SongCycle swaps lieders for lycra

Opera singer Nicky Spence is about to embark on a charity bike ride for the benefit of Help Musicians UK. He tells IAM about how the project came about, his preparations for the ride and the problem of changing from stage leathers to bike lycras. 

To quote Stephen Sondheim, ‘What am I doing here? I am in the wrong story…’

This line keeps running through my head as I prepare for SongCycle: a charity bike ride from Glasgow to London to raise GBP25,000 (€30,000) for Help Musicians UK (HMUK).

Nicky Spence
Nicky Spence

Here’s some background: I am shaped like a human fridge and the only wheels I was once associated with were the ones you’d find covered in chocolate and preceded by the word ‘wagon’. More recently, however, I’ve become less of a stranger to the bike, and I soon discovered that two wheels were the quickest way of riding to rehearsal (although the post-cycle sweats can make it hard to get a good grip on your leading lady).

One day, on such a journey, I came into a nasty tango with a London cab that resulted in me landing on my face and severing a nerve in my left eyebrow. Yes, my flirting eyebrow. Despite losing ‘surprise’ from my palate of facial emotions, I could still do a darn good ‘quizzical’ and thought nothing of it. However, I later discovered that I had actually been quite traumatised by the experience.

I was in the middle of a tour with Welsh National Opera so I managed to keep going around the remaining tour venues before eventually collapsing completely. I had back-to-back engagements but I couldn’t bring myself to look forward to what was coming up in the future. I’d put on weight and found myself in a circle of guilt but without the energy to do anything about it. I’d got into such a state that I’d not only lost my joie, but my vivre too!

I then had an epiphany: ego. What was stopping me from getting myself back together was ego. I was so bothered and hung up on what I looked like, and the self-pity that partnered it, that I was hindering my own return to health.

So, feeling vulnerable and sorry for myself, I gingerly looked online, repurchased a bike and decided that I needed to set myself a serious cycling challenge – one that would benefit other people, so that I could take my own ego out of the equation. That’s when HMUK came into my head.

I’m a massive fan of HMUK. I’d worked with them back in 2012, organising a fundraising calendar of celebrity singers, and I’ve always been very grateful for their support during my training at the Guildhall School and the National Opera Studio. It has always struck me, too, how important their work is and how any times I’ve seen them spring into action when friends of mine were in crisis and really needed an honest, unprejudiced support network.

This epiphany took place alongside a conversation I’d had with pianist Simon Lepper, who also wanted to give something back to this charity we both love. The result is SongCycle, which has since grown into a fully endorsed, bum-numbingly real cycle challenge taking place from 24-31 July.

SongCycle riders
SongCycle riders

Finalising the logistics for SongCycle took place fairly quickly. Beyond raising much-needed funds for HMUK, I wanted to promote the importance of mental health and wellbeing for performers. It felt right to start in Scotland where my musical life began (I was born in Dumfries). From there we plotted a route which would take in many of the country’s musical hubs, so we could best share the work that the charity does before arriving in London eight days later.

Assembling the cast for SongCycle was no mean feat. Organising a team of 10 busy singers to be in the same place over the space of eight days using only your powers of persuasion is like completing the world’s most complex sudoku puzzle with a dodgy pen. Thankfully for me, I knew Simon was already on-board and I’ve got some other awesome singer friends who are a lot fitter and more famous than I am. The team includes Ailish Tynan, Mary Bevan, Louise Alder, Simon Lepper, Timothy Connor, Emma Kerr, Peter Aisher and Nick Pritchard. Most of them have been touched by HMUK’s amazing work in their own careers and shared my passion to give something back.

Soprano Louise Alder
Soprano Louise Alder

Training-wise, we’ve all been embracing different regimes. Whether it’s cycling to and from work, buying a stationery training bike to combine exercise with learning Strauss/watching Loose Women, or the denial approach (which involves 30 reruns of Friends and a pack of biscuits), we’ve all felt the impending start-line’s swift approach.

I’ve personally been embracing an all-weather cycling policy while performing in Jenufa at ENO, although swapping my stage lothario leathers for lycra on the long ride home often proved to be hell on toast. I also engaged a personal trainer called Dinesh. I may still be a bit fat but I am now officially functional and, some might say, fit.

So there we have it. The tyres are pumped, the cycle shorts are stretched and we’ve even written a jingle – so now it is time for you to get involved. You can check out our route online as we’ll be hosting recitals and events and working with a myriad of musical communities including Scottish Opera, Sage Gateshead, Samling Academy, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Oxford Lieder Festival before we arrive on the stage at the London Coliseum for a finale concert on 31 July.

Finally, please visit the Help Musicians UK website to donate what you can towards our GBP25,000 SongCycle appeal, and to wish good luck to our team of 10 opera singers (more used to ring cycles than road cycles) as they ricochet down the length of the country.