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.

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