Singing his way from Scotland
What’s a Scotsman doing in an opera about a Maori chief? It sounds like the introduction to a joke but it’s not.
Tenor Nicky Spence has travelled from Britain to star in Hohepa, a new opera by Wellington composer Jenny Mcleod.
The New Zealand Opera is premiering the piece this week at the International Arts Festival.
Spence is to perform the role of colonial settler Thomas Mason, who befriends Maori chief Hohepa Te Umuroa during the Maori land wars.
‘‘What a way to be educated in things New Zealand,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s not a story that’s told in Scotland. It’s been so fascinating to learn about it.’’
Based in London, Spence trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the National Opera Studio and has performed all over Europe.
He said New Zealand was a long way to come but it was worth it for the role.
‘‘Of all the offers I had at the time, this was the most interesting.
‘‘ I was the right look and sound for them.
I look British – a little bit overweight, pasty and a bit red in the face. Also, it’s exciting to perform an opera that’s never been performed and it’s wonderful to be working with a living composer.’’
Mcleod’s opera is sung in English and Maori, a language Spence had to learn. ‘‘All the vowels are pretty pure, though, so it’s a bit like Scottish.’’
He has also learned a haka, although he does not have to do the haka in the opera.
‘‘I love the rugby and the haka but to see that sort of thing up close, that’s really something special.
‘‘ Jenny’s even composed a white man’s haka.
‘‘It’s quite lofty and cerebral, whereas the Maori haka is much more tribal. There’s a point [in the production] where they are performed at the same time. ‘‘It’s quite something.’’ Born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, Spence always wanted to become a performer.
‘‘I was always a noisy child and now I get paid for being noisy. What could be better?’’
His first role, as a child, was King Fuzzywug in a school production of The Tinderbox. These days he preferred more challenging pieces, he said.
‘‘It would be amazing to sing Othello one day, if my voice ever gets that big. We’re talking about a lot of years to go to get there.’’
Meanwhile, Spence said he was enjoying working with the New Zealand Opera Company and being in New Zealand.
He had gleaned information about the country from Hayley Westenra, whom he knows well.
‘‘ I’ve toured with Hayley. She’s told me quite a a bit about New Zealand. She said how friendly New Zealand is, and that’s true.’’
Although here for the opera, Spence said he had one other artistic endeavour in his sights.
‘‘I do want to be in The Hobbit movie. I have size 12 feet, so hopefully that will give me a ‘shoe’-in.’’
He is also looking forward to a fishing trip with the cast.
‘‘The cast is going kidnap me, take me fishing somewhere. It’s going to be my only manly activity of the week.’’
Kia ora: Tenor Nicky Spence takes in the sights and sounds of Wellington.