Interview: Nicky Spence, tenor

by
21 February 2007

I am about to sing with the English Touring Opera company. I don’t think that’s too bad for a boy who was brought up in a wee Scottish village where life was difficult and we were too poor to afford music lessons.

At 17, I was the youngest singer at the Guildhall in London. I found this really hard, as I had been brought up near Glasgow, and had no family and friends down there. This was how I found my faith, as, out of loneliness, I wandered into a church, and found something that seemed bigger than anything else in my life. It has helped me through.

My début album My First Love [Universal Classics] has been recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It features a mixture of operatic and classical songs from Scotland, as well as parts of the Messiah. I love singing oratorio.

I am always working on my voice, but I would describe it as a range of different colours. I have temporarily turned down a tenor place on the Guildhall’s opera course. A tenor voice rarely reaches its full potential before your early 30s; so I have time on my side.

When I was a little kid, I really wanted to play the trumpet, and was offered four free lessons — that was it. But I was always given the singing parts at school, because my voice seemed louder and clearer than everyone else’s. I learnt to be loud because things were difficult at home — my parents divorced — and I wanted to be heard.

Everyone in my family has struggled with their weight. I have always been the sort of person to embrace life, including food. I worked in a chip shop for a while before I went to London, which did not help.

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My faith was the catalyst for losing eight-and-a-half stone. I knew I was not performing at my best or using my gifts properly, because I was so large, and one of my singing teachers at the Guildhall said to me one day: “You’re fat. What are you going to do about it?” I try to stick to a regime, but still enjoy my chocolate.

I have fallen off stage while singing. Not because of my weight: someone had left a stall out that I did not notice, and I went over backwards. I carried on.

I love reading autobiographies, particularly about the entertainment industry. I have just finished Lesley Garrett’s Notes from a Small Soprano, and Peter Kay’s The Sound of Laughter. I also enjoy listening to plays, and monologues like Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. I do not read much fiction, but do get out all my old Beano comics.

My family, including my stepdad, have always provided that unconditional love. I go back when I can. My childhood ambition was always to sing in front of an audience and be able to provide for the family.

The most important choice in my life was when, after my parent’s divorce, we decided to move back to Scotland after two awful years in Newcastle, where I had got in with the wrong crowd.

I would like to be remembered as someone who filled the world with song and laughter. It is easy to take oneself too seriously. I am a classical artist, but I would to think my music is accessible. I know there can be this conflict within the classical world.

I think Shirley Bassey is inspirational. I have sung with her. Despite her pop success, she is a classical singer, and her technique is amazing. Jesus has probably been the biggest influence on my adult life.

I am terrible for falling asleep during sermons. I blame the heat; I often have to pinch myself. I am much better with visual stimulation, but I do remember a particular sermon where I suddenly understood the magnificence of what Jesus had done for me. I was filled with an incredible joy.

When I was a kid, I loved the story of Noah’s ark: particularly all the different animals. But, as an adult, I have been particularly drawn to the parable of the Prodigal Son: how he goes off and comes back and is accepted. It reminds me of my own story.

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I get angry with myself when I get jealous of other people. I also get cross at irresponsibility — when people don’t work hard at something. I am happiest when I am performing live in front of an audience, or sharing a bag of Revels with my family.

I love fairtrade chocolate, and whenever I buy coffee at Starbucks I make sure it is the fairtrade brand.

I tend to holiday at home, as there is so much travel in my work. I have recently visited the US, Africa, and Japan. Spiritually, I am at home wherever I find myself, but I do try to visit Whitby Abbey occasionally.

Apart from Beyoncé Knowles, I would like to get locked in a church with my girlfriend. She is a soprano singer, and, because of our work commitments, we do not get enough time together.

Nicky Spence was talking to Rachel Harden.

www.englishtouringopera.org.uk

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