Nicky Spence – creating his own queer triple threat

Brian Butler September 27, 2023

All photos by Ki Price

In the theatre world many performers now face the triple threat of excelling at acting, singing and dancing. But for a young Nicky Spence, bullied at school in Dumfries, he says his triple threat was “the Holy Trinity of being fat, ginger and potentially homosexual”. It’s his typically darkly humorous way of dealing with an all-too-common issue for emerging gay children.

Nicky discovered he had a voice when asked to sing a solo at primary school. And the potential queerness? We’ll come back to that.

Nowadays he jets round the world for opera and concert recitals. He was awarded an OBE in the King’s first birthday honours list this year, won Personality of the Year in the BBC Music Magazine awards in 2022, is president-elect of the Independent Society of Musicians (2024/5), and was involved in mounting the first-ever classical concert made up of queer performers – Classical Pride at London’s Barbican.

“A role has to excite me; I have to work with great people. I’m not working with arseholes anymore…”

”At school I wasn’t cool; but I was different. I got bullied but I didn’t really care. My mother said: ‘well, darling you ARE fat!'”

At secondary school he admits he was not really a sexual being – “I was asexual – and bigger than the average bear. I’m not sure what letter of the LGBTQ+ alphabet I am now – I’m more all sorts. I was garish as a protective measure, and energetic to prove fat people are not necessarily unattractive.” It’s typical of Nicky’s style – throwaway remarks, dark and sharp wit and no illusions..

In his 20s – he’s now 40 – he secured a record contract with Universal and his musical life then was very much a crossover one – made up of musical theatre songs, Scottish ballads, all sorts. He even went on tour with Shirley Bassey.

Cutting his teeth at the National Youth Music Theatre and Scottish Youth Theatre, he auditioned for the prestigious Guildhall School at the age of 16 and won a scholarship: “It was a surprise to me. I was Michael McBall”. But at the audition he fell in love with opera. It was during his four-year undergraduate course that the recording contract came along, and in total his training lasted seven years as he bolted an opera course onto it. “And I had a crazy career at the same time,” he confesses.

Photo by Ki Price

Asked if he had a role model, he said no but he had always wanted to be Beyoncé – or marry her. Asked if he had a coming out story, he said he had broken up with his then girlfriend and started to experiment in relationships with men. “It was never an issue with my parents. My mother was very cool about it, matchmaking me. I came out to my posh-speaking Granny who wasn’t actually posh, and she said it was ok, darling because there was a gay boy in Emmerdale”.

I queried whether there were many if any queer opera characters. Nicky pointed to the works of Benjamin BrittenDeath In Venice, obviously, and Peter Grimes and Billy Budd – where there’s an unspoken tension created by Britten whose relationship with singer Peter Pears was not really spoken about.

I wondered what roles he would still like to tackle. “A role has to excite me; I have to work with great people. I’m not working with arseholes anymore,” he interjected. Often he is learning and rehearsing one role while performing another. A role in Das Rheingold  – his current task – takes up to three months to perfect, working with singing and language coaches, sometimes early on with the director. “It’s a joint vision”. And when all that’s not happening, he teaches and mentors young singers.

Photo by Ki Price

The opera technique of projecting the voice comes naturally to him he says, “because I’m a noisy bugger. You need to penetrate the hall, especially against a full orchestra and a chorus. I am at what I call my vocal gym every day – I have to be. Walkyrie is two hours of solid singing – then you go on the Northern line and catch a cold – end of story.

“You can’t sing every night – but most days you’re singing, especially with rehearsals, of course. You need recovery days – it’s absolutely the same as an athlete.”

He’s also passionate about making opera accessible. “We need to drop the curtain between the audience and the singer”. And he’s a vociferous advocate of the queer community. “You have to be open to your sexuality – if not you’re holding something back. I’ve played lots of horrible straight people; I hardly ever play myself.”

And now Nicky’s embarked on married life with pianist Dylan Perez who he met at the Wigmore Hall concert venue. “And later we reconvened thanks to a location-based app. I was teaching at Wignore and he was accompanying the singers”. They were engaged within 18 months but Covid delayed their wedding till 2022: “Now we’re trying to have kids.”

Photo by Ki Price

How was working with his husband? “It’s great to collaborate together. We always pay one another when we’re working so it’s an equal partnership. We have to behave and differentiate work from our home life.”  I asked him to advise a young Nicky if he met him now. “Trust every crinkle in your human fabric. They all make you special. I tried to conform. Stand proudly in your skin”. Asked what the future holds – say where will he be in 10 years time, he’s very clear: “In a big house in Scotland, with kids and my husband”.

Watch this space.

You can catch Nicky’s performance at the BBC Proms 2023 in Beethoven’s 9th on BBC iPlayer. For future performances check out his website. For more information on Dylan Perez check out his website.