Nicky Spence doesn't do anonymous. He can fill any room—in our case a sizeable tea lounge—with his infectious personality. Just don't make the mistake of thinking he's an empty vessel, despite the friendly noise.
When Spence says something's 'fab', in that 1960s kind of way, he says it with conviction. The Scottish-born tenor has risen fast on the opera circuit, and at 33 he's in ever-increasing demand at home and abroad. You don't get to sing Alwa in Alban Berg's Lulu unless you're a major talent and a dedicated professional.
"I took a month off to learn it because it's a pretty big role. I didn't accept any other engagements, which when you're only due to do five performances is a ballsy decision. But I didn't want to be distracted. It's been a huge learn, although I knew when I took the engagement that I was booked to do it again, in German, during the next five years, so it seemed like a good investment.
"I had to be firm with myself and drag myself away from Loose Women most mornings, work for about 20 minutes until my brain gave out, then start again five minutes later. Because you can only take in so much.
"We've only had three weeks in the rehearsal room to put this on, which for an opera the size of Lulu is a challenge. I've found myself doing anything in the house aside from learning it. Displacement activity? There's not a lightbulb that hasn't been changed. Then I saw the penny drop. I get turned on by the music now: it has themes, a bit like Wagner, and the interrelation between the characters really works musically. So I've enjoyed it.
"My blood type is 'B[e] Positive'"
"I made sure I sang it in German first to see what Berg wanted, then looked at the English. Mark Wigglesworth is a fab conductor and he's not stuck religiously to the translation. We have to cook it a bit to make it work because Mark just wants the sense to come across. That's refreshing."
It's a production that started life at the New York Met. Has Spence had any freedom in rehearsals to put his own stamp on it?
"William [Kentridge, the director] has been open to ideas, but there's some big machinery involved so he'll move you if you're about to get run over. The projections are a massive bit of kit so often we've had to hit spots and then fill in the emotional gaps afterwards.
"Yet when you talk to William, the emotions and the storytelling are what he's all about. He's a big advocate of letting you bring something of yourself to the stage—which is a bit strange for me, because it's not usually what I get to do. Being allowed to have a little bit of me in there has been a refreshing change."
Does Spence bring his happy-go-lucky style into rehearsals? "Absolutely! I can only be myself—really positive. I hate complainers because, you know, we get dressed up for a living. Life's too short. Nothing's insurmountable. My blood type is 'B[e] Positive'.
"We've got an amazing Lulu in Brenda Rae. She is sensational. Bloody incredible. She gave birth six months ago—I look more as if I'd done that than she does—but she's taken it all in her stride."
I ask if there are any roles he's played that he'd fancy another crack at. "I'd love to do David again in Die Meistersinger. I wasn't on top form when we did it at ENO because I'd been knocked over by a car about three months previously while I was cycling in town. My knee was dodgy, and I've still lost use of my left eyebrow. Look: I can't do surprised anymore, I just do puzzled. So I felt like I was having to fight my way through it. I'd like to have another go when all that isn't going on. And I'd love to do Tom Rakewell again too [in The Rake's Progress]. I did that for British Youth Opera, back in the day."
The first time I saw Nicky Spence he made an enormous impact as Jacquino in Opera Holland Park's Fidelio. Before he sang a note he had to sit there, inactive, just being a thug. It was immediately clear he's a real actor. When I say so, his reaction is startling.
"Yes, I'd say I'm only an actor most of the time. The singing's a side salad. That Fidelio was my first gig after the Opera Studio, and I find it really interesting to get into the bones of a character. And I think engagement with character is going to be the future of opera.
"Two Boys was my first job at ENO, and I felt I'd really landed on my trotters. It gave me the opportunity to go and sing at the Met as well, so I was chuffed to bits. And working with [the composer] Nico Muly was exciting. Working on an opera where you don't have to hold a séance to talk to the composer is quite rare. And Nico's a genius. I remember masturbating in 7/8 time and thinking 'so this is what opera is'. It wasn't what I'd expected.
"There aren't pants tight enough for me to sing Ferrando"
"That's the thing with opera most of the time. When you're doing it, the singing is the last thing on your mind."
What roles does he hope to sing in the future? "All the Britten tenor roles fit me well, I think. I'd love to sing Peter Grimes in 10 or 15 years' time, and I hope I can have a crack at Albert Herring some day, And Captain Vere. Billy Budd is great because you can sing three or four characters before you graduate to the top job.
"I would never sing Ferrando [in Così fan tutte] though. I've been offered that a couple of times, but there aren't pants tight enough for me to bring that off. It wouldn't be a happy mix for anyone.
"My favourite composer to sing? I'd have to say an equal first between Janáček and Britten, just because of the human interest side. They both hold up a mirror to human nature and society in general. And in Britten, as in Berg, the speech rhythms are like a play. So much of it is Sprechgesang, and it's been tricky to find the balance with that in Lulu. We've had Dame Felicity Palmer giving us coaching and she's been fab. Janáček's operas are basically plays, and the connection between heart and singing is so close.
"I'm doing a lot of Janáček next year. There's something about his Moravian misery in that appeals to my Celtic side. I'm singing Tichon in Katya Kabanova twice, then more Berg: a couple of Wozzecks.
"And Wagner as well, because it turns me on. I'll be doing Das Rheingold next year. I'm playing Mime, and I'll be the biggest dwarf ever.
"So I'm keeping busy. But I'd happily turn down engagements to watch Bake Off."
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