Nicky Spence on bringing Nico Muhly's Two Boys to New York
Being just a pimple on the heaving bosom that is the opera world, I seem to spend a great deal of my career as a young singer having my singing cherry popped: my first Tamino; the first time lending my Scots lilt to an opera in Czech; or the first time singing Wagner with a big boy orchestra. I’m happy to go under the radar while embracing these ‘firsts’ with general aims somewhere near the front of my mind: don’t mess up, be yourself, don’t fall over, impress enough to be invited back and make the most fervent endeavours never to give umbrage to the wardrobe department (when you’re shaped like an onion, they have more power than Zeus!)
This was to be another first: my debut at the Met! To those of you not of opera buffery, I’m referring to the Metropolitan Opera, New York. One of the largest auditoriums in the world and home to sensational debuts of Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Caballé, Callas. I would be a Scotsman in New York. Cue Sting...
It had been a long journey to my arrival. I won’t take you back to the lusty childhood on a Scottish smallholding, but two years earlier I’d been flown out economy class – one foot in the magazine rack, another wedged somewhere near my neighbour’s left earlobe – to audition on stage for the lead role of Brian in Nico Muhly’s modern opera techno-tragedy Two Boys, a part I’d created at ENO where I’m a Harewood Artist.
After singing to the assembled bigwigs and a cleaning lady making short shrift of the brass railings in the family circle, all went well, and I got the gig. Well, half the gig. I’d been offered a package to share the role, cover the performances I wasn’t doing and finish the run. So here I am in New York, ready to take a nibble from the Grande Pomme.
I was happy to be welcomed into the Met family and to be reunited with the team from our original production. Being the only member of the London cast, I’d found myself to be a Lady Grantham figure in jeans, sitting quietly in the corner; a regular pit-stop for various versions of ‘what happened here’ and ‘do you remember if?’ I felt slightly useful but I was most keen to keep a low profile, and send out positive re-enforcement to everybody discovering the piece for the first time – especially my counterpart Paul Appleby, a regular face at the Met who was doing a super job in creating his version of the role.
The opera too had taken on some significant changes since its last incarnation. This necessary dramaturgical and musical fiddling allowed the audience to invest more in the story and the main protagonists, which could only be for the good. Having only ever experienced the piece from the footlights, I watched on opening night as part of the sea of red velvet in the house. I knew the narrative so well but was surprisingly moved.
Before too long, it was now my time to play the teenager. The Met’s busy production schedule is such that I hadn’t stepped foot on the stage since my audition two years earlier, nor had I experienced the orchestra, met the 60-strong chorus or been under the jurisdiction of David Robinson's baton until this moment. Singing the last performance of Two Boys at the Coliseum felt like an age ago.
The band tunes up, the conductor arrives and we're off! Before I have time to appreciate the glorious acoustic I've found myself in, I become acutely aware of the six skyscraper-shaped towers being manhandled at speed by four burly men apiece, winding their way across stage between scenes. Like crossing the M4 on bank holiday weekend, I avoid collision and start to zone into what could only be described as an enjoyable cacophony of order.
There are audible technical cues from all around... a contemporary dance cluster spiralling towards me from downstage right... a small squeeze of reassurance from lovely Alice Coote who is playing opposite me... oh, here comes my 'high B' on the word 'is'... a face of powder in a brief moment of repose in the left wing... masturbation scene in 7/8 (proud mum)... stab the boy on beat two... and who’s that lady? While only recognisable by her head which peeps periscope-like into a garden shed-shaped box downstage centre. She’s delivering all the cast lines a split-second before the composer intended them to arrive into the world. It’s my pal the prompter.
Alive and glad of it, I took an ovation which made my ears pop, leading me to my own personal epiphany. While, I was pleased to have done enough work to find myself singing on this exciting stage with confidence, I was more struck that it had taken all of these new elements colliding at speed for me to realise that being able to sing is merely the preface of my baby career so far. I hadn’t learnt to do this bit in college. When studying extensively and continually finding new ways to pimp our vocal toolbelts, the period of studying singing often feels like a vocation in itself. I vow to never stop learning but it took me a return trip to New York to discover just really how much the high level of good singing is assumed and more importantly, it has to be assumed. I couldn’t think of myself as singing against any odds for my debut at the Met. I was just being a proper grown-up singer.