Interview with Nicky Spence: “Anyone Can Sing!”
This winter, a new cohort of volunteer amateurs will join the many bakers, dancers and potters on our television screens. Anyone can sing is the title of a new series in which six members of the audience who for one reason or another struggle to give voice, even if they like a good song, are shown the ropes by professional singers.
Among their three mentors, English National Opera and Royal Opera House tenor Nicky Spence, one of the most sought-after singers of his generation, and an enthusiastic voice ambassador, both on stage and in the shower.
Along with rehearsals for a new production at the Colosseum, he taught and guided two of the volunteers whose progress we will soon be following on Sky Arts. There were some 500 applications for the program from people who failed to sing, at worst because they were discouraged as children.
Nicky was on the audition panel for the shortlist and listened to not only a promising voice, but also a flair with words.
Nicky Spence in Jack Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel 2018. Photo: Alistair Muir
âA lot of people said you were terrible when they were young. It’s a story so often told – âOh, you’re horrible. Go get in the back and yell along. Shame on anyone who says that. This program will prove that anyone can sing. We have a medley of gender, age and ethnicity. Some of them don’t have a note in their head, but they wanted to to sing.
“I didn’t care what their voice sounded like, because I knew that with our magical powers we could work on them.” I was looking for someone who could tell a story, âhe explains. âIt takes vocal, acting, dancing and athletic skills. It is a real complicity. My main job is to tell a story. As a singer, your daily mission is to try and match your vocal technique to support the story you want to tell. This is our daily fight, and it is a joyous fight, because you wake up every day with a different instrument.
And sometimes you wake up with a different language. As Laca in LeoÅ¡ JanÃ¡Äek Jenufa in Covent Garden recently, he sang in Czech. A recording of songs by the same composer won him a Gramophone award last year.
Back at the Royal Opera in 2022, he will sing in French the role of Samson in Camille Saint-SaÃ«ns Samson and Delilah. âAll languages ââtaste different in the mouth,â he says. âMy grandmother was half French and that’s the language I speak best.
Nicky Spence has played several roles in Alice’s Adventures Underground at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Clive Barda
But singing in his mother tongue is also very important for the singer trained at the English National Opera, where the opera is still sung in English. “It cuts out that kind of catalytic converter that we have to use, sometimes, at the opera.”
The language of kindness also comes very naturally to this very popular singer. During the campaign to immunize the nation, he volunteered at a center near his home in Deptford and was quickly recruited to “run the hall” to vaccinate around 100 newcomers a day. âIt was very interesting to do something clinical, where something is either right or wrong.
âThings can be very whimsical in the arts. You can sing something one way, and that’s good, but you can sing it a different way, too. With this kind of thing, you put the needle in the right place or you are not! The training was really great. I am a big advocate for immunization. Among the vaccinated were many singers, players and conductors. âI wanted everyone to be vaccinated so I could go back to work! ”
Now that the singers can actually work again, “it’s important to keep some of the things we’ve learned locked out.” And in Spence’s case, the sense of community that some have discovered for the first time is clearly illustrated by his involvement in Blackheath Opera, a brilliant project of which he is the patron. For 12 years, the company has staged productions at Blackheath Halls with professional players and singers performing alongside amateurs, who do not need to audition.
The tenor has won awards for his recordings. Photo: Stephen Dewar
The most recent production, a hilarious staging in modern outfits from John Blow’s comedy opera Venus and Adonis, took place in the studios of a prime-time reality TV show, Venus choosing her ideal man from a series of hopes. In the audience, a mass of professional TV professionals with clipboards and a studio audience, clapping and booing at the signal – a double cast of around 100. The singer’s personal involvement gives the entire company additional congratulations.
Somewhere between singing, pricking and supporting other singers, there was room to plan a wedding. On New Years Day 2022, Spence, 38, married 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, called Re-sung.
Founded in 2017, Re-sung focuses on the connection between music and words, with new interpretations of favorite works and new songs. Upcoming free concerts on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at St John the Divine, 92 Vassall Road, Kennington include The Enchanted Garden (November 10), A Poulenc parade (November 17), How I wonder what you are, on the theme of the night and the stars (Nov. 24) and Spanish party Fiesta! (Dec 1).
This leaves room on the agenda for Wagner’s opening night. The Valkyrie at the English National Opera, when Nicky Spence made his debut as Siegmund. And if Wagner sounds like a big night out, think again. ‘Valkyrie is the ideal drug to access the opera, âsays Spence. ‘His the Lord of the Rings – with fewer Orcs. It’s like superheroes are coming to Earth.
Dance (far left) to Jenufa at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Robert Workman
âWotan’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 The Valkyrie Ride.
âI’ve played all the small roles over the years. It’s so exciting to put my teeth into a part that’s so well written. Siegmund has some of the most lyrical lines. It has these great epic themes, and it’s also like kitchen sink drama on an intimate scale. It sounds so much like chamber music. It’s not always meant to be sung a lot.
Valkyrie, As Samson and Dalila in Covent Garden, is headed by Richard Jones. He had memorable success with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger to ENO, letting the history of the song contest unfold with grace and honoring the great cultural achievements of the Germanic countries.
The look of the production is still a secret, but it can be revealed: “This is unlike anything you’ve seen before …”
The English National Opera Valkyrie opens at the Coliseum on Friday, November 19. Other performances will take place on November 22 and 25; December 1, 7, 10, with mornings on November 28 and December 4. Click here for more information and tickets. Samson and Delilah is at the Royal Opera House from May 26 to June 16. The reservation opens on February 22. The re-sung events are listed here. Anyone Can Sing will be released at the end of the year