Spence sings his first Lensky at ENO this month
Toby Spence belongs in the ‘royal line’ of British tenors. Like Pears and Tear, Langridge and Rolfe Johnson, Spence has shone in Britten, but his stage repertoire extends back to Cavalli and forwards to Adès. He enlivens any role with extraordinary interpretative sensitivity and gleaming lyric tone, which of late has gained new depth and metal. It doesn’t hurt that he cuts a handsome figure on stage, exuding a sex appeal missing in some of his great British predecessors.
One can trace Spence’s entire career in OPERA, beginning in 1993 when, having not yet finished at the Guildhall, he was Normanno in Dorset Opera’s Lucia (‘excellent’, reported Elizabeth Forbes). Seventeen years later Russ McDonald was hailing his ‘unusually robust, practically heroic’ ENO Faust, while Rodney Milnes admired his ‘melting use of half-voice, succulent phrasing, and ringing top notes’ in the title role of Opera Rara’s recording of Offenbach’s Vert-Vert.
We spoke early this year in Chicago, where Spence was delighting audiences in his Lyric Opera debut as Nanki-Poo (he had no problem dyeing his blond hair bright red to match the clown-like costume). As usual wherever he performs, Spence was spending any free time sampling everything the city offered, from fine restaurants to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Art Institute (whose director gave him a private tour). In conversation he impressed continually with his openness, probing intellect, insatiable curiosity, and an infectious desire to live life absolutely to the full.
One of three children, Spence was born in London. His father was a physician, his mother initially a piano and organ student who worked first as an archivist at the Royal College of Music, then as personal assistant to Walter Legge and Yehudi Menuhin. As a boy soprano, Spence dreamed of being a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge. His parents sent his brother (‘a sportsman, driven, didn’t take much shit from anyone’) to school at Rugby, but for him they chose Uppingham, which combined an excellent academic reputation with a strong music and theatre tradition. He recalls a moment when, sitting with friends as they discussed their future professions, it was decided that he would be the singer. Spence found it revelatory to meet Robert Tear, his housemaster’s best friend, who ‘gave me a feel for what it means to be a singer—the individuality it takes’.
Noelle Barker, the eminent singing teacher, suggested that, rather than heading immediately for music college, Spence should go to university. To his surprise, his A-levels
Opera, November 2011 were good enough for New College, Oxford, where he did an Honours degree and was a choral scholar. He studied under Edward Higginbotham, ‘the great “Dr E.H.”, a marvellous man I wanted to please all the time’. Spence remembers preparing an analysis of a Brahms quartet for Higginbotham: ‘I handed it in—my first bit of written work at Oxford—and got it back a few days later with no comments on it anywhere. I thought, “I have nailed this”. All he put at the bottom was “Try to remember—words mean things”.’
It was, above all, hearing Philip Langridge’s Peter Grimes at ENO that inspired Spence to pursue opera seriously. Working with David Pollard (who remains his teacher), he had a breakthrough on discovering that ‘there was this thing called the passaggio’. Not possessing perfect pitch, he was astonished one day to find himself ascending easily to high C. His first role, Rossini’s Almaviva, was rapidly learned for six somewhat harrowing performances (in seven days!) in Gattières in southern France. Once on the Guildhall’s opera course, he was heard first in more Rossini, L’occasione fa il ladro, which was no picnic either (made worse by his costume—‘a fat suit, and I had ginger ringlets. Horrible!’). A much happier experience was the Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia, although at the time ‘I really didn’t have my feet as an actor. He basically stands there and recites the story—it was just perfect for me’.
While still at the Guildhall, Spence signed with the Askonas Holt agency. Sue Spence, now a director there, was his wife from 1995 to 2001. (‘At that stage she was the calming influence on my life.’) Robert Rattray—currently one of Askonas Holt’s two joint chief executives—knew that Charles Mackerras needed an Idamante at WNO, and brought Spence to the conductor’s attention. In 1995 that role marked Spence’s professional debut, opposite Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Before the year was out he had sung Idamante with Gösta Winbergh in Munich, managing with barely one day’s rehearsal. His goal
■ Spence as Nanki-Poo at Lyric Opera of Chicago earlier this year