Interview: Nicky Spence on his appearance in a steampunk version of The Magic Flute

A populist, steampunk Zauberflöte will give Nicky Spence a chance to really prove his credentials as a serious opera star

After his recent impressive offstage appearance as the Young Sailor in the BBC SSO’s Act I concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Dumfries-born tenor Nicky Spence takes properly to the stage next week as Tamino in Sir Thomas Allen’s new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Scottish Opera.

It’s a princely role, demanding dexterity at every level, whether in its sustained vocal dexterity, or simply in capturing the theatrical ambivalence of a character whose adventurous spirit swings variously between youthful daring and intellectual heroism.

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At 29, Spence reckons he can do it, just as he convinced Scottish Opera audiences last season when he debuted with the company as cheeky toy boy Baron Lummer in Strauss’s Intermezzo – a performance that stood out because, like Spence himself, the portrayal was so loaded with effusive personality.

Elsewhere, he’s been playing challenging roles for English National Opera (ENO) and Opera North, in particular creating the key character Brian in Nico Muhly’s opera about online relationships and chartrooms, The Two Boys, which premiered last year at ENO. No small achievement for the boy brought up by his Dumfries mother in a modest household where ends rarely met. What’s more, he’s dying to tell me about another major role he will sing next year at the Met, but is sworn to secrecy until the company makes it public.

Let’s just say it’s in an iconic 20th century operatic masterpiece, which will allow Spence to add to his already impressive list of modern operatic roles – such as Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Quint in Britten’s Billy Budd, or even Thomas Mason in Jenny McLeod’s Hohepa for New Zealand Opera. Serious stuff for a man whose career nearly steered a very different course.

For it was only seven years ago that Spence found himself on the verge of commercial stardom. He had barely left the Guildhall School of Music – having gone there at 17 as one of its youngest ever singing students – when he was pounced on by Universal Classics and Jazz label to sign a £1 million record contract. They were looking for a “Scottish tenor” – a kind of modern day Kenneth McKellar who might do for Scottish kitsch what Katherine Jenkins had done for Wales, or Hayley Westenra for New Zealand.

“That whole period of my life was very interesting,” he says. “I was very young, just turned 21, and here I was being offered a lot of money to do these records, because they were looking for a Scottish tenor with a bit of hair and who was thin enough to look good on television.” The first album was all heather on the hills, but as a result, he was soon swinging his sporran to full houses at the Royal Albert Hall.

Spence made the most of it for a year, but felt instinctively he was on the wrong path. “I did a lot of fun stuff, met the Queen, sang with Shirley Bassey, but in the end it wasn’t going to be enough for me. I thought to myself, ‘There’s no longevity to this; I’m not getting enough from it.’”

So when it came to recording his second album, he had second thoughts. “All they wanted was me to open my jaw and sing the same archetypal repertoire all the others were singing. It was becoming soggy and saturated, and I wasn’t going to have any jewels there that I could take real pride in.”

Spence made the brave decision to go back to the Guildhall and enrol on its specialist opera course. “I just put my head down and worked my ass off,” he says. “I didn’t want to be seen as someone who feels he can just waltz in because he’s had a big record contract.” The hard work paid off, Spence gained experience with the indefatigable English Touring Opera, then spent time at the prestigious National Opera Studio, before ENO signed him up on its young artists scheme.

And while he still does “slivers” of the pop stuff – “enough to keep it fun for me” – he now feels he is doing the things that matter most to him. “I don’t feel I have anything to prove. Since I left the National Opera Studio I’ve been in constant work – four or five operas a year, often back to back, a lot of concerts in between, and ongoing recording projects.”

His first recital disc – settings of Shakespeare – with Scots pianist Malcolm Martineau, is due out in January, with a follow-up disc of French song planned on the Chandos label. Live performances in Scotland include a Hogmanay concert with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and a recital with Martineau in Perth Concert Hall next April.

Meantime, he’s having a ball as Tamino in Thomas Allen’s latest Mozart production for Scottish Opera, which promises, by Spence’s description, to be quite fantastical. Though not, he promises, as slapstick as Scottish Opera’s last outing with The Magic Flute a decade ago, which opened on the moon with Tamino flying in in a space suit. “I remember it because it was actually the first opera I ever saw,” he recalls.

“This one is steampunk,” he explains, referring to a mechanised design concept that sounds very HG Wells or Jules Verne. “The stage is full of these fantastic machines blowing out massive puffs of smoke. The serpent is incredible, all the priests have hats that do incredible things, and I’d say that Blackpool Illuminations and the Queen of the Night have a lot in common.”

It’s also, he reckons, a very “Glasgow” production, which suits the fact that the librettist Schikaneder was a man of the popular theatre, and actually played Papageno the Birdcatcher – with infamous irreverence – in the very first performance.

“It’s great what Tom’s done with it. He’s tried to make it for ordinary folk, as if it’s something you’d have found at the Glasgow Empire – a nudge and a wink here, and a bit of ‘ooh Mrs, where’s me bloomers’ there,” says Spence with a hint of the pantomime dame.

But don’t get him wrong. This is a serious moment for the tenor who turned his back on classical pops to go it big in the world of serious opera – a decision he’s never regretted.

• Nicky Spence appears in Sir Thomas Allen’s new production of The Magic Flute, which opens in Glasgow on 17 October