Opera: “This is what I’m here to do”

Ian Spencer (bass at the Dutch National Opera)

How did you get into music?
As a kid I played trombone until I was told at 15 that if I carried on playing it would kill me – my lungs couldn’t take it. My music teacher heard my low voice and persuaded me to start singing.

And next?
I started singing in a male voice choir when I was 16 although I learned to drink more than I did to sing. After choir practice we would go down the pub where the landlord would happily ply us with beer as our singing brought the punters in.

How did you train your chords further?
My music teacher arranged some interviews with music colleges. Most would not take me as I was too young for my low bass voice to be safelydeveloped – you physically need to be in your twenties to start and a bass voice matures when you’re in your forties. Trinity College in London, however, saw their chance to get a second bass ( I can sing bottom B-flat) and snapped me up. I spent my first year partying and then I was old enough for them to work on my voice. They trained me to sing without a microphone and taught me the theatrical skills you need to be an opera singer.

So how did you end up in the Dutch National Opera?
After college I did whatever came my way. A low bass voice is rare but so are the parts for it. In between assignments I did courier work and was a motorbike instructor – anything to pay the bills. On several occasions I freelanced for the Ambrosia Chorus who did the music for many films from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Their sight-reading skills were phenomenal. I remember them rehearsing a newly discovered Rossini opera one day and then recording it in the studio the next! I also worked for the English National Opera occasionally but when they auditioned me for a fulltime post I froze and couldn’t sing a note from Aida. However, my music teacher phoned me afterwards and said: Be at Covent Garden tomorrow. So I turned up relaxed thinking I didn’t stand a chance, gave it my best shot and DNO took me on. A one-year contract became fulltime and I’ve been here 27 years now! Thanks to my music teacher who spotted my gift and was willing to go the extra mile for me.

Read the full interview