Toby Spence: 'Káta was the most technologically advanced opera of its day!'

Interview on singing in Katya Kabanova, La Cenerentola, The Rake's Progress and Candide

7 June 2007

Toby Spence

One of the country's most versatile singers, tenor Toby Spence is as much at home singing Wagner as Mozart, equally comfortable in Handel as Britten and just as experienced in performing Offenbach and Mussorgsky as he is in Rameau and Adčs.

A veteran of English National Opera, in recent years he has become increasingly welcome at the Royal Opera House as well, which is the scene of his current stage activity, playing Vána Kudrjás in a hotly-anticipated revival of Trevor Nunn's popular production of Janácek's Káta Kabanová. It's not the main character of the piece, but he assures me that there's plenty for him to get his teeth into.

'I do think he's developed enough because even if things aren't said directly by the composer or librettist, it gives you scope to flesh it out. That's the advantage of this role. You can bring a lot to it. There's a lot of stage time when you can suggest things about your character. It doesn't all have to be on paper: you can do a lot just by relating yourself to someone else who's speaking.'

Spence is enthusiastic about Janácek's individual operatic style. 'It's a kind of extended recitative, really. The basis of his writing is the orchestral writing, which is fantastic. So much of the characterisation and setting is there in the orchestra. He depicts the Volga with such watery, sensual music. You can see the light and hear the water. It's always present, I find. And that's the bones on which the opera is hung.

'Janácek writes in a vocal style that is directly related to the Czech dialect that the characters are speaking. There's quite a wide spread of dialects - some are localised, some are related to class. I believe that the vocal stresses are very accurate transliterations of the vocal dialect and lilt. Another aspect is the presence of pauses which you can use for dramatic means. There are musical numbers in the score, but because of the fluidity of the music they are not flagged up in an obvious way. The sound is so lush.

'People might think that cars from Czechoslovakia aren't as good as those from other places, but it really doesn't extend to operas. Káta was the most technologically advanced opera of its day!'

Janácek's inspiration for Káta Kabanová came from his love for a young girl, Kamila Stösslová, and Spence agrees that the opera is extremely personal as a result. 'Everything he wrote was very personal. The majority of his writing in that period after he met Stösslová was a result of the tensions it caused with his wife Zdenka. It created a huge rupture between them. The tension that arose from that and his single-minded attraction to this impossible relationship - he wrote to his wife about their insurmountable, consuming attraction but told her that nothing could happen between them. He was so exasperated that he decided the only thing he could do was to sit her down and write down all the points about why he liked Stösslová more than Zdenka, in front of her. It's a terrible story!'

Janácek was sixty-seven years old when Káta Kabanová was first performed, but many people regard it as the composer's first mature opera. Spence finds that notion ridiculous: 'Rubbish! Jen?fa [which was written seventeen years earlier] is in a very different style, but it's still a masterpiece. However, it's true that Káta is close in style to The Makropoulos Case [1926]. The colour is similar. Everything he wrote after he met Stösslová reflects this new style that was inspired by his emotions about her.'

Near the beginning of Act Three of Káta, one of the characters says that 'Storms are a punishment for us so that we should feel the fear of God', and the play on which the opera is based is called The Storm. I ask Spence whether Trevor Nunn's production responds to this elemental force in the piece. 'Well of course, the storm is a prophetic fallacy of what's going on in the story. There is a material storm and it does happen. It's a very literal production, in fact, and everything that's mentioned in the story is represented on the stage. Unlike the recent Pelléas! The set is designed by the late, great Maria Bjornson, and it's thought to be one of her greatest creations. I remember seeing it ten years ago and being stunned when the curtain went up by the dark mottled greys, blacks and flecks of silver, and the way it's lit.it's like nothing you've ever seen on stage.'

Working with Sir Charles Mackerras is evidently the highlight of the experience for Spence. 'He should have invented Janácek!' he jokes. 'What he brings to it is confidence and authority. He knows how the language works and what the music means. It is great - it's more than great, in fact: you can't imagine doing it more authoritatively or being closer to the score than Charlie gets to it. I believe he isn't going to be doing it again - Charlie says it himself, it's not in his diary and he's getting quite senior now, so it's probably the last time for him. That really is special. He conducted the first Janácek opera in England at Sadler's Wells in 1951, and it was Káta in English. He went over to Czechoslovakia in his twenties to study the language and Janácek's music, and he started the famous editions of his scores. He's a great man. That's something I'll be able to say in thirty years time: I was part of this point in history, when Charlie conducted Káta for the last time.'

Spence is enthusiastic about his fellow cast members, particularly Janice Watson, Kurt Streit and especially Felicity Palmer, 'who's just amazing! She's so intelligent. Such an amazing actress - even in rehearsals, she gives a hundred percent. I don't think you can show that much on stage without it coming from somewhere. You have to be that candid and searching to produce something as powerful and strong as she does, and that's not easy.'

For many years, Toby Spence was more often to be found at the Coliseum than the Royal Opera House, but he assures me that it feels 'more and more like a home to me. There's nothing better than working at home. Now I have a house that I love in London, I don't want to go away these days. I'm beginning to feel as much at home here as I do at ENO.'

He's back at Covent Garden at Christmas to play Don Ramiro in Rossini's La Cenerentola ('Cinderella'). 'It's the first time I've done the role and I'm looking forward to it very much. The aria is not an easy one! But the challenge of that role is to make it enjoyable, not to get hung up on the technical demands but to make it fun for the audience. It should be fresh rather than funny.'

Spence has a well-known caution about singing too many prince-type roles in operas like La Cenerentola, but Rossini's opera is slightly different because the prince disguises himself as his servant in order to find out who really loves him. 'That's got to be fun, and you can play a lot with fellow cast members. One can play the servant badly, and that won't be hard! Constantly to be the ponsey prince, you find yourself doing the same things over and over again, only to a different soundtrack each time. And you start to lose confidence in your ability to say anything new. But this time it's OK because it's sandwiched in between two very different roles, the Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia and Tom Rakewell in The Rake's Progress.'

Spence evidently hopes that the latter role is going to be one of the cornerstones of his career. 'I've been waiting for it for a long time. That's the biggest news in my professional life since I started singing. I've been wanting to do it since I was nineteen, but I'm glad I didn't do it earlier: I don't think I would have done it as well. The first time you do a role you must do it well, otherwise you're stuck with the shading of an under-par interpretation for the rest of time. The first time is the launch pad: as you do the part more and more, there's still a shade of what you did the first time. So I'm really glad it hasn't come along until now.'

He's singing Tom Rakewell in the 2010 revival of the Royal Opera's new production (which will be seen for the first time next July), alongside our recent interviewee Kyle Ketelsen. But before then, London and Cambridge audiences will have the chance to sample his interpretation in concerts with the Britten Sinfonia next April, which include excerpts from Rake's Progress as well as Cosí fan tutte and the whole of Stravinsky's Pulcinella.

As a further indication of the breadth of his repertoire, Spence is striking out in a new direction next June (2008) in English National Opera's presentation of Robert Carsen's production of Leonard Bernstein's Broadway musical Candide. 'In a way, that's a less logical departure for me, because it's snuggling up to Broadway. I've been talking to Carsen about it - he's written a new book for it, and he's very proud of it. It sounds very interesting, and this is not really a Broadway production. It's got a lot of bite in it. There's a lot of political satire going on. So although it might sound like the easier end of the market, it's not going to look easy. I don't see myself in the Michael Ball vein!'

Spence is keen on the character he's playing, too. 'Candide is searching for answers: he's Everyman. He takes himself out into the world and finds extraordinary, weird and terrifying things, experiencing them all as a white piece of paper. He doesn't project himself onto those situations: he draws his conclusions at the end.'

It promises to be a highlight of next year's operatic calendar, and before then Spence is singing Finzi with the Scottish Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall in October and Tippett's A Child of Our Time with Andrew Davis and Nicole Cabell in April 2008, English music with which he says he feels a great affinity. But for the time being he's focused on the watery beauty of Janácek.

By Dominic McHugh