It's three years since I first interviewed Toby Spence, the English tenor who is firmly placed as one of the finest opera singers of his generation. The occasion was a revival of Katya Kabanova at Covent Garden, and he confesses with enthusiasm that 'I've had a good time since then, and have got to a good place recently. I feel more in control than I was.'
The reason for our return match is a brand new production of Gounod's Faust at English National Opera. The director is Des McAnuff, whose Tony Award-winning work includes the Broadway production Jersey Boys, and ENO Music Director Ed Gardner is in the pit, but unquestionably the most eye-catching aspect of the production is Spence's role debut as the title character.
Though he has always enjoyed performing a wide repertoire, Spence is probably best known for his Mozart work. He's added Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau to that list in the last couple of years, but he admits that the high romantic Faust is 'a bit of a departure.' Is it a challenge, therefore? 'No,' he says confidently. 'Of course it's a challenge making a change, but I'm finding it quite a release for the voice. It seems to spread into it. And for me, personality-wise, compared to what I've done before it seems to sit on my shoulders quite naturally. I love the sound world of this piece. Somehow I can edge the voice up to finding its place within that orchestral sound.'
So he's a secret romantic? 'Oh, there's no secret in that, come on!' he laughs. 'I think anyone who sings tenor has the romantic inside them.'
Is this Faust a sign that he wants to go more in the direction of late-romantic repertoire? 'Well, we'll see how it goes on the opening night,' he answers, 'but at the moment, yes, I very much want to do more of this. So that means the French grand repertoire: a bit of Romeo and Werther, and there are plans to record Hoffmann. I understand French culture, and where it comes from.'
We talk more specifically about the problems of staging Faust. Probably the most popular opera through the late nineteenth century, Faust has drifted into semi-neglect in recent decades. The cost of staging it certainly comes into the equation – the five acts demand numerous sets and a cast of thousands – but there's also, perhaps, the issue of whether a contemporary, secularised society can find relevance in the plot of Faust's journey to hell.
Spence points out that 'The Met never does the Walpurgisnacht scene, so you never go to hell. It seems to pre-empt the final scene dramatically: you go to Hell, and then you leave it. But it's a very strong scene musically, and it has a strong impact on the relationship between Mephistopheles and Faust. It's the moment of confrontation, and it's also the moment when Faust steps over and takes his place at the banquet.
'The opera has very little to do with Goethe. It stands on its own as a set of tableaux. I think as a narrative that it's more like Boris Godunov than Carmen. It's bleeding chunks of scenes. In terms of Faust himself, I think that if you don't work on who the character behind Faust is, you have a set of ciphers – Mephistopheles as a devil, Marguerite as a good girl or a fallen woman, and Faust as a mixed-up man-kid. We've tried to find something that has more meaning and universality. I think what I've found with him is that he's almost a metaphor for the kind of man who wants the girl but not the responsibility. The story seems to hinge around that trait in his character, and it binds all the scenes together.'
The tenor then moves on to the specifics of ENO's production. 'Des's concept for it is very strong. He's very taken by the story of the physicist who went to Nagasaki and Hiroshima after the bomb had dropped, and came back and renounced physics. He became a humanitarian thereafter. Des sees the opening as after the bomb has dropped. Faust comes back to his lab and surveys all the work, and science, that went into this rather glorious advance in physics, and then saw it used for great destruction. As Des said very eruditely, after the bomb had dropped, the notion that everything will be alright tomorrow evaporated. So he comes back disillusioned and ashamed.
'Unlike the Goethe in which Faust wishes for knowledge, in the Gounod he wishes for youth, and he goes back to the time of roughly the First World War and starts his romantic pursuit of Marguerite. We've gone for a very genuine kind of love for him, rather than a devilish or sinister one. He really falls for her, and in rewriting his life, he gets to rewrite his love as well. The story is rooted for me in The Rake's Progress, of course, which has a Faustian tale also.'
I ask Spence what it's like to work with a director like McAnuff, who comes from the world of the Broadway musical. 'Bloody hard work! He's a real task master,' he answers with a smile. 'I like him very, very much, and I have great respect for him. He repeats a lot, because he likes it to be slick. Broadway is all about slick. He likes things to be snappy, and it's a very visual production. It's a beautifully oiled machine. He's got an amazing work ethic that we all tune into. He's funny, smart, witty, and he has a great eye. He's awesome.'
When I ask the tenor about the interpretation of conductor Ed Gardner towards the piece, he answers with characteristic simplicity: 'You'd have to ask him. At the beginning, he was saying that the trick for him is to learn to give the singers space, and allow them to push and pull where they need to. There's a symbiosis between the two: sometimes it's his job to say, come with me, and sometimes the singer has to say, I need more space there. Over the six weeks of rehearsals, you subconsciously get it right. What can I say? He's Ed. He's highly capable. He doesn't have to tell us: it's all there in the baton with him.'
Debate still surrounds ENO's policy of performing all works in English. Is it helpful to do this piece in the native tongue? 'In an ideal world, I would always do the big significant steps forward at ENO in English,' the tenor avers, 'because you can bed it into your body that way. It all comes very direct with the audience, which gives you a benchmark when doing the piece in the original language. I believe that stories are best told colloquially, when you're not pressing for meanings or over-pressing for subtext, which you can do in a second language. It's just so much more natural in English.' He admits that he has plans to return to the company in the future, but can't reveal what they are yet.
Later in the season, Spence goes to Chicago to play Nanki-Poo in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. 'I always said I would do one Gilbert and Sullivan. I said it to my agent years ago, and they sat on it to see what came up. Then five years ago, Chicago asked me to do it. I thought, well, it's a great company, I love the city, it will be very well paid, it's a relatively short run. Then within that time, the Met and Vienna both asked me to do something, and they went quite well together, so I almost regretted it. But in truth, I'm really happy to be doing it. It's a lovely cast, and it's Andrew Davis, who I adore.'
But what's the appeal of this repertoire for an opera singer of Spence's stature? 'Why not? The appeal is just the fun. I think it would be a shame to get to the end of my career and not to be able to say I've done G&S. Whenever I go to The Mikado here at ENO, it looks like they're having a party, and I want to have a go at that party once.'
Does he relate this back to his experience in Bernstein's operetta-ish musical Candide at ENO back in 2008? 'That was fun,' he says, 'but it was also hard work. It's multidisciplinary. And there was a lot dialogue, which required me to step up to the mark. I don't think Mikado will be the same in that respect.'
Next summer, Spence returns to Glyndebourne to sing Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni.Is he a fan of working at Glyndebourne? 'No, because I'm not a fan of working anywhere in particular,' he say. 'These two roles came up in one summer, so I thought, why not. It's Jonathan Kent in both cases, and I have great respect for him. They're both masterpieces, and they're quite varied. I've never sung Quint before. So it was a must. And this summer, I put it out there a bit by doing Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau in Munich, which, when I took it on four years ago, I knew would be a huge challenge and stretch. I had various offers, but I thought that if I'm really serious about myself as an artist, I have to go for the one I'm scared of, which is the Strauss. So I thought that the summer afterwards, I should do a Don Giovanni, and give myself a bit of a challenge with Quint.
'Schweigsame Frau is a very difficult piece on every level. And Strauss in his home town is like a religion. To sing such a dense text in the original language in that place, with the grandson and family attending rehearsals, was daunting. I started learning the piece last October, and by the start of rehearsals I was just about comfortable with it. I'm so glad I did it. It really paid off: I didn't read anybody saying that it wasn't comprehensible. I was so tired by the end of the run that it was quite emotional getting on the plane to come home! It was a bit project for me. I would do it again in a heartbeat, and I would do that kind of challenge again any time. I feel so much more confident as a result of it.'
What draws him to the character of Quint? 'Years ago, I said I wouldn't do it because of the subject matter. I didn't really want to tell that story. I think I felt threatened by it. Without wanting to say too much, I have a connection with that kind of thing – not with abuse, but with over-attention. I don't think I had the strength or inclination, years ago, to address that. But I do feel able to do it now – there's enough distance. I saw the production at Glyndebourne twice, and I thought it was exceptional. If I was going to do it, it had to be in that production, so when it came up I said yes.'
And why Don Ottavio? 'It's one of the best roles in the repertoire. It's a great opera, but without Ottavio it would not be as strong as it is. Without him, you don't have the lynchpin, because there's no measure of what's good without him. He stands and observes all the way through. Even with his aching Donna Anna by his side, he decides to stand back from the situation and watch what happens before making a judgement. When he's made the judgement, he then acts. He also has the advantage of singing two of the prettiest songs in the whole piece, of course, in the middle of each of the acts. That's necessary to the musical structure of the opera.'
But do you not find him a bit static, I ask? 'No, I really, really don't. Whenever he's on stage, he's doing his own little investigation into what's going on. He's like a little Hercule Poirot. He's active, and he's a hero. He's gracious to everyone, including Don Giovanni. I find him one of the most beautiful characters that I play.'
Amongst Spence's other future plans are David in Meistersinger at Covent Garden. Again, I ask him about the attraction of a role that might not perhaps be widely considered to be the deepest or most interesting in the opera. 'He's the bubbles in the champagne,' he bounces back immediately, with enthusiasm. 'He really is. It's a truism about me that I find a way to respect the roles that I do. Everyone has to respect themselves, and you have to trust the characters to be more profound than perhaps they've been played in the past. David seems to me to be one of those people who, amongst his contemporaries, always seems to rise to the top. You can take him to New York or Berlin, and he'd always do well. He's one of the youngest people in the opera, and he's a bit cheeky, and very funny. He's no fool, and he's a hard worker. And he really tries: in Act 1, he goes through the names of everything. It's quite sweet – he says, oh alright then, I don't really have time for this, but you have to know this, this, this and this, and he goes through the whole works. He's a very touching character, and his relationship with Hans Sachs is very close. Sachs would only have time for a bright person, and he has a lot of affection for David.'
November brings a performance of The Dream of Gerontius at Westminster Cathedral. I ask Spence about how he relates to Cardinal Newman's rather dense and complicated libretto. 'Newman was an Anglican originally, and one of the great minds of the nineteenth century. I think he was the greatest thinker in the Catholic Church of that period. I'm not a Catholic, but I think all Christians depict the journey to heaven as being something like that – having a spirit guide to endorse you in the eyes of your God, and at some point to be presented to God. I don't think that's a specifically Catholic idea.
'I did the piece a couple of years ago with David Hill at Winchester Cathedral with David Hill. It's something I'd worked really hard for – it's such a strong, different part that it took me a number of months to get into. I find that when I give something that sort of attention, it moves very naturally and just comes out of you. It's ripe by the time of the performance. And so it was then: I felt very secure with the piece. I got to do it again at Christmas with the Vienna Philharmonic and Simon Rattle, which was fascinating. It was an anomaly to the Viennese: they didn't know the piece at all, and you could see the orchestra thinking “What is this English music?” before they'd even played a note. But with Simon and Tommy Quasthoff onstage, it was a good line-up, and by the end of the first rehearsal they were up for it. It was a great experience to hear that piece played by them
'So having done that, I feel that I've got my colours with the piece. I hope I continue to do it forever. I'd love to do it when I'm old – it's an old man's story. The first part is like one giant aria, and it's a song of desperation, which Elgar captures brilliantly. If you can get the desperate soul trying to cling to life, and then the serenity in the second half, the battle is won.'
What else is coming up in the tenor's future? 'One of the things I'm excited about now is that I've got quite a good relationship with Harnoncourt, so I'm doing quite a lot with him in Salzburg and Vienna. To be working with him in the autumn of his life, in his home town where he's venerated so much, is a great honour. Any work that I do with the Vienna Philharmonic or Simon Rattle is manna from heaven. In terms of opera, any time I'm at home here in London, that's always a beautiful thing. It's a privilege to work for these two opera companies and I have to pinch myself any time I walk through the door of either of them. I'm so lucky to have them on my doorstep.'
Faust opens at English National Opera on 18 September 2010 for nine performances.
Photo credits: Mitch Jenkins; Catherine Ashmore; Catherine Ashmore; Clive Barda
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