Some 18 months ago, when Robert Lepage’s production of The Rake’s Progress was new to Covent Garden, tenor Toby Spence was down the road at the Coliseum starring as the hapless hero in Candide.

He’d been asked to play Tom Rakewell but was already committed to the Bernstein. He’s now enjoying the chance, he tells me, to catch up with the Stravinsky in its first revival, opening at the Royal Opera House later this month.

It’s the sort of part he relishes. Despite his boyish good looks and athletic physique, he’s not interested in playing juvenile leads (“I can do that at home,” he laughs), preferring roles with a bite to them. Stravinsky’s rakish anti-hero fits the bill perfectly. Although he only played the part for the first time in 2008, Spence is now a veteran of three productions (including the current one, which he did in Madrid).

The Singer’s Progress

“I yearned to play this role since I was a student at Guildhall, when I first came across it,” he says. “Tom’s life is very much like my own. Hogarth’s original starts with the death of Tom’s father. In the Stravinsky, he tries to resurrect his parents through the relationships he has and I think I’ve done the same. My mother died just before I left Oxford and I felt rather cut loose. I’ve always felt very strong parallels with the work because of that.”

“I also feel a very strong association with London, which Hogarth’s tale has," he says, "although maybe not in this production." Lepage audaciously transfers the location of The Rake’s Progress to America in the 1950s (coincidentally, just as Robert Carsen’s Candide did), setting just one scene in a very recognisable Leicester Square during a film premiere. It’s a far cry from Hogarth’s 18th Century London.

“I’m glad I didn’t do Tom Rakewell when I first wanted to,” Spence continues, “it’s a role that needs a degree of maturity and vocal technique. If you do a part too early, you never recover from it.” It’s something you often hear singers say, those with any integrity at least, and Spence says he’s been reliant on his agent among others to guide him through the potential pitfalls of early success.

Temptations

Our conversation drifts into the sort of temptations facing a young singer in today’s opera world. “That’s why The Rake’s Progress is so relevant to today,” he enthuses, “Tom always takes the easy option. He marries Baba the Turk (the work’s bizarre bearded lady) for fame and fortune and he’s always ready to take the cash and run. It’s Hello magazine stuff – what’s rotten in society today. Unearned fame, reflected glory.”

With a reality TV show about to hit our screens, in which pop stars try to turn into opera singers overnight, I ask Spence if he’d be tempted by “Opera Star to Pop Star,” if the concept were reversed. “If I won the lottery, I’d probably sing less,” he says candidly but slightly evasively. But what about wilfully going in a direction which is at odds with all his training and stage experience? “No, I honestly wouldn’t. I wouldn’t be very good at it and I love this job because of the challenges. I’m hungry for that.”

Jacques Brel

Would going on a reality show necessarily preclude you doing your proper job though, I ask. “I’m about to do a series of concerts of Jacques Brel songs and that’s as far as I’d be prepared to go down that route,” he says.

He enthuses about Brel’s writing, showing a clear love of textual density and the challenge of a new genre. “His poetry’s studied in university,” he says, “it’s so bitter-sweet and expressive. I don’t want to be a louche Jacques Brel songster but my desire to do them is for their historical and dramatic challenge. I believe they are art songs in their own right and worthy of a venue like the Wigmore.”

Back to Stravinsky

Spence shows a scholar’s interest in texts (he read music at Oxford) and he proudly shows me a first edition of the Rake’s Progress libretto, signed by Auden and Kallman, which he’s just bought off the internet. He says he gets a real kick out of googling all the references in the poets’ dense and difficult text. “It’s very carefully crafted,” he says, “sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, here stream of conscience, there complete artifice. I’m so glad I got this. It’s really helping me with the part.”

He tells me that the current cast for The Rake’s Progress is “really tight, without a weak link. Ingo Metzmacher (conducting) is excellent. He observes Stravinsky to the letter, every marking. He knows it really well and keeps the energy high. Unlike other conductors I’ve worked with, he’s not influenced by Stravinsky’s own recordings.”

Exciting Prospects

Spence has an exciting line-up of future engagements, including his debut at New York’s Met (as Laertes in Thomas’ Hamlet), new work at English National Opera and a Meistersinger (David) at the Royal Opera House in the next couple of seasons. Like any successful singer, his card is marked for a good five years and beyond that he aspires to a number of roles, including Werther, Berlioz’ Faust and Britten’s Captain Vere.

“I’m really keen to do Vere,” he says, “I love his dilemma. I think he should be played as a young officer, without the authority you’d like him to have.” It’s the sort of shredded personality, a man torn by conflicts, which really appeals to the singer. “I like introspective roles, that show human fallibility,” he adds.

Fortunately, he’s not finding himself typecast; there was a Ramiro, the handsome prince in Rossini’s Cenerentola a year or two ago but Toby Spence is a singer who is clearly getting opportunities to widen his range. His Tom Rakewell at Covent Garden will be a chance to see him delve into some darker areas of human behaviour. The Rake’s Progress opens at the Royal Opera House on 22 January.

Details of performances can be found at www.roh.org.uk. Toby Spence will perform Jacques Brel songs with the Scottish Ensemble at venues in Scotland during January and February and at the Wigmore Hall in London on 7 February.