 10. "Dad just wanted to keep us out of trouble and bulk up numbers in the choir. We all started on the alto line – it was less exposed, brilliant for our sight reading and probably helped develop our middle range."
As they grew more confident they started taking solos, joined Berkshire Youth Choir and emerged as gifted sopranos. Sophie went straight from school to the Royal College of Music, while Mary took a few years off to go to Cambridge to study Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic – "just to check there was an element of brain in there," she laughs. "And thank God she did," says Sophie, "because we had the best nights out there. I lived vicariously. At music college, people just practised a lot. Nobody smoked and drank, things I liked doing a lot of-"
The Bevans come across as brilliantly down to earth – a pair of feisty ladettes who'd be great company on a night out, far cry from stereotyped water-sipping sopranos. "There's no point in sacrificing a life," shrugs Sophie. "Hanging out with my sisters, dancing to bands, going on bike rides - I can't imagine my life without these things."
Mary has a toddler son and feels a little more career pressure. "My fiancee is also a singer and we're both aware that money doesn't come easily. I'm doing well now, but there's always someone else who's about to make a splash." How does she deal with that? Very healthily, it seems. "There's no point worrying about other people's successes. I have to just carry on doing what I'm doing as well as I can."
"You have to ignore the competitiveness of the singing world," adds Sophie. "We were brought up in an atmosphere where we didn't really compete. We're used to having a lot of good musicians around."
And with that they're off for dinner and maybe a Fringe show or two. "Let's catch some comedy," says Sophie. "Though we'd better find someone crap: if they're good we'll laugh too hard and ruin our voices."
Sophie and Mary Bevan sing with Ludus Baroque at Canongate Kirk tonight and tomorrow, and at the Edinburgh Festival on August 13 and 27.
Contextual targeting label: