Category: London

Nicky Spence: Opera is “About How People Correspond With One Another”

Nicky Spence, opera, tenor, singer, vocal, voice, music, Royal Opera, Scottish

Photo: Bertie Watson

London audiences will finally get to see a new Jenůfa. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic halted the Claus Guth-directed production in March 2020, but the show, as they say, must go on, and indeed it will; the opera is set to open at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on September 28th. The artistic team remains somewhat intact from its first iteration, with originals Asmik Grigorian in the lead (a role debut), and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička Buryjovka (reprising a role for which she has won much acclaim); new cast members include tenors Saimir Pirgu as Števa Buryja and Nicky Spence as Laca Klemeň; they’ll all be under the baton of conductor Henrik Nánási. That the Scottish-born Spence is making a role debut in an opera he knows well and has frequently appeared in in the past (as Števa) is a point not lost on the tenor, who was chatty and excited when we spoke recently, just between Jenůfa rehearsals and on the cusp of new ones for The Valkyrie, in which he’ll be making another role debut, as Siegmund, in Richard Jones’ new production and under the baton of Martyn Brabbins.

There are many tales of many artists coming from small communities and making it big in the big sexy opera centres of London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow, of using a combination of social media know-how, star power, and superpower vocals to impress, charm, and scale ever-higher music mountains. The difference with Spence, who grew up in rural Scotland, is that his particular brand of so-called “star power” is integrated with a very keen, very mature musicality, a sincere personality, and that immense, magical voice, one possessing a clean, balanced tone and knowing expressivity. Spence is well aware of timing, texture, technique, but is pro enough not to show the gears turning – not without very good (usually theatrical) reason, that is. Experiencing him with so-called “darker” material (which encompasses much of his core repertoire) is not so much a shock as it is a clue into an artististry still unfolding. Spence started young; as a teenager, he received a scholarship to the Guildhall School (at that time he was their youngest singer, at 17) and a record contract with Decca Records, before going on to the National Opera Studio and the English National Opera as one of the company’s inaugural Harewood Artists. The tenor has gone on to perform extensively (on the stages of the Royal Opera, the Met, La Monnaie, Opéra national de Paris, and Glyndebourne) and has worked with a range of conductors, including Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Martyn Brabbins, Carlo Rizzi, Alejo Perez, Alain Altinoglu,  Mark Wigglesworth, and composer/conductor Thomas Adès, to name a few.

To say Spence “specializes” in darker, more supposedly “difficult” repertoire, is to miss the mark, as much as for Spence as for the music; composers like Britten, Berg, Dvořák, Martinů, Zimmerman, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Wagner. Strauss, and (especially) Janáček hold an appeal for the socio-religious, spiritually chewy, stained and earthy (and sometimes downright dirty and bloody) elements which exist as much in their scores as in the texts and characters within their works, seen and unseen. This doesn’t imply the work of other composers like Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, or Beethoven, whose works can be every bit as chewy (and whose works Spence has also performed), more that taste, talent, vocation, freedom, and the experiences of personal meaning and fulfillment are rare matches in the arts world; such an integration has implications for culture and its expression in the post-pandemic landscape (if we are even there yet). In Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1997), which The New York Times labelled an “intellectual autobiography” upon its release, George Steiner ponders this equation of rare matches, positing its greater relevance within ever-shifting perceptions of freedom, a notion to which many culture-lovers might find their own meaning, particularly as the opera world enters (and perhaps redefines) a new normal:

Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Even the teacher, the expositor, the critic who lacks creative genius but who devotes his existence to the presentment and perpetuation of the real thing, is a being infected (krank an Gott). Pure thought, the analytic compulsion, the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit. They grow, they may devour the tissues of normalcy in their path. But cancers are non-negotiable. This is the point.

I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologize for the social cost of, say, grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals. I can never prove that Archimedes was right to sacrifice his life to a problem in the geometry of conic sections. It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is “difficult because it is excellent’” (Spinoza, patron saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which “political correctness” is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is, as in the unreason of love, a lie.

There is no aspect of untruth to any of what Spence brings to his work. His 2019 recording of Janáček’s disturbing, highly theatrical song cycle The Diary Of Who One Disappeared (Hyperion; recorded with pianist Julius Drake, mezzo Václava Housková, and clarinetist Victoria Samek, and including other Moravian folk songs) demonstrates a range of both expressivity and flexibility, balanced by a highly intelligent technical approach that in no way robs the music (or its troubling text) of its power. As he told Presto Music‘s Katherine Cooper at the album’s release, “once you’ve mastered the few sounds which don’t exist in spoken English, the Czech language is ideal for the voice as it sits forward in the resonance and feels legato in nature, with so much potential for expression in the language. As a keen exponent of his music, I feel a duty to try and commit to the Czech language like a native.” That committed approach won Spence rightful acclaim; he was the recipient of the Solo Vocal Award, Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2020 (“He sings with sensitivity and intelligence, projects the words with consistent clarity and covers this wonderful cycle’s broad emotional range movingly and convincingly,” wrote music journalist Hugo Shirley) and the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award 2020 (Spence “combines passionate declamation with moments of exquisite delicacy,” wrote Jan Smaczny). His experience with the music of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whether in recital, production, livestream, or recording, has been considerable through the years, with repertoire in Káťa Kabanová and From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu) alongside Jenůfa and the songs, but there’s more yet to come; in February 2022 Spence makes his debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) as Gregor in Věc Makropulos (alongside soprano Marlis Petersen as Emilia Marty and Bo Skovhus as Jaroslav Prus) in a new production, again directed by Claus Guth, and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He’s also set to be Samson to Elīna Garanča’s Delilah at the Royal Opera House next spring, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano.

For all the hectic schedule that seems to be returning a semblance of normality (or new-post-corona normality) to the opera world, Spence continues to retain an appealing earthiness, a quality he mused, in his conversation with Cooper two years ago, is related to his experience growing up in a rural environment. Spence shared the experience of hailing from a broken home and his “rough and ready upbringing” with stage director Nina Brazier on her podcast, The Opera Pod, recently. “I found this gift, I guess,” he muses, “it was like a superpower, really.” The sights, sounds, smells, and overall feel of real, gritty, unfiltered life are entrenched in his art, his voice, the pauses as much as the tones, dynamic choices, textural feel; the smell of hay, grass, and sea permeate Spence’s sound, and it’s such sensual and direct authenticity that makes his performances so special, elevating the “nice guy tenor” (which he is) into something else entirely.

Nicky Spence, tenor, classical, singer, voice, vocal, sing, stage, performer, culture, Scottish, Royal Opera

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

How are Jenůfa rehearsals going?

Hugely well – we’re heating up here onstage; my knife is sharpened, my stick is whittled, and I’m ready to go for it!

What’s it been like to step into the machinery of a production that was already largely done?

It’s been exciting. They’re such a generous group of colleagues! Although I was a newbie I felt very much welcomed into the family. I’ve never seen a video of what it was like before, so I could really put my own stamp on things. I love Claus Guth – we’re working together a lot this season; his instinct is so beautiful as a director, he really explores the grey area, which is what Janáček’s work seems to be all about.

I spoke with (tenor) Allan Clayton when he was preparing this in 2020, and again when it was cancelled; he observed that Laca has “the chippiest of chips” on his shoulder. Your characterization will be different of course, but how did singing Števa prepare you for this, or did it?

I don’t think so, really – but it did offer me the ticket into Janáček’s world and this opera, so I feel the music in my bones. Laca is such a different character, and in a way it’s much more fulfilling; the character arc is much deeper from where it starts, with, as Allan said, him carrying the chippiest of chips. Laca has so many issues in terms of abandonment and not feeling loved and not really knowing where he fits into this hierarchy – he feels like he’s at the bottom – and slowly, as he develops more of a connection with Jenůfa, during this horrendous act of slashing her face, whether it’s accidental or not, they become a lot closer. And this imperfect perfection is something I find so moving, much more moving than any Hollywood ending, the fact that everything’s gone to shit and they still decide to give it a go.

They’re both outsiders.

Absolutely, they’re misfits and they’re stuck within this mill of abuse – a generational abuse and utter emotional incapacity.

… and the social milieu, of judgement, and fitting in, or not-fitting-in, are elements sewn straight into the quality of Janáček’s music. When you first got into singing, what attracted you to it? And what keeps you fascinated now?

I think it’s his honesty, and the truth of his writing – there’s such a sense of truth to it all. I’m not sure if it’s because he had this illicit relationship, which was unconsummated, with Kamilla Stösslová, who was so very much his junior, and they were both married to other people too – but it feels as if his operas are infused, as a soundscape, with what he couldn’t have in real life. He had so much of what he would’ve loved to have happened within the writing, but the music is not quite cathartic, and what is there, well, there isn’t ever any kind of relief in that catharsis; everything is a little bit crap in the end. There’s no real goodies or baddies throughout his work; everybody is very confused, and he explores that grey area of the human condition, which I find so interesting as an actor and artist.

His writing is dramatic, and also very dense – the text together with the musical language – how do you find your way in? Through all the recitals, operas, and song cycles, has your approach to his work changed through the years?

I really enjoy the contrasts (between those forms). I try to think of something like The Diary Of One Who Disappeared as a play set to music – so it’s not just difficult rhythms but lots of other things. For instance, there’s so much folk in that work, it’s something we hear in all his music. He was a fan of Moravian folk music and you can hear it in so many things – and I’m Scottish as well, so I guess we resonate through that folk idiom. Also I love the fact that vocally (his music) does have some challenges but those challenges are so totally married to the drama. You do your work in the studio, and hopefully by the time you are onstage you can enjoy the ride.

So how did doing something like Diary inform how you do things live onstage now? Or is it the other way around – does your opera work inform your approach to song cycles? Or are they all totally blank slates for you creatively?

The songs are just like mini-operas, really, you just have less time to set out your stall in terms of your journey and the drama, but certainly something like Diary is between something of an opera and a song cycle. I very much feel it’s an operatic display, I guess, it has all of the elements in there, just the structure is slightly more like the song, but that’s the way when it comes to Janáček’s writing: it’s so through-composed that it doesn’t feel very formulaic, at all. And that’s his genius, really. I adore these darker, murkier depths of his, qualities which are quite far away from my personality. It’s fun to get down and dirty…

What’s the attraction to that, to the “down and dirty”?

I guess not being myself… and I guess, I get to explore this kind of thing without messing other people up…

… so it’s a form of escapism that’s safe?

Yes, it’s playing with those things, and when, for instance, you’re with people like Karita (Mattila) and Asmik (Grigorian), it feels very primal in a way, which is exciting as an artist.

Part of that is the notion of connecting, too.

That’s true!

You said in an exchange with The Guardian in 2016 that the most important thing at a concert was that there be “any element of human connection.” I thought of that with relation to your online activities through the pandemic, and I am curious if that idea has changed because of the pandemic experience.

For myself, as for everybody, there was a natural reordering of things. When your time is entirely consumed with learning operas, your life is one way, and I was so pleased to learn through everything that there was more than a husk of a human being behind my singing. Some people lost a lot of their their work and thus their identity through this time, but I was really thrilled to not be doing so much singing – we got a clichéd Covid-dog, and, me and my partner were just about to get married, and we had to delay that, which was annoying, but I was thrilled to be able to have some creative moments and introspection. So going forwards now I want to encourage a better work-life balance. Yes, I led masterclasses, and even though I wanted to get back onstage and go back to work, doing that was such a great way of meeting people and of having a levolor. It was important to connect with people on a universal level, but also a human one.

Your classes really reveal how much you have that human touch.

Well it’s important to be real.

Yes, especially since there’s a lot of people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk…

There’s a lot of old bullshit in opera, a lot of the time – and in the end it comes down to personal relations. It’s about people, and about how people correspond with one another. Especially when I’m talking to young people I encourage them to get back to their roots – it’s so easy to lose that connection amidst everything.

In terms of connection, you are going to be singing Siegmund at the ENO; it’s easy to lose the idea of connection amidst the epicness of Wagner’s writing…

… yes it is…

… so what sorts of things do you keep in mind now as you enter the world of Wagner?

Well my mind is entirely open! Although they have quite a fantastical grand feeling, they are epic tales, The Ring operas are still very human. I know Richard Jones, our director, says these characters have super-powers, they can do things, but he also says they are real people at the end of the day. And that (notion) gives me solace. So the production will be grounded in truth. (The music) is like a long bath which Wagner draws for you, and as a singer it feels that real. I love Wagner but I mean, with Janáček, these dramatic changes (in the music) happen quite quickly, while in Wagner, they don’t turn quickly – they turn like a truck! The music is like a truck turning a corner – and that’s really lovely musically, because as a singer you have more time to change gears, and vocally it feels like a nice thing for me, so… yes, I’m really excited for this production.

What new things are you learning about your voice through the experience of singing the music of Janáček and Wagner simultaneously then?

I’m always learning new things, gosh, every bloody day! I wish singing was a bit easier! You are always opening new fields, understanding the more you know and don’t know about signing, which is really humbling. And with this sort of singing, you are waking up with a new instrument every day – and with Wagner, because it’s quite low, I’ve been lucky to have that vocal release. It’s been nothing like the Janáček (to sing) – (Janáček’s vocal writing) is quite high, it’s where I am used to sitting, really. The writing is quite tightly wound and it sits high, so the character sits quite easily. But (with Wagner) I am finding the extra release in the lower range. I normally make quite a bit of noise… and I am aware Wagner normally demands a lot of noise, so yes, I am looking forward to making some noise in The Valkyrie.

That’s a noise you modulate through your recordings – you have a few coming out soon, yes?

Yes, I’m singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge with (pianist) Julius (Drake) – that’s out in February; there’s also my first Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, with (pianist) Christopher Glynn, releasing the month after … and, La Clemenza di Tito with the orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. We recorded that in lockdown. I did quite a lot of Mozart in my early career but I’ve not done any recently. It was fun to delve back into that music.

Luca Pisaroni once told me he finds Mozart is like a massage for the voice.

Yes it is, and there’s also nowhere to hide when you do it. You can’t make it up – it’s like a singing lesson. Whatever you think you can sing, and however you think you can do it, you pick up some Mozart or Bach and you go, “Oh hell, I need to learn how to do this all over again!”

So it’s a good balance to what you’re doing now?

It’s a perfect balance.

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Matthew Rose: “We Have To Believe In Opera, And Do It In Brave Ways”

Matthew-Rose

Photo: Lena Kern

The opportunity to see the worlds of art and music joined live on a stage is always a treat, whether it’s with William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera, or Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe at the Canadian Opera Company. Stimulating intellectually, such integrations offer the additional possibility of emotional contemplations and experiences that reach past the limits of language.

The history of  blending art and music is, of course, very long and encompasses total creations, notably Stravinsky’s 1951 work The Rake’s Progress, which was inspired by a series of eight drawings done by William Hogarth between 1732 and 1734; they chart the decline of innocent Tom Rakewell, who comes to London and is drawn into a world of debauchery, debt, and personal destruction. Stravinsky had seen the drawings as part of an exhibition in Chicago in 1947, and, together with poets W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, created a sonic landscape that vividly captures the vitality of Hogarth’s work while simultaneously exploring vice, loss, and vulnerability. The Rake’s Progress premiered at  Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1951, before productions in Paris and New York; it was also part of the premiere season of the Santa Fe Opera. The text, by Auden and Kallman, is arguably one of the richest in the repertoire, but like the music, it’s dense and requires deft listening. Those aren’t bad things, by the way; as you’ll read, perhaps should be more encouraged in our overloaded, insta-hype culture. 

glyndebourne rose rake

Topi Lehtipuu as Tom Rakewell and Matthew Rose as Nick Shadow in the 2010 production of “The Rake’s Progress” at Glyndebourne. Photo: Mike Hoban / Glyndebourne / ArenaPAL

This weekend the London Philharmonic Orchestra presents a live in-concert presentation of the work, featuring tenor Toby Spence as Tom, soprano Sophia Burgos as Anne Truelove, and bass Matthew Rose as Nick Shadow. They’ll be performing under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, who led the work in 2010 at the annual Glyndebourne Festival Opera (where he was then-Music Director), in a storied production originally first presented in 1975, which featured Rose (as Shadow), Topi Lehtipuu as Tom, and Miah Persson as Anne. Designed by artist David Hockney and directed by John Cox, the production has toured extensively, and is a beloved part of Glyndebourne history. Smart, funny, and scary, this pretty production was my initial way in to its world; between it and a various recordings, I found this Stravinsky demanded great amounts of time, attention, patience, and care, much more so than many of his other works. Those qualities were heightened and found a natural (and dare I say, surprisingly comfortable) outlet when I was heard portions of it live at an LPO rehearsal earlier this week. The Rake’s Progress is, more than many operas, one that needs to be experienced live to be fully appreciated, providing a visceral experience that goes far past its decline-in-fortunes narrative. Tom’s loss, especially of his true love (pun intended), takes on a wholly real, and wholly passionate, sound. Equally striking is the unrepentant sensuality of the score, between the bronzen throb of basses and horns, the gossamer-like delicacy of violins and woodwinds, and ethereal (if utterly precise) vocal lines, The Rake’s Progress is as rough as it is poetic, as funny as it is sad, and as real as it is fable-like; it’s art and life joining, in a deeply satisfying integration of flesh and spirit.

This is something I sense Matthew Rose knows and appreciates about the opera. We spoke last year about his work with the Scuola di belcanto; since then, the English bass has been named Artistic Consultant to the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Met. He just wrapped up performing in two Puccini works in New York, La fanciulla del West (opposite tenor Jonas Kaufmann) and La bohème, and is scheduled to be in a Royal Opera House production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godounov next summer. Between then and now, Rose appears at Opera Philadelphia as Bottom in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (something of a signature role of his) and will also be performing with the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Rose is notable not only for his incredible vocal flexibility (his repertoire includes Baroque, belcanto, and contemporary works) but for his immediacy as a performer; there is a palpable sincerity to his work, a sense of urgency, and depth of true feeling. This applies every bit as much to the character of Nick Shadow (the actual devil in disguise) as it does to poor old Leporello (servant to Don Giovanni), the role I last saw him perform live onstage.  I was keen to get his thoughts on the work itself,as well as the ways it’s perceived, and how those perceptions have played into contemporary programming choices. His responses were passionate, thoughtful, and hugely informed by a balanced sense of keen artistry and quotidian approachability, with large splashes of humour. Rose may be singing a villain this weekend, but I think it’s fair to say he’s one of the good guys.

hogarth sir john soanes

The third of Hogarth’s paintings in “A Rake’s Progress” – The Orgy: The Descent Begins. (Photo: Sir John Soane’s Museum London)

What would you say to someone who’s new to The Rake’s Progress?

It’s very, very intelligent, and very intellectual. (The creators) put this thing together based on pictures by Hogarth, creating a whole story in a very intellectual way. It’s not Traviata — you have to really do your homework to understand what every sentence means. The Hockey production in Glyndebourne I’ve been lucky to do is so illustrative of what is happening — it is so accessible, which is why it’s been such a success.

Experiencing it live also makes it accessible, because one can clearly sense how immensely powerful and detailed the score is.

It’s the whole thing: seeing someone’s life go from one thing to another entirely, as this does. Tom’s this very happy, innocent young man who goes completely insane and dies in the end. It’s a very sad story, and Stravinsky’s music is so illustrative, and so appropriate for the time and to Hogarth. It’s brilliant he decide to do this.

The sensuality of the music can be surprising at points.

Yes! And every single bit is exactly what it needs to be — the music is so brilliantly descriptive, some bits are so beautiful, (like) the way he uses the two voices (of Tom and Anne). There are also bits with Tom and Nick Shadow, at the end of their card game, where they sing a duet, and it’s very hilarious — the way he uses angularity and harmony is so clever.

There’s so much dramatic momentum within the musical lines as well.

Completely, though somehow it’s not quite become the great ticket seller I guess we all think it should be, but we get to spend hundreds of hours preparing it, so if audiences are able to have the same understanding as they did for the Hockney one, that would be good indeed.

Jurowski LPO

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

John Cox has said this is “an English opera written by a Russian composer” — what do you make of that?

That’s exactly what it is. As Vladimir says, there’s bits where Stravinsky quotes Tchaikovsky and Russian folk music; it’s very influenced by the Russian thing and classical music thing, and Kallman, who was American, and Auden, who was English, were putting the text together with that, so it’s an amazing collection of people and ideas. Shadow is the person who makes this story happen: he takes Tom out of this innocent place, and puts him in this situation which is opposite to that, and his life becomes worse. It’s interesting… it’s evil defeated, but not completely defeated. 

He is Tom’s actual shadow… 

They talk about that, don’t they — it’s his alter-ego in a way.

… but the serious stuff is balanced by comedy.

It can be done funny or sinister; it’s this brilliant script you can play with in many different ways. I think Kallman took on persona of Anne, and Auden did all the other bits as they wrote this. You have to trust what they and Stravinsky have given you, and use your own imagination too.

Matthew-Rose

Photo: Lena Kern

How much do you think that sense of imagination applies to programming these days?

Who knows… people are being more and more conservative about what they’re doing, which I think is worrisome for our art form if this goes into the future. We have to believe in opera, and do it in brave ways. If you do very general, safe repertoire, in a very safe way, that won’t do anything for anyone. 

Administrators would argue that those programming choices are not being made now because auditoriums are having trouble filling seats.

Yes, and they think they’ll solve that problem by programming safe stuff that won’t challenge anyone, but this art form is challenging, it’s not easy and it shouldn’t be easy. That’s the great thing about it: you are given so much information at once, and you can take so many things out of it, and perceive and experience it so many different ways. You can take it as a film and just sit back and watch, or you can think about the music itself, or whatever — it’s a great thing.

Some past productions of The Rake’s Progress made it about pretty pictures and wigs and corsets and, I think, contributed to the way it is perceived in some quarters, as this costume-heavy, non-tuneful Anglo-Russian piece.

It’s none of those things though; it’s very dangerous and sexy and brilliant. We shouldn’t be scared of these things; audiences should know about them. Also the way things seem to be going in terms of marketing and selling, you now have to have the right star — and these are people who won’t be singing things like this, or Peter Grimes. Art galleries can get people to see art of all different kinds of art, but at the same time we’re scared about cutting people off opera with new ideas; one art form can somehow do it and yet… maybe we need to help people understand what this is.

… while not dumbing it down, I would suggest.

You don’t need to dumb it down. Music is being taken out of schools and out of the core curriculum of education, and it’s a shame for our industry. If people are educated to know about stuff, then they can appreciate it, and why shouldn’t they know and appreciate this kind of thing?

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