Nicky Spence interview: 'Anyone can sing!'
The London-based tenor talks about his new television career, wedding plans and incest at the opera
Among their three mentors is English National Opera and Royal Opera House tenor Nicky Spence, one of the most sought-after singers of his generation, and an enthusiastic ambassador for singing, whether on stage or in the shower.
At the same time as rehearsals for a new production at the Coliseum, he has been teaching and guiding two of the volunteers whose progress we will be tracking on Sky Arts soon. There were some 500 applications for the scheme from people who have missed out on singing, in the worst cases because they were discouraged as children.
Nicky was on the auditioning panel for the shortlist, and listening out not only for a promising voice, but for a flair with words.
Nicky Spence in Jack Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel in 2018. Photo: Alistair Muir
‘A lot of people were told they were terrible when they were young. That’s such an often told story – “Oh you’re awful. Go and stand at the back and mouth along.” Shame on anyone that says that. This programme will prove that anyone can sing. We have a pot-pourri of gender, age and ethnicity. Some of them haven’t a note in their heads, but they wanted to sing.
‘I didn’t care at all what their voice was like, because I knew that with our magic powers we could work on them. I was looking for someone who could tell a story,’ he explains. ‘It takes vocal, acting, dancing and athletic skills. It’s a real collaboration. My main job is telling a story. As a singer you are on a daily mission to try to match match your vocal technique to support the story you want to tell. That is our daily struggle, and it’s a joyous struggle, because you wake up with a different instrument every day.’
And sometimes you wake up with a different language. In the role of Laca in Leoš Janáček’s Jenufa at Covent Garden recently, he was singing in Czech. A recording of songs by the same composer won him a Gramophone award last year.
Returning to the Royal Opera house in 2022, he will be singing in French as Samson in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. ‘All languages taste differently in the mouth,’ he says. ‘My grandmother was half-French, and it’s the language I speak the best.’
Nicky Spence played several roles in the Royal Opera House' Alice's Adventures Underground. Photo: Clive Barda
But singing in his mother tongue is also really important to the singer who trained at English National Opera, where opera is always sung in English. ‘It cuts out that kind of catalytic converter which we have to use, sometimes, in opera.’
The language of kindness comes very naturally too to this very popular singer. During the drive to vaccinate the nation, he volunteered at a centre near his Deptford home and was quickly recruited from ‘running the corridor’ to vaccinating around 100 new arrivals a day. ‘It was very interesting doing something clinical, where something is either right or wrong.
'Things can be very airy-fairy in the arts. You can sing something one way, and it's good, but you can also do it a different way. With that kind of thing, you're putting the needle in the right place or you're not! The training was really great. I am such a big advocate for vaccination.' Among the vaccinees were many singers, players and conductors. ‘I wanted everyone to be vaccinated so that I could back to work!’
Now that singers can indeed work again, ‘it’s important to keep some of the things that we learned in lockdown’. And in Spence’s case the sense of community that some discovered for the first time is vividly illustrated by his involvement Blackheath Opera, a brilliant project of which he is patron. For 12 years, the company has staged productions at Blackheath Halls with professional players and singers performing alongside amateurs, who do not have to audition.
The tenor has won awards for his recordings. Photo: Stephen Dewar
The most recent production, a hilarious modern-dress staging of John Blow’s comic opera Venus and Adonis, was set in the studios of a prime-time television reality show, choosy Venus selecting her ideal man from the a string of hopefuls. In attendance, a mass of TV professionals with clipboards, and a studio audience, clapping and whooping on cue – a double cast of around 100. The singer’s personal involvement gives the whole enterprise extra kudos.
Somewhere between singing, jabbing and supporting other singers, there has been room to plan a wedding. On New Year’s Day 2022, Spence, who is 38, marries the pianist Dylan Perez, in the singer’s native Scotland. The two musicians work together from time to time, and Perez is currently giving his own concert series, entitled Re-sung.
Founded in 2017, Re-sung focuses on the bond between music and words, with fresh performances of favourite works and new songs too. Future free Wednesday 7PM concerts at St John the Divine, 92 Vassall Road, Kennington include Le Jardin Enchanté (10 Nov), A Poulenc Parade (17 Nov), How I Wonder What You Are, on the theme of the night and stars (24 Nov) and Spanish celebration ¡Fiesta! (1 Dec).
That leaves room in the diary for the opening night of Wagner’s The Valkyrie at English National Opera, when Nicky Spence makes his role debut as Siegmund. And if Wagner sounds like a heavy night out, think again. ‘Valkyrie is the perfect gateway drug to opera,’ says Spence. ‘It’s Lord of the Rings – with fewer Orcs. It’s like superheroes coming to Earth.
Dancing (far left) in Jenufa at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Robert Workman
‘Wotan’s two children Siegmund and Sieglinde have fallen in love, but they don’t know they are brother and sister. Incest! The game the whole family can play! The Valkyrie is part of Wagner's Ring cycle, and is best known for its formidable gallop, the Ride of the Valkyrie.
‘I’ve played all the smaller roles over the years. It’s so exciting to get my teeth into a part that’s so well written. Siegmund has some of the most lyrical lines. It has these big, epic themes, and also it’s like a kitchen sink drama on an intimate scale. So much of it is so like chamber music. It’s not always meant to be hugely sung.’
Valkyrie, like Samson et Dalila at Covent Garden, is directed by Richard Jones. He had a memorable success with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at ENO, letting the story of the song contest unfold gracefully, and honouring the great achievements in culture from the Germanic countries.
The look of the production is still under wraps, but this much can be revealed: ‘It’s like nothing you’ve seen before...’
English National Opera’s Valkyrie opens at the Coliseum, Fri 19 Nov. Further performances are on 22, 25 Nov; 1, 7, 10 Dec, with matinees on 28 Nov and 4 Dec. Click here for more information and tickets. Nicky Spence has had to withdraw from Samson et Dalila at the Royal Opera House 26 May to 16 June, after a fall. Booking opens on 22 Feb. Re-sung events are listed here. Anyone Can Sing will air on Sky Arts from Wed 30 March 2022