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Jessica Duchen
Friday 17th September 2010
Marking Spence
Toby as Candide

Meet Toby Spence, ace British tenor, who's singing the lead in Faust at ENO from tomorrow. (Above, pictured in Bernstein's Candide.) It's always great to see your pal from the ad department make good, not something that happens every day - and it's almost as rare for an English star singer to turn to big romantic roles of this kind. In today's Independent, Toby tells me about how he got his act together and how Gerontius changed his life.

For the future, he's ruling nothing out - there are some exciting plans afoot, though he wasn't allowed to spill the beans about everything yet. Some of the definites are Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni and Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw, both at Glyndebourne next summer, but also David in Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden - a toe in the water of Wagner. The only role he says he definitely doesn't want to sing is Don Jose in Carmen, which he describes as "the hit parade from hell".

But he raised another issue that I'd like to offer by way - I hope - of starting a debate (it was left on cutting room floor). Toby says:

“I’m not hearing good enough talent coming out of British music colleges. There’s disconnection between the profession and the colleges: people are starting in the profession not well enough prepared. They’re relying on excellent schemes like the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at Royal Opera House to put the polish on, but that’s only for a privileged few. In the US young singers graduating from the colleges are so good, so talented and so hungry -- but what I see here is just a laddish beer culture. It’s a waste of time, money and human resources to let them emerge like that. If I were running a music college I’d put on more pressure: if they don’t learn their songs, turn up to enough classes and pull up their socks, then they’re out.”

Singing, like all music, today involves competition on a global scale. If it is true that our institutions aren't sending their graduates out with the capabilities - and maybe not even with the inclination - to hold their own in that environment, how can this be set right? Thoughts, folks?

For a taster of Faust, here are two very different individuals, violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Jonathan Feldman, in Sarasate's Faust Fantasy, a bit of virtuoso wizardry based on themes from Gounod's opera, just right to get us all going on a sunny Friday morning. I'm off now to visit one of my all-time piano heroines.

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September 23rd, 2010
5:09 PM
He's not far wrong about a 'ladish beer culture'.

Jo Forrest
September 17th, 2010
10:09 AM
Interesting comment from Toby about the music colleges. Another young singer, whom I won't name as it was a conversation in a pub, said that it was the Concordia Foundation that helped them to learn about working as part of an ensemble. I don't mean that as in singing as part if a group, but as in working with other musicians and managing their ego. British Youth Opera seem to be doing a good job too.

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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