Early life and studies
Spence was born into a musical family that had once owned Squire Pianos, a piano manufactory in North London. His father was a doctor, and his mother a pianist, who worked as an archivist at the Royal College of Music. As a young mother, she worked as personal assistant to Walter Legge and Yehudi Menuhin. Artists and musicians were regular lunch guests at the family home. He was educated at Uppingham School and gained an honours degree in music at New College, Oxford, where he was a choral scholar and was much influenced by his tutor Edward Higginbottom. He continued his vocal studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he studied with David Pollard.
Spence's professional debut was in 1995 as Idamante in Welsh National Opera’s production of Idomeneo, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras; he repeated the role later the same year in Munich after only one day of rehearsal.
Among his first engagements were La Calisto with Rene Jacobs in Brussels, Mitridate in Mitridate Rè di Ponto under Roger Norrington at the Mozart week in Salzburg, and subsequently at the Salzburg Summer Festival, Almaviva in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at the English National Opera, and David in Die Meistersinger under Antonio Pappano at La Monnaie in Brussels. At the same time he was performing on the concert platform in repertoire ranging from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis to Saint François d'Assise by Messiaen.
Toby Spence has on-going connections with English National Opera (ENO), and is a strong believer of the policy of singing in English. He appeared in successive seasons at the Opéra National de Paris and also at the Bavarian State Opera. His career with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden is nascent. After creating the role of Ferdinand in Thomas Adès' opera The Tempest, he was invited to appear in the next three seasons at Covent Garden.
The tenor also has a close association with The Scottish Ensemble, a string ensemble based in Glasgow, which draws its players from the orchestras of London and Scotland. Every year he tours Scotland with the ensemble, performing recitals in all the major cities north of the border. They have recorded a disc of Britten’s song cycles together, which was greeted enthusiastically by British and international critics alike.
Although he sang in some recitals at the beginning of his professional career, he was dissatisfied with the result and set song to one side for several years. When he resumed recitals his repertoire included Poulenc, Brahms and Britten, as well as the original version of Les nuits d'été with piano. Other engagements on the concert platform have included a recital and a concert with The Scottish Ensemble at Wigmore Hall, Britten's War Requiem in Vienna, and Bach’s St John Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. He has also sung Gerontius with the Vienna Philharmonic under Rattle. In December 2010, he sang with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis in Handel's Messiah.
He made his Proms debut in 1997, in a performance of the Schubert Mass No. 5 in A flat major, D 678, following this with Nielsen's Springtime on Funen in 1999, the Bach St John Passion and Parsifal in 2000, Handel's Acis and Galatea, HWV 49 in 2001, Les Troyens à Carthage in 2003, Les noces in 2004, the Missa solemnis in 2005, Delius A Song of the High Hills in 2009 and Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor 'Choral' in 2011.
During 2005 and 2006 the tenor's stage roles ranged from Tamino in The Magic Flute at the Teatro Real in Madrid and at ENO, to the Madwoman in Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River at the Edinburgh Festival, Count Almaviva in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at Covent Garden and Tom Rakewell in Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The latter role was one Spence was keen to play from the start of his career, and he has sung it in several productions around the world.
Evading categorisation since the beginning of his career, Spence has been described as being at home in both Wagner and Rameau roles, along with everything in between. In the 2006 summer season of the Santa Fe Opera, he sang the roles of Tamino and Ferdinand, the latter in the American premiere production of Adès' The Tempest.
In 2009, Spence sang the role of St. John in Handel's La Resurrezione in a recording with Le Concert d’Astrée under the direction of Emmanuelle Haïm. In 2011 his Chicago debut was as Nanki-Poo in The Mikado.
In an interview for the Paris Opera in 2008 Spence named Arsène Wenger as his non-musical hero. A man of keen and wide interests, he regularly visits galleries and is a keen concert and cinema goer. He enjoys travelling and in 2003 spent four weeks backpacking around Iran, visiting several cities. In 2012 he underwent surgery for thyroid cancer. He sang at The Royal Albert Hall on 9 August 2012 in a Prom conducted by Mark Elder, dedicated to the songs of Ivor Novello, later broadcast on BBC TV.
In May 2012 he received the award for Singer of the Year from the Royal Philharmonic Society.
Toby Spence has participated in many varied recordings, including songs by Liza Lehmann and Arthur Bliss, the Duo de l'ouvreuse de l'Opéra-Comique et de l'employé du Bon Marché by Chabrier, and in Volumes 32 & 35 of the Hyperion Schubert edition.
Other recordings included Parry's Job, Haydn's The Creation, Paroles tissées by Lutosławski, Offenbach's Vert-Vert, Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5, Handel's La Resurrezione, HWV47, Finzi's Dies natalis, Op. 8, La Rondine, Così fan tutte, Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31, Bantock's Omar Khayyám, and the title role in Sullivan's Ivanhoe.
Most recently, he recorded the role of Philip, Lord of Mirlemont, in Sullivan's The Beauty Stone.
- Chanter la débauche et la perdition. Ligne 8. Le journal de l’Opéra National de Paris. Mars-Avril 2008, 21-22. (Interview with Toby Spence, in French).
- Pines R. People 395: Toby Spence. Opera, November 2011, 1292-1300.
- BBC Proms database, accessed 13 November 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/archive/search/performance_find.shtml?tab=search&sub_tab=artist&artist_id=11373&from=1890&to=2011
- RPS Music Awards accessed 10 June 2013.