Positive Profile: tenor Nicky Spence on his Mum’s wisdom, and why we all need therapy

Scottish tenor Nicky Spence flies around the world to regale audiences in some of the most distinguished opera houses. The 33-year-old singing actor, from Dumfries and Galloway, is back in the UK after spending the year performing in Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. He is about to star in Lulu at ENO in London, before first-footing it back to Scotland to see in the new year at the Raymond Gubbay Christmas Festival – Hogmanay Gala at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, singing with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Are you a naturally cheerful person?

Yes I am, very much so. My cup is definitely half full, in fact sometimes I think it is overflowing!

Your work takes you to many different parts of the world. What coping mechanisms do you use when you are busy?

I try and make a home wherever I am and keep things simple. I also try not to worry. I mean, I do worry because I’m a big messed-up human like everybody else but I do well to not let it rule me. My mum, who is one of the most laid-back people I know, taught me that worrying is generally wasted energy unless it’s something you can change. Worry is also just not conducive to having fun, doing good work or potential wrinkles. I feel pretty well looked after by the world in so many ways so I tend to just trust that nothing is really insurmountable and anything else is a learning experience. I also think stress is the biggest killer but maybe I’m just saying that so I can eat more cake?   

You’ve received amazing reviews, including being called ‘one of our brightest young tenors’ by The Times.  Do you feel pressured to get good reviews?

I try to just do my thing, because if you worry about what critics or outside people think too much, then that way madness lies. I’m in an industry and a profession where I have to take input every single day from directors, conductors, producers etc so it’s all about what you do with it. I’m generally glad of the collaboration but I have a wee filter that takes what’s helpful and leaves the rest. When it comes to reviews, you have to take the good ones and the bad ones with a pinch of salt because they don’t define you forever and you really have to be your own judge in the end.

What are you working on right now?

Lulu, which is an opera by Alban Berg being put on at the ENO at London Coliseum. It’s a new production by artist and director William Kentridge and has already been performed in New York and Amsterdam.

What are the pressures?

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to learn because the music is so complex. In terms of plot line too, it’s quite challenging as nothing is ever quite what it seems. It’s an opera all about desire, obsession and inter-relationships where the psychological twists pivot around a femme fatale who eventually leads all of her partners to their demise. I play the role of Alwa, who sticks in until almost the bitter end – the music is so hard that when I was learning it, I kind of wished I was killed off in Act One…but I cling on! It’s probably one of the most important parts I’ve done and it’s very rewarding working with William and the rest of the cast.

Lulu is normally in German. How do you learn all the words for songs in different languages?

Next season, I’m performing three operas in Czech, two in German and one in French, which totally appeals to my nerdy linguist side and opera singers are generally trained for a long time to have a good grasp of “opera languages”.  But because of the nature of the stories you end up having fluffy, romantic vocabulary knowledge, which doesn’t do you any favours when you are trying to order a beer in Italy – you’d be easier set up to tell them that you love them and you want to die with them than get a Peroni!

How do you cope if something goes wrong on stage?

I get quite excited now! There was once a time when everything I was trying to do onstage was going wrong, the singing, props, movement, everything! I was a bit distressed in the interval and a beautiful director, Richard Jones came up to me and told me “don’t worry, the world isn’t going to cave in”, which was so right and my ego was totally getting in the way. So now, I don’t necessarily think of it as going “wrong”, I take it as an opportunity to coin something new and organic. You suddenly feel extremely “in the moment”. I’m worryingly quite good at making up words too, so that can be both dangerous and exhilarating for me and the audience!

Who is your biggest inspiration in your life/career?

My first would be my mum. I’ve always been so impressed with her tenacity to make things happen and the ability to turn situations that could have been dreadful into a positive. She has guided her life with that spirit, which I have always found quite infectious and admirable. I think when life hits you round the face with a frying pan, how you get up from that is most important.

In terms of profession, there are quite a few people I see as mentors – my singing teacher John Evans who has taught me since the Guildhall School still helps me expand my singing toolbox every time I see him; the staff at ENO were fantastic too in guiding my first five years in the profession; and also my very first singing teacher, Margaret Davies, from Wallace Hall Academy in Thornhill, Dumfriesshire, was fantastic because she gave me such a great foundation for singing in an enjoyable way.

Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?

I love listening to Riverdance, which I have been doing on the bus on the way to work every day this week, and I often find myself doing a slip jig down aisle five of Tesco’s getting my sandwiches, and then having to rein myself in! I love Celtic music because it reminds me of where I’m from and it grounds me. When I was at school, I played in a ceilidh band called Celtic Caboodle with some of my best friends, and I have such fun memories.

What do you do when you need cheering up?

I spend time with my partner, family and friends, because that always re-calibrates my brain to remember what is really important. I do think it’s vital to unleash yourself too. It’s tricky if you’re working all the time as you have to be so aware of your physical wellness as a singer, but I think pushing the destruct button or a night on the tiles can do the world of good. I also use different creative things to cheer me up. I used to be in the cross-stitch club at school so I am quite an advocate of a crafternoon or I will go to the cinema by myself, which seems sad but it is an oasis away from the mundane arseholeyness of the world and means you don’t need to share your sweets with anyone! Win, win.

If you could change anything in the world, what would it be?

I would give everyone equal opportunity, whatever their social standing. I love meeting people who are vibrant and sparkly-eyed, and that doesn’t always match up with wealth or position. I find people really interesting and very often, absolutely genuine and generous despite dealing with shitty life things. I often just wish that everyone had the opportunity or platform to realise any potential or any burning desires they might have more easily in our society.

What do you treasure most that is not a possession?

Human connection. I love connecting with people. It makes me feel less small in the world and makes up the glorious world we live in.

What has been your greatest achievement so far?

I’ve had such a lucky run of things when it comes to my singing career so, besides those kind of wanky achievements, I think remaining true to myself is an achievement. I feel like lots of us are in jobs that encourage fear by nature and maybe try to belie your sense of self quite a lot, and might lead me to try and be this or become that with success, so I pride myself on revelling in the bits that make me just me without any extras. It’s such a relief to be yourself and I feel like that honesty just makes life so much more interesting and a whole lot easier.

How do you rate positivity in your life and how do you practise it?

I think it is one of the most important things. Negative energy is rarely ever helpful and I avoid that like the plague. My boyfriend Timothy taught me this imagery about ascending spirals so when things are getting a bit gloomy or toxic, you try and find the ascending spiral to lift the mood out of there. This might be a person or just a change, which might sound a bit airy-fairy but when there may be lots to complain about, just making a comment or observation on something as opposed to slipping down the moany road makes a big difference and encourages helpful progress. People find it unexpected and it helps defuse  things a bit and allows us all to choose words more carefully.

Do you have any top tips for maintaining a healthy mind frame?

I think we are largely in charge of the way we feel. I have people in my life and in my family who have suffered with mental health issues, and it can be so crippling. Talking honestly is really important as I think most people can deal with facts and truths. I am also an absolute advocate for therapy – talking things through with a professional – and I think everyone should have it if they possibly can. Just by being more aware of the emotion patterns or roles we’ve created for ourselves through life’s hilarious path can be bloody liberating. The better you know yourself, the better you can serve yourself, and be the kind of partner, son, friend or colleague you want to be. I would encourage everyone to do that, and I do that myself.

Do you have a favourite, most peaceful spot in Scotland?

I’ve only been twice, but I really love Eilean Donan Castle in the Highlands. It has a big resonance for me because it seems to encapsulate everything that Scotland’s about with its rugged beauty and peace. I get to travel quite a lot with my job and sometimes places can feel a bit touristy, but Eilean Donan Castle still feels untouched.

For information on Lulu: Nov 9-19 at ENO, London Coliseum, go here

For the Raymond Gubbay Christmas Festival – Hogmanay Gala, go here 

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