'It's easy for artists to feel disposable' | Nicky Spence interview

Hattie Butterworth
Monday, January 29, 2024

The tenor on advocating for singers' rights as President-elect of the ISM, his early career and musical partnership with husband Dylan Perez

What makes a year successful in the life of a musician? Certainly for tenor Nicky Spence, 2023 has felt like a year of significant recognition. In June he was awarded an OBE as part of the King’s first Birthday Honours. Prior to that, April brought an announcement from the Independent Society of Musicians, electing Spence as its president, in the position from April 2024. Now, as the year comes to a close, he and his husband – pianist Dylan Perez – have announced that they are expecting a baby in 2024.

Tenor Nicky Spence | Photo: Ki Price

These celebrations reflect the breadth of Spence’s multifaceted career – though one where opera and family are at the centre, hand-in-hand. Speaking to me just days before the opening night of Romeo Castellucci’s Das Rheingold at La Monnaie in Brussels, Spence was more than enthusiastic talking about his role debut as the cunning God of Fire, Loge: ‘I’m in the midst of a sort of residency at La Monnaie,’ he told me. ‘It’s artistic director Peter de Caluwe’s last season. He was one of my first real supporters – I came here to audition for Jenůfa back in 2011 and it was one of the first international houses that I started to work in. He asked recently which of the roles I’d like to play in the Ring and I knew that in Rheingold I would love to do Loge.

‘Loge seems to have something to say about everybody. But I love the fact that he’s a bit of a disruptor. He’s duty bound to do a good job for the gods. Then at the end he turns to the audience and says, “Why have I been faffing around trying to look after these gods that don’t know what they’re doing? I could just set them all on fire right now!” It’s exciting to have that kind of mercurial energy, especially in the opera business when there are so many things happening and many rungs above you. It’s quite fun to change things up and bring something fresh to the to the party.’

‘Loge is such a shapeshifter. He sings in whichever way will get him what he wants the quickest and most efficiently’

Spence explains his approach to Loge largely from the element of fun involved in capturing his character: ‘He certainly has more words than any of the other characters. The opera should even be called “Loge”! And then I could have returned for the sequel – “Loge’s revenge”. Interestingly, it does have its lyrical parts because he’s such a shapeshifter’.

‘He sings in whichever way will get him what he wants the quickest and most efficiently. He sometimes mirrors other people’s phrasing. When Fricka sings very feminine, voluptuous lines, sometimes Loge will then take those on’.
‘I get to sing in order to get what I want, or to get somebody to do something. And of course it’s also full of glorious leitmotifs. So you end up singing Wotan’s leitmotif and then that of the Giants, etc. But I’d say it’s definitely easier to sing than something like Siegmund or Parsifal.'

Many know the story of Spence’s trajectory: born and raised in Dumfries in southern Scotland, Spence first became involved with the Scottish Youth Theatre and the National Youth Music Theatre before moving to London to study his undergrad at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was in his final year, 2004, that a five-record contract with Universal Classics appeared, launching his recording career in 2007 with his debut album My First Love.

‘For most of my life I’ve been really comfortable as who I am because of my upbringing, and my mum, basically,’ Spence replies, when I ask where his early influences lie. ‘She didn’t ever say, “You can’t do that” or “What about Plan B?” I’ve always been allowed to be focused on what I want to achieve so there was never any limit. That’s been a real blessing.’

Spence as Loge in La Monnaie's production of Das Rheingold | Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Following the release of Spence’s first album and receiving a Classical Brit award for Young British Classical Performer of the Year, Spence decided to return to the Guildhall instead of immediately embarking on the recording career, to study at the Opera School. A year at the National Opera Studio followed in 2009, before he embarked on the English National Opera’s Harewood Artists scheme in 2010.

But it hasn’t always been plain-sailing. Spence recalls difficulties when first experiencing the media surrounding his first release, entering the more popular classical world portrayed as what Spence calls ‘the millennials’ answer to a heart-throb.’

‘I was always thinking, “What is it that they want?” and “What is it that the market wants and needs?”, as opposed to saying, “This is what I am – you might not realise that this is what you need yet – but it is.” Getting out of that situation was really good for me because it’s meant that I’ve been absolutely myself ever since.’

I wonder what it was about his return to opera that allowed Spence to feel able to bring a truer vision of himself to the world. ‘Opera felt much more legitimate,’ he tells me. ‘The energy you put in tends to come out the other end. And it’s a fine art, so it takes a lot more concentration and skill.

‘For other arts which involve PR and media, sometimes they just chuck a lot of money at the wall to see what sticks.’
Spence went on to reveal the pressure he felt due to his background, in spite of knowing that opera was the way forward: ‘When I was at Guildhall, and because we’d never had a bean when I was growing up, as soon as somebody endorsed me I thought, “I’ve got to do this and I better be really good at it.” I didn’t want to let anybody down because I hadn’t come from any money. I’ve always got this fear of being desolate again.’

Yet, within the past 13 years immersed in opera Spence has added multiple achievements to his name. Perhaps it was a risk to turn his back on the Universal Classics record deal, but it certainly hasn’t stopped Spence from becoming a prolific recording artist in his own right, receiving a Gramophone Award and BBC Music Magazine Award in 2020 for his Hyperion album of Janáček vocal works and BBC Music Magazine’s Personality of the Year in 2022.
Spence made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013 as Brian in Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys. From there his appearances internationally included Don Giovanni at New Zealand Opera in 2013 and Káťa Kabanová at Seattle Opera in 2017. Closer to home, his engagements have included Jenůfa for the Royal Opera, Siegmund in Richard Jones’ new production of The Valkyrie for the English National Opera and Tichon in Damiano Michieletto’s new production of Káťa Kabanová at the Glyndebourne Festival.

For Spence’s immediate future, life brings even more varied projects. We discuss his upcoming appearance with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra with Janáček’s Jenůfa in January – an opera Spence regards ‘in my top three’ – as well as his return to Opéra national de Paris as Edmundo, taking on Marquès de Nobile in Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel.

'Working with my husband is beautiful. When you’re working with a family member you’re able to be really vulnerable with one another when you’re telling stories together or collaborating'

A new album release comes at the end of November on Signum Classics with soprano Mary Bevan and pianist Joseph Middleton. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Noël Coward, A Most Marvellous Party comprises songs and works by Coward and his contemporaries, including William Walton, Benjamin Britten and Ned Rorem.

‘The album is a tribute to my friendship with Mary, in a way, because I don’t think there are many people that I feel more comfortable with on stage. It’s dangerous, the amount of fun that we have!’ Spence laughs. ‘Noël Coward was great, obviously because he was prolific with his songwriting, but it’s significant that he comes from a time where he wasn’t able to be completely open about his queerness. Mary has been such a fantastic ally from that point of view as well. She is somebody who I admire so much artistically, but also because she’s someone who’s really comfortable in her skin.’

Two more recording releases appear for Spence in the new year, including Elgar’s Dream of Gerontinus and an album of Fauré songs. It’s a great example and survey of his musical loves and collaborations, which go beyond stage work, even more recently into broadcasting and work on Sky Arts, hosting programmes including Anyone Can Sing in 2022.

Spence and husband Dylan Perez are expecting a baby later this year (2024) | Photo: Apricot Tree

But musical collaborations are also deeply personal, including the work he does performing alongside his husband, pianist Dylan Perez. Does their personal connection allow for a deeper sense of communion in music? From the offset, it’s clear that Spence is happy to be talking about Perez: ‘I’m inspired by my husband and what he does every day,’ Spence beams. ‘And sometimes when I see him play, I can’t believe that that’s the person who I have eggs and toast with, who I share cats and dogs with and kids and all the rest of it.

‘Working with him is beautiful. When you’re working with a family member you’re able to be really vulnerable with one another when you’re telling stories together or collaborating. Even if there might be a small domestic, we tend to leave all that stuff at the door because we are so connected to the project and connected to the music.’

Another significant move to come in the new year will be Spence’s inauguration as president of the Independent Society of Musicians (ISM) in April – a role that will allow him to represent musicians, advocating for their rights and needs in the face of ongoing cuts and wellbeing concerns. Spence has become known for representing musicians in this way – recognising the power he has through security of work.

'Let’s give artists good conditions so they can do the work safely with longevity in mind'

‘I feel like the world has been squeezed at the moment, so we have to keep on saying yes to the work that’s offered us. But what about the work artists are saying yes to?’ Spence questions. ‘It’s easy for artists to feel disposable. Especially if you’re young and keen to work. But what about how people feel? Let’s give them good conditions so they can do the work safely with longevity in mind. All of these companies now having to function under the death knell and under a guillotine are not going to do their best work because they’re fearful. If we can actually get through that and try and dispel some of the fear we can still make good decisions and still make good work.

‘I’m very lucky to have the position that I’ve got because it means that I’m not as fearful about what people think about me. I have confidence to move things forward and inspire the next generation.’

The position, Spence hopes, will allow him to push the industry towards greater honesty around payment and working conditions for singers: ‘I really want us to think about being paid promptly. Just the real grassroots stuff which I know that musicians have to deal with all the time. It takes the shine off what is actually such a fantastic job that we should all be really happy that we’re doing.

‘It’s the last Horcrux of the of the profession in terms of nobody ever says what they get paid,’ Spence elaborates. ‘There’s no transparency between artists or across the field. And also there’s no honesty in terms of when you will get paid and how much. And I think that makes people feel fearful because they don’t want to rock the boat and feel “lucky” to be doing this job. You can be lucky and still expect to get paid on time.’

Spence hosting Anyone Can Sing in 2022 for Sky Arts | Photo: Sky Arts

It’s a directness that few can argue with. And it reveals Spence to be the perfect advocate for the arts, while also frank about the reality for his colleagues and friends. It’s positivity without toxicity; fun without denial and relatability in its purest sense. Back to his role in bringing opera into the mainstream, and his work within the media and broadcasting, Spence views this part of his vocation as vital: ‘I see my role as broadcaster to be as if I set up my ‘‘stall’’ for classical music.

‘I connect with people in a real way and then say, “Come in and listen to these stories which you will find as exciting as anything else and probably give you a full-body sensation like no other”. My job is for potential first-time buyers of classical music and I love that. I’m very comfortable demystifying old tropes and hopefully connecting with people normally to give them the key. ’ 

A Most Marvellous Party: Noël Coward and Friends is out now on Signum Classics | signumrecords.com



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