Australian tenor Stuart Skelton isn’t one to let the grass grow under his feet. Last week saw him open in Calixto Bieito’s controversial production of Fidelio at English National Opera on Wednesday, swiftly followed by a concert performance (semi-staged) of Peter Grimes in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the very next night. As if that wasn’t enough, a second Florestan back at ENO on Friday and a trip across the Thames for another Grimes on Saturday completed a marathon four day stint, before which I caught up with him to talk about his career, a forthcoming gala and life on the operatic circuit. He is a tenor in tremendous demand. Skelton sang another key role – Siegmund – in the Seattle Opera Ring this summer and Wagner features prominently in his schedules; the day after our interview, he flew to Bilbao for concerts of Act I of Die Walküre and excerpts from Lohengrin. How does he manage it?
With such a demanding schedule, how do you pace yourself stamina-wise?
You don’t pace the performances at all. The important part is to pace the non-singing! If you pace the performance, you’re not 100% vocally committed to it, so I tend to pace the time off. Obviously there was an opening night party at the Coli after Fidelio on Wednesday which I didn’t go to – I just went straight home. As soon as the concert in Birmingham was finished, we drove straight home. Basically, I try and stay ‘off my voice’ during the day until such time as I need it. When you’re doing that much singing, the voice tends to protect itself and you leave it in protection mode for as long as you can.
Whatever damage you’ve done to your voice, flying doesn’t make it any better, so I can treat flying like a rest day for the voice.
You’re at English National Opera singing Florestan at the moment and back for Peter Grimes in the winter. What does ENO mean to you?
It means a great deal to me. They gave me my start in the UK. I’d done a couple of things here, but it was Jenufa at ENO in 2006 that really set me on a path in London where I’ve been back every year and ENO have been a pretty big part of that. They are an incredibly loyal company, an incredibly supportive company and they do some really amazing work. Musically, you couldn’t get higher standards with Ed Gardner in charge; the chorus and the band are just a great bunch of musicians who really love their work and are dedicated to making it as good as it can be. They also have a brief to be artistically adventurous. They’re risk-taking and, like all risks, when they pay off, they pay off hugely… and when they don’t, boy, do they not pay off! In tough times, that’s an incredibly brave thing to do and they do it remarkably well a lot of the time. No opera house on the planet can have a hit with everything they do, particularly when you’re taking risks with directors and productions. There are a lot of singers very happy to be on ENO’s radar because they do fabulous work.
Especially with nurturing young singers…
We approached them six months ago with the idea of the gala concert. Iain Paterson, Leigh Melrose and Sarah Tynan came on board, along with Pamela Helen Stephen. Iain, Leigh and Sarah were all Young Singers with ENO [which has since been given the title of Harewood Singers]. They had their skills honed on the Coli stage, so it’s a real chance for us all to say thank you to ENO and to aid the Harewood Programme. It would be easy to let schemes like that slide because they’re expensive and ENO have redoubled their efforts in that respect and they hold a very special place in my heart for that reason.
What sort of repertoire have you got lined up for the gala?
Everything from Handel (not me!) right through to Bizet, Verdi, Wagner and some verismo in the first half, all of which will be in the original language – which will be interesting for ENO audiences to see us sing the stuff that we sing outside of the Coli in the original. The second half, however, will all be in English and we tried to pick something that would be tremendous fun to do. We hope that it translates into being something fun for the audience as well! We rather suspect it might be. It’s just us, off-stage friends getting outrageous and being camp and stuff…
Thinking about your Wagnerian roles, next spring you have a concert of Act III of Siegfried.
Yes, with Paul Daniel in concert in Bordeaux, along with Heidi Melton and Brindley Sherratt. I’m really excited about that but it’s as much of Siegfried as I’ll ever do, no question. When I was first approached, my agent in Paris asked me, “What would be the issue about singing Siegfried Act III?” to which my response was: “Acts I and II!”. You’ve sung two acts and then you’re up against a fresh-as-a-daisy Brünnhilde! So it’s a great opportunity to add that to my concert repertoire, as well as a chance to return to Bordeaux in the spring. I’d sing a baritone role to go back to Bordeaux in spring!
So no Siegfrieds for you on-stage?
No. There’s a perfect Siegfried sound in my head and I don’t make it. Siegfried’s not a particularly nice character – I don’t like him.
Is it important, then, to empathise with the characters you portray?
Yes. It is for me. I am not nearly a good enough performer or a good enough actor to do anything otherwise. I cannot do stuff that I cannot empathise with or buy into.
One of the things I admire about your voice is its lyrical intensity. What sort of possibilities does that open up repertory-wise outside of Wagner?
It gives you the opportunity to sing Strauss and some of the Slavic repertoire – Janacek, Dvorak – plus it gives you the chance in early Wagner to get away with Erik and Lohengrin because they are not roles you can beat up. Lohengrin is essentially an Italian opera in three acts sung in German. You’ve got to have that incredible silvery presence vocally to carry that other-worldly thing off. There’s a muscularity about Siegfried’s music that is unrelenting. Apart from anything else, it’s okay to sing Wagner prettily. Ben Heppner proved that, as did James King. You can sing Wagner with a beautiful voice and when you sing these Wagnerian lines, look at the scores and listen to the way it’s composed, it’s no surprise that Wagner loved the bel canto period because when he writes you a tune, boy, does he write you a tune! What makes Wagner, for me, such an attractive prospect is that you don’t have to beat it up or scream it; you can sing it exactly as written, with the dynamic markings as written, and if you have got a sensitive conductor, then everything is possible.
Which Strauss roles do you enjoy singing?
I don’t think any tenor enjoys singing Strauss roles… there are simply some roles you find less murderous than others! The roles that I find less murderous than others are the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten and Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos.
You’ve sung Peter Grimes all over the globe in different productions that perhaps view Grimes in slightly different ways. If you were directing a production of Grimes, how would your ideal interpretation present the character?
I think I’d take my cue from Britten and Pears. They were very specific about what they did and did not want as part of the libretto. Montagu Slater wanted to turn it much more into a socialist allegory and they rejected a lot of his drafts of that particular angle right from the outset and basically ended up redrafting a lot of it themselves. They didn’t want the opera to be anything more than a description of what it means to be the outsider, however one interprets that. Obviously, they were outsiders in a number of ways: being conscientious objectors in the middle of World War II, being a gay couple in a very small village, but in a lot of ways they found the scene in New York with Auden and Kallman completely beyond their experience in terms of the openness of ‘the gay community’ as it would have termed in the 1940s. Being in America was almost confrontational for them so they decided to return to England and had a real understanding of what it meant to be outsiders.I think part of the thing about Grimes which is quite clear is that every character at some point gets a taste of that medicine. Everybody is an outsider at some point – when they turn on Ellen, when they turn on Bob Boles, when Bob Boles turns on Horace Adams, when they turn on the nieces, when Balstrode turns on the gossips – everyone experiences being the outsider, but at the end of the day – to preserve themselves – they turn Grimes into the ultimate outsider. He’s an easy target. When Balstrode offers him a potential solution, he rejects it out of hand, which means that the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling.
I would not go out of my way to direct a production of it – and I have no intention of directing any opera ever! – but I think you need to be able to let everyone who sees the opera decide how they think it plays out. Britten and Pears and Slater didn’t answer the question, so I don’t see any reason to second guess that. David Alden’s production at ENO does the same thing. It doesn’t leave a lot of questions unanswered, but it lets people see exactly how easy it is to become the person that everyone else directs their spite at.
Britten and Pears didn’t choose to portray the Grimes of the poem at all. Grimes in the poem is unrelentingly bad and has not one redeeming quality or feature, to the point that his parents in the poem wonder how it is that their son grew up to be so thoroughly nasty. That’s not the Grimes of the opera. That was an important decision for them to make and it’s an important decision to respect if you’re going to direct it. They made that decision on your behalf – you don’t get to make that decision, because you’re not Benjamin Britten or Peter Pears or Montagu Slater.
The performances with the LPO have been concert – semi-staged with costumes and props.
Daniel Slater has really managed to get the genuine feel in his semi-staging of how the opera goes without it becoming overly complicated.
How has it been working with Vladimir Jurowski, who is conducting this opera for the first time?
The thing with working with any new conductor is to understand that you and the conductor both bring your ideas of how the piece goes and part of the challenge and the fun of the job is finding those places where everyone gets to bring something and work towards the ultimate result which is achieving a performance of musical theatre which leaves the entire audience affected by it and I think we’ve achieved that. It’s the same with directors: where the meeting of the minds diverges, you have to work best to make the result as compelling as possible, it felt like we achieved that in Birmingham.
Talking of directors, what has it been like working with Calixto Bieito on Fidelio?
We haven’t seen a lot of Calixto because he’s also directing Die Soldaten in Zurich. We’ve mostly been working with his assistant from Berlin and an ENO house director, but every time we’ve seen Calixto, he’s been very encouraging about the whole thing. We understand the point of view he approaches the piece from. You’ve got to buy into the argument to make that work.
The reactions from audiences and critics have been very mixed.
I don’t think anyone’s every going to ambivalent about his work! It’s polarising. It’s Calixto Bieito – of course it’s polarising! Everyone knew that going into it. However, one of the things important to me coming into this process was that I really wouldn’t have been as ‘on board’ had it had that objectionable violence/ sexual component that a lot of his productions seem to feature. Had that been part of the process, I probably would not have agreed. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and nobody needs to see me with my kit off! I’m concerned with crowd safety here!
There are times where you’d draw the line?
No question. I’m way too bald and way too fat to bother with that sort of stuff! Opera needs to be an escape. Realism and gritty realism is wonderful, but I don’t go to the opera to see it. I go to the opera to be transported. Shock value isn’t moving; it’s not transporting.
Grimes has become a signature role. You sung Quint…
Not since graduate school.
Are there any other Britten roles you’d consider?
One of these days I’d love to sing Captain Vere. I think you need to be the convincing old Vere of the prologue/ epilogue to portray the successful young Vere and I just don’t know that I have the gravitas yet to do the old Vere. There’s a certain maturity and gravitas that someone portraying Vere has to have that I think has to inform the way you perform the contemporary Vere. I’ve seen both Bob Tear and Philip Langridge do that and until I can embody and inhabit the old Vere they way they were able to, I’ll leave it alone until I can. And if I can’t, I probably won’t bother. You need to be able to bring that youthful ‘man of action’ thing in the young Vere, but you need to have reflective and melancholy quality to the old Vere. I don’t believe for a minute when he says “I am content” – he’s not content at all; the opera opens with him thinking about those events, so he’s clearly not content with it, it’s still haunting him.
You can still catch Stuart in Fidelio at ENO on the 6th, 12th and 17th of October. An Evening with Stuart Skelton and Friends takes place on 10th October at Cadogan Hall to raise funds for ENO’s Harewood Artists Programme. Details here.
Photographs © John Wright (portrait), Robert Workman (ENO Parsifal), Elise Bakketun (Seattle Ring), Clive Barda (ENO Peter Grimes), Tristram Kenton (ENO Fidelio)