Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
6:00 AM 28th February 2023

A Party, Noël Coward And A Fun Trio Of Singers

Photo: Bertie Watson
Nicky-Spence Photo: Bertie Watson
What makes for a good party? Great music, cordial friends, excellent entertainment, perhaps a fun surprise?

Well, having just finished interviewing BBC Music Magazine’s Personality of the Year 2022, Nicky Spence, believe me that if you venture to Leeds Conservatoire on Saturday evening, one thing is for certain: Leeds Lieder is in party mode with all the ingredients for a star-rated evening!

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The genial Nicky Spence, one of Scotland’s proudest sons, tells me that he and two friends are gathering in the salon of Noël Coward for an imagined party where they plan to bring to life a colourful cacophony of characters. Touching, intimate, riotous, thoughtful, funny and heart-breaking, the fictional salon will explore all aspects of life.

Nicky Spence
Photo: Martin Shield
Nicky Spence Photo: Martin Shield
Spence’s personality will light up any room. A few weeks ago on Radio 3’s Saturday morning show, Record Review, his larger-than-life disposition came through and he will, undoubtedly, bring pizzazz to the evening’s entertainment.

“It is going to be the most marvellous party. Basically we are meeting Noël Coward and a whole bunch of people who were either sitting two abreast with him in that entertainment world, people he may have met, to those he didn't get to meet, and people who inspired so much of his storytelling,” Spence tells me.

“Noël Coward was the best lyrical tongue and satirist of the last century and it’s a real delight to be able to bring him back to life so close to the 50th anniversary of his death. Mary, Joseph and I love to work together, and we certainly plan to have a ball and celebrate this great artist in style!”

The Mary and Joseph to whom Spence refers are the other two party hosts; soprano Mary Bevan, rightly praised for her “dramatic wit and vocal control” by Opera magazine and accompanist Joseph Middleton, complimented by BBC Music Magazine as “one of the brightest stars in the world of song…”.

“We are a motley crew that have worked together over the years either individually or together. We know each other too well!“

Ah! That sounds like the party will be good.

Nicky Spence
Photo: Ki Price
Nicky Spence Photo: Ki Price
“We will spend a little bit of time enjoying Parisian glamour with Poulenc and Satie before continuing with Quilter who serves up Edwardian sentimentality of the best kind. It is then a hop and a skip to Hollywood with Gershwin and even Rachmaninoff makes an appearance with his Vocalise.

“It’s really a bit of a mini-break around the world with Noel Coward as our guide.”

The party draws to a close with some crisp dance rhythms from Walton and Britten and fittingly ends with two of Coward’s most popular songs: I went to a marvellous party and The party’s over now.

Noël Coward was the best lyrical tongue and satirist of the last century ...
Spence is a versatile performer: opera, oratorios, recitals, and I am interested to know how he prepares his voice for these different roles.

“It’s a bit like wearing a cloak,” he tells me. “But it's all story-telling in the end using the same voice and technique, I just slightly funnel it differently in terms of whether it's for a massive opera house of 3000 seats or a more intimate audience. It's all my same voice. I really enjoy that versatility but I just have to carefully programme events so there is not too much vocal leaping around.

“I really have no preference as I enjoy a varied palette of all kinds of things. And as a singer I am an alchemist playing with the ingredients, whether using power to be heard over an orchestra or needing more sensitivity - in ‘Liederabend’ for example.”

As a singer, Spence is keen to help those who might not have a good voice or proclaim to be tone deaf. He appeared on Anyone can sing, a collaboration with Sky Arts and English National Opera - the aim of which was to prove that anybody can sing.

Yes, anybody!

“I was given three singers who had previously been nominated as tone deaf and I worked through their traumas. It is more of a psychological disconnect than anything else. We just dug deep. I believe that if you have a larynx and it's fully functional then anybody can sing, however marooned you are from the island of the melody.”

His knack of having a bon mot to hand is a good sign for any party.

People started singing in the world as a primal response and perhaps we over cerebralized it. His technique is to try and understand why receptors turn off just before someone is about to sing, quipping that he would probably try and distract them with an erotic dance or some kind of lovely food to put them off so they relax and don’t think about it.

It’s really a bit of a mini-break around the world with Noel Coward as our guide.
There was another fascinating project he worked on - football meets opera: Sing When you are Winning. Spence recruited 40 football fans to appear in an opera about football, Gods of the Game, where the fans had to sing football chants to famous opera melodies, all performed in time for last year’s Qatar World Cup.

“Learning opera by stealth,” he says. “I was trying to funnel their enthusiasm to make them a bit of an opera chorus. We had the raw material, and they were a bit more functional in terms of being able to sing but then I had to try and redirect some of their enthusiasms towards pitch and the rigours of choral singing.”

Both productions were for Sky Arts and, riding one of my hobby horses, I tell Spence I am exasperated at the lack of good arts coverage on mainstream channels, to which he agrees and suggests we don’t stop trying to campaign.

“I think the arts have been treated quite badly over the years. We've lost classical music, all kinds of dance and other theatrical glories as part of our daily diet. We just have to reintroduce it whether through itself or by ingenuity. There's so much wonderful art out there but it has been squeezed to the limits. People feel estranged from it because of the packaging it often comes in.

Photo: Stephen Dewar
Photo: Stephen Dewar
“It has to be made much more accessible for people, something Sky Arts does very well.

“When I look back at Bernstein doing lectures at the piano - just talking in an everyday manner - it's absolutely fantastic and beguiling, whether you know about music or not. He talks about in such a human way. I think we need to get back to that. When I think back to Gods of the Game, football is part of a generational love. I had misconceptions about football before I started doing that programme, but I changed my mind about it. I reckon the same can happen in terms of our love affair beginning with the arts.”

“There are stories about love, life and loss which cross all the normal themes that resonate with people; it's really about the way we package them up. It is about making it part of people’s lives.” he observes.

Photo: Bertie Watson
Photo: Bertie Watson
Another recent role is as one of ten Sky Arts Access Icons across the arts which sees Nicky figure heading their new campaign offering free resources to primary schools to unpack the art of opera and inspire young singers of the future. That leads to a discussion on music education and how it should be a significant part of the everyday curriculum, not something just tacked on or seen as a luxury item within the syllabus. He raises the point that if we made it clear how transferable many of the skills are it would be hugely helpful, especially as we are very quick to turn to the arts as a nation when we need to.

Spence is a natural communicator - another good trait for a party host and it’s how he got into music. He says he wanted to be the ‘Michael McBall’ in Scotland but his singing teacher told him his voice was actually pretty good and he should think about something classical.

...if you have a larynx and it's fully functional then anybody can sing, however marooned you are from the island of the melody.
Advice he took, receiving a scholarship to the Guildhall School as their youngest singer at 17 years old.
He’s not looked back since. A career that has seen him as Shirley Bassey’s warm-up act for her Arena tour in 2006/7 - “It was just wonderful to see an absolute legend in action” - to travelling the world singing opera and making recordings. A new album of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito has just been released.

After Saturday’s party he is off to Rome and Paris, will record a disc of Noël Coward and starts work on Janáček’s The Eternal Gospelm described as a dream-like atmosphere and emotional force that casts an unusual powerful spell.

For now, though, I will leave the affable Spence to prepare to cast a spell over his guests at Leeds Lieder’s party time.

Nicky Spence
Photo: Ki Price
Nicky Spence Photo: Ki Price
Saturday 4 March 2023 at 7.30pm – A Marvellous Party!
Mary Bevan (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Joseph Middleton (piano)
Programme: Coward, Weill, Messager, Rorem, Satie, Poulenc, Gershwin, Britten, Walton
The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire, 3 Quarry Hill, Leeds LS2 7PD

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