‘Swhere to do you sing?” asks Scottish star tenor Nicky Spence with an encouraging smile. We’re talking from the marble bowels of a Mayfair Hotel after a preview of Sky Arts’ new four-part series, Anyone Can Sing – and that’s not how the conversation was supposed to go. I find myself confessing my embarrassment at being an opera historian and music critic who, no, doesn’t sing. And about the time I sang a folk song at a school music competition, crossing the line between the barely tolerated nerdery of a teenage violinist and instant social death. “I love you for that!” he says, as I recoil from the horror that dates back more than 20 years.
That one solo outing aside, I loved singing in choirs as a kid. But these days, I lost the habit a long time ago and I will do everything not to have to sing alone in front of others. I’m far from alone, of course, and that’s where the Sky Arts series comes in.
Created in partnership with English National Opera, Everyone Can Sing is television with a mission. Three vocal coaches – Spence, mezzo-soprano Sarah Pring and countertenor Michael Harper – have three months to provide “musical SAS” to six participants drawn from what the show’s narrator blithely calls “the vocal challengers of the nation “. The hope is to demonstrate that, as the title proclaims, anyone can sing.
You’d be forgiven for remaining skeptical in the first episode. There’s a painful compilation of some of the show’s more than 600 contestants offering their best “La,” the results more from Florence Foster Jenkins than Frank Sinatra. Beverley, a publican from North Wales, auditions with seconds of Stand by Your Man. “At times it looked like you were having a procedure,” Spence ventures. “Well, it’s the first time I’ve sung it soberly,” Beverley retorts. Pring quietly asks Chris — long hair, big beard, flashy shirt — why he thinks he can’t sing. “I listened to myself,” he said with a shrug. And Ellen, a priest and first female dean of King’s College London, admits she hasn’t sung in front of anyone for 30 years. His verdict after the first lesson with Spence? “They say anyone can sing…I’m not convinced yet.”
But what is it about singing that can reduce us so quickly to shame and silence? Singing, Spence believes, reaches “one’s essence. It’s like putting your soul on a plate in front of you. You have to give up all bodily functions to be able to sing well.
It takes confidence, clearly – and physical as well as emotional strength. After suffering a brain injury four years ago, 25-year-old Luke got Tourette’s disease. “I feel like every time I meet someone new, the tics are the only thing they see,” he explains. Harper flutters her arms like wings to release the tension. At the end of episode two, we hear a beautiful tenor voice begin to take flight.
Shirley, in her 60s, joked that she was ‘probably the only black person who can’t dance or sing’ and leaned heavily on a stick. Pring urges him to stand up and the impact on his voice is extraordinary. “Listen to this power! Pring roared. “It’s fantastic!” At the end of her first lesson, Shirley walks out unaided, with both women in tears. “I’m not going to become an old lady,” she swears. “I’m going to be the Diva Shirley!”
Ellen, meanwhile, was told as a child that she couldn’t sing (“Shame on everyone who says their kids can’t sing,” Spence thunders when we chat) and has struggled to pitch ever since. The undeniably discordant results will be familiar to anyone who has ever been labeled as deaf – let alone those close to them. Although none of the contestants can be described as a good singer at the start of the show, Ellen very clearly challenges its premise. His bravery in allowing TV cameras to capture his warts and all attempts is astounding and the effectiveness of Spence’s interventions is a real eye-opener. Watching her dance around her chapel with him while singing more or less in tune is a surreal moment.
Most of us can’t hope to be coached in vocal confidence by famous singers. But it’s the personalities that make this TV so heartwarming. Pring comes across as a sort of vocal fairy godmother, Harper as the honeyed voice of Zen, and Spence as a phenomenally big-hearted teacher, with a stunt double for every occasion. They are a far cry from the catty rating systems of conventional talent shows and draconian 19th-century singing manuals that decreed that aspiring singers should avoid “cycling, rowing, dancing, long walks , reading late at night, singing too soon after meals and exposure to excessive heat or cold.
Not that the participants of this show would put up with such nonsense. From Shirley’s visible shock as soprano Natalya Romaniw hits one of Puccini’s high notes, to Chris’ response to the news that their final challenge will be to sing in front of an audience of 2,500 at the London Coliseum (“There’s a level of panic right now…but it’s gonna be fine”) – their down-to-earth warmth is irresistible.
Back in the hotel basement, Spence admits, “We didn’t think we’d find the next Maria Callas or Pavarotti. It’s basically unboxing the opera and putting the process in a microwave to show them what’s possible with that amount of time to make a difference in their lives. Even halfway through the series, this broad impact is remarkable. We don’t yet know how they’ll fare on the massive Colosseum stage, but Sky Arts director Philip Edgar-Jones apparently enjoyed the show so much he’s started taking singing lessons. Maybe it’s time I did the same.