Saturday 31 October 2020

The smallest ditty can feel like a marathon if it does not fit the voice: following his appearance with Blackheath Halls Opera, I chat to tenor Nicky Spence about his career and planning roles

  • Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Ashley Riches, Nicky Spence, Francesca Chiejina - Blackheath Halls Opera
Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Ashley Riches, Nicky Spence, Francesca Chiejina
Blackheath Halls Opera

Tenor Nicky Spence is patron of Blackheath Halls Opera, the community opera company based at Blackheath Halls and in ordinary circumstances this year would have found him in his advisory role as an 'enthusiasm machine' whilst the company prepared and performed. Instead, he has headlined an imaginative short film, released by the company last month, a digested version of Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress directed by James Hurley [A Journey through 'The Rake's Progress' on YouTube], as well as producing a regular on-line series for the company, Thursday Nights in with Nicky Spence. The fact that Nicky and I live within easy cycling distance of each other meant that we were able to meet up recently for a socially distanced coffee and chat about his work with Blackheath Halls Opera and The Rakes Progress as well as catching up on his plans, singing more dramatic roles, the importance of diction and his love of recitals.

Nicky has sung the role of Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's opera twice before, once with British Youth Opera in 2009 (when George Hall in The Guardian described his Tom as having 'an almost indecent willingness to fall from grace') and then in concert with Scottish Opera. Now for Blackheath Halls Opera it was done as a 30-minute film. In fact, having to do it as a film was an advantage as the company would not usually be able to perform a work like The Rakes Progress because there would not be enough time to learn the complex staging needed for the chorus scenes. And having an on-line project this year meant that the members of the chorus could get something of what they were missing with live rehearsals and performances cancelled, being part of a gang and the experience of learning as group. The soloists were filmed in a socially distanced manner, though the project had contingencies on contingencies in case things changed. But in the film, this social distancing is not noticeable as the filming disguises it. In fact, they were lucky, because it turns out the opera director James Hurley has a past as a film maker, so he was able to direct the work for film.

Wagner: Parsifal - Nicky Spence, the Halle, Sir Mark Elder - York Minster
Wagner: Parsifal - Nicky Spence, the Hallé, Sir Mark Elder - York Minster

The resulting work A Journey through The Rake's Progress is very definitely a film, rather than a film of a stage performance, which has many advantages. Whilst film is not a replacement for live performance, Nicky feels that the project was a great opportunity to get people together in the present circumstances, not just the members of the chorus but the professionals too.

Ordinarily, Nicky's role with Blackheath Halls Opera is in an advisory capacity, aiming to raise the company's profile and act as an advisor about casting. He has also been involved in side projects, such as bringing back recitals to Blackheath Halls. This is something of a labour of love, as though he enjoys recital work himself, he admits that it is not a money making venture.  And of course, Blackheath Halls is his local venue. He feels that is so easy for a performer to be obsessed with their diary and their brand, and he finds it lovely to do something which is more to do with real life and away from the opera stage. A performer's life can become boring and narcissistic otherwise.

In fact, Nicky has been lucky to have had a relatively busy Summer despite lockdown, and projects being cancelled. He has had two recordings out this year, a volume of RVW's folk-songs with Mary Bevan, Roderick Williams and William Vann on Albion Records and Alex Woolf's Requiem with Vox Luna, Philip Higham, Iain Burnside, and Anthony Gray on Delphian. And he took part in Glyndebourne's outdoor performances of Offenbach's operetta In the Market for Love which he describes as a festival of what was possible and great fun. He has also had performances of Janacek's The Diary of One who Disappeared which he recorded last year for Hyperion and which he will be performing at the Wigmore Hall on 16 November 2020.

His plans include making his role debut as Siegmund in a new production of Wagner's Die Walküre at English National Opera. This will, of course, be in English and a language Nicky loves singing in. For a start it is his mother tongue next to Scots, and then when performing you don't have to have the sort of converter that a foreign language needs, so he finds performances in English are more visceral, going from your soul to the hearts of the audience. He feels that it is very worthwhile in the right works and thinks that operas by Wagner and Janacek make a lot of sense in English. When singing in English, comprehensibility is important for him (his actually phrasing was rather more colourful) so that people understand what he is singing. He sees it is a singers job to be understood and there is no excuse unless you are a stratospheric soprano, and he is a great admirer of mezzo-soprano Dame Felicity Palmer (whom he interviewed for the Thursday Nights in with Nicky Spence series, still available on Facebook) and who can be pretty trenchant on the subject of diction.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Nicky Spence, English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Nicky Spence, English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)

The planned performances as Siegmund are, of course, subject to all the current caveats but he finds that you have to throw yourself into the learning process. He has already that three projects cancelled for which he had done the learning (at least one was a core role which will, hopefully, pop up in the future and he feels that it is the sort of learning that goes into the long term memory). He thinks that it is important to forge on with doing the learning for future projects, as otherwise you can give yourself something of an identity crisis over whether or not to do the learning, worrying whether the project will be cancelled.

The assumption of Siegmund is indicative of how Nicky has slowly been moving into more dramatic roles and has future plans for role debuts as Samson in Camille Saint-Saens opera and in the title role of Britten's Peter Grimes. But unlike some singers when they move into more dramatic territory, he has not said goodbye to any roles yet. Part of the reason is that he has always done a wide variety of roles so that it was difficult for people to put him in a box. After all, he has Tito in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito planned shortly, he likes to keep people guessing. He sang the title role in Act Three of Wagner's Parsifal with Sir Mark Elder and the Halle Orchestra at the Ryedale Festival in York Minster last year (described by Fiona Maddocks in The Observer as 'singing radiantly, with a stillness and nobility absolutely right') yet also performed in Handel's Brockes Passion with the Academy of Ancient Music [see my review].

He sandwiches smaller roles in between the bigger ones and comments that a distinguished Wagnerian bass once told him that it was important to sing a bit of Rossini each day. For Nicky it is not the size of role that matters but whether if fits. The smallest ditty can feel like a marathon if it does not fit the voice.

He is very grateful for the advice he gets from supportive mentors, including Sir Mark Elder and Sir Antonio Pappano. And he says no to a lot of things. But he admits that it is difficult for a singer to find someone who gives you an honest opinion, and that it is important for a singer to have a strong sense of self. The pacing of his career is important as is having a strategy and a plan, but it is difficult to sustain this at the moment in this business and in this climate. There is always a temptation to say yes to another performance. Once he had agreed to sing Siegmund in 2021, Nicky then had to plan his other roles as Siegmund sits low for him and other works have to fit. Nothing should be by accident, and it is always important to sing everything healthily. 

Nicky Spence in recital with Malcolm Martineau (Photo Martin Shields)
Nicky Spence in recital with Malcolm Martineau (Photo Martin Shields)

Besides opera, he still wants to fulfil his dreams in the recital and recording world. Recitals are important to Nicky and he still manages to do quite a few though he admits that in the past he has sometimes oversubscribed himself and found he had too many words to learn. As a result of one such crisis some years ago, he now tries to perform off the book (even Janacek in Czech) so he does not get too reliant on the printed words. 

When I ask about how he began as a singer, he comments that he started singing when young because he was naturally noisy and a precocious show off, something he attributes to 'screaming for attention'. At first he sang pop songs and did so with an instinctive way of singing, and he only had his first singing lesson when he was 15 or 16. He started learning properly when he realised that he wanted to go to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, something he set his mind to and did. Though he admits that when he got to the Guildhall School he realised he had an immense learning curve, a process he describes as nosebleed inducing.

The singers that he admires are the ones who are stage animals, people who are adaptable and sing as if their lives depended on it and he names such luminaries as Jon Vickers and Shirley Verrett as well as fellow singers such as Karita Mattila, Susan Bullock, Roderick Williams, Allan Clayton and Mary Bevan.

Being Scots, Nicky has high regard for Scottish Opera and is the patron of their young opera company, a role he sees as trying to make sure that young singers have the right opportunities, and he points out that his springboard into the profession when he was a youngster wasn't obvious. He worked a lot with the company when he was younger and would love to work with them more. He is very admiring of the way the company creates interesting programmes when often they don't know what will be coming from the Arts Council till a year before. And of course, there is always the possibility that at some future date he might move back to Scotland.

Having a life is important to Nicky. He points at that so many people have given up their lives for the business, and that it is important for him to be a human first and then an artist. You have far more to offer if you have life experience. As a very young singer, Nicky got a recording contract from Decca, he had confidence and people around him who were saying he was fantastic, but he feels that he is now a more credible artist as he doubts himself and allows himself to be vulnerable. 

Nicky Spence (Photo Bertie Watson)
Nicky Spence (Photo Bertie Watson)

Once he has sung everything he wants to, Nicky has no fear of retiring; he has no desire to be still singing when he is 80, though he admires singers like Felicity Palmer and Graham Clarke who have both had extremely long careers. And he will continue working with young singers.

Nicky Spence on disc:

  • Janácek: The diary of one who disappeared - Nicky Spence, Julius Drake,Victoria Samekl, Václava Housková on Hyperion. Available from Amazon, Hive
  • Vaughan William: Folk songs volume 1 - Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence, Roderick Williams, Jack Liebeck, William Vann on Albion Records. Available from Amazon,
  • Alex Woolf: Requiem - Nicky Spence, Iain Burnside, Philip Higham, Anthony Gray, Vox Luna, Alex Woolf on Delphian. Available from Amazon, Hive
  • Handel: Brockes Passion - Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr on AAM. Available from Amazon, 
  • Buxton Orr: Songs - Nicky Spence, Iain Burnside on Delphian. Available from Amazon, Hive
  • Richard Strauss: Complete songs, volume 8 - Nicky Spence, Rebecca Evans, Roger Vignoles on Hyperion. Available from Amazon,   

A Journey through 'The Rakes Progress'

  • Tom Rakewell - Nicky Spence
  • Nick Shadow - Ashley Riches
  • Anne Trulove - Francesca Chiejina 
  • Sellem - James Way
  • Baba the Turk - Kitty Whately
  • Mother Goose - Carolyn Williamson
  • Blackheath Halls Orchestra and Chorus, Royal Greenwich & Blackheath Halls Youth Choir
  • Director - James Hurley
  • Musical Director - Christopher
  • On YouTube

Nicky Spence on Planet Hugill:

  • Come into the Garden - Samling Artist Showcase 2019 at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Handel: Brockes Passion - Academy of Ancient Music - CD review
  • Martinu: The Greek Passion - Opera North - opera review
  • Handel: Brockes Passion  - Academy of Ancient Music at Barbican - concert review  
  • Long Time Ago - Samling Artist Showcase 2018 at Wigmore Hall - concert review 
  • Cheryl Frances-Hoad: Magic Lantern Tales - Champs Hill Records - CD review
  • Janacek: From the House of Dead - Royal Opera House - opera review   
Elsewhere on this blog
  • A timely reminder of what we are missing: The Crimson Bird, orchestral works by Nicola Lefanu on new disc from NMC - CD review
  • Three Tributes: music by Kevin Puts, Andrea Clearfield and Gunther Schuller - CD review
  • More than a curiosity: Malcolm Arnold's forgotten opera The Dancing Master - CD review
  • An honourable failure or a misunderstood masterpiece? Another look at Weber's Oberon  - feature article
  • Weber at home: Complete keyboard duets from Julian Perkins and Emma Abbate - Cd review
  • Everything via Association: composer Vic Hoyland on his 75th birthday - interview
  • Welcome to the high energy world of Irish composer Ed Bennett: Psychedelia from NMC  - CD review
  • From the whole earth dancing to a day in hell: chamber music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad  - CD review
  • The case against Wagner - David Faiman's Meyerbeer: The deliberately forgotten composer - book review
  • Mendelssohn Cello Sonatas and more: historically informed performances from cellist Viola de Hoog and pianist Mikayel Balyan - CD review 
  • Beethoven and Black muses: Gweneth Ann Rand, Simon Lepper, Stephan Loges, Eugene Asti at the Oxford Lieder Festival - concert review
  • Home

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