Stuart Skelton has made a career out of singing characters who destroy themselves on stage, alloying beauty of voice with harrowing stage portrayals. December 11th will be a mix of the new and the familiar for Skelton, singing the title role in Otello for the first time in Italian with his long-time collaborator Ed Gardner in Bergen, scene of their exceptional Peter Grimes this summer.

Promoting the Melbourne Ring Cycle, 2013 © Lisa Tomasetti
Promoting the Melbourne Ring Cycle, 2013
© Lisa Tomasetti

DK: Dallapicola's Il prigioniero is the only opera you've sung in Italian for a long while, and you've written that Otello is "one of the few Verdi tenor parts that can be successfully sung by a Wagnerian voice"...

I've sung Pagliacci before, although that's been a while back. Singing of itself is not different from language to language. Singing a role that you've learned in English in its original Italian is different! With Otello, the difference lies in the fact that by 1887, Verdi has left behind the risorgimento thing, so the characters he's writing about aren't cardboard cutouts, they're no longer simple heroes and simple villains and there's a much more complex characterisation going on. With Wagner, to be honest, it's really not until he gets to the Ring Cycle where the world of what we will come to know as psychoanalysis starts to be brought to bear on his operas. So by the late 1880s, we get to see some of the motivations, the reason behind how the characters behave and why they react the way they do – albeit in Otello, we don't see the motivations clearly until the very end of the opera, like a proper mystery. Given that most of my repertoire is firmly in that late 18th century to the first 40 years of the 20th century, most of the characters that I've been blessed with being able to perform are characters where that has to be part of your preparational thought process.

As Otello, ENO, 2014 © Francis Loney
As Otello, ENO, 2014
© Francis Loney

Whether you're watching the Shakespeare or the Verdi version, Otello is almost wilfully blind to the truth, to the extent that one can feel “for goodness sake man, don’t be so stupid”. What do you do to  prevent that reaction?

It's weird, because a lot of the time, in modern productions, people complain about the fact that Otello is being portrayed with not nearly so much nobility as you would expect. For a start, that buys into the whole noble savage thing, which I'm uncomfortable with, which is why when we did it at the Coli, we refused to black up, I wasn't interested in being part of that process. Sure, there's a nobility in Otello, like there would be in anyone who gets to that level of military governance, but you're right, he's wilfully blind. To counter the argument that there was some nobility missing: there's not very much that's noble in his actions. He starts out as the military commander after the "Esultate!" and deals with the fracas between Roderigo and Cassio and demotes Cassio on the spot. But in all of his reactions after that, he doesn't behave in a particularly noble fashion, he's quick to react without thinking about what the information he's been given might mean and what his considered or reasoned reaction might be....

...which is surprising: that's not the stuff of a successful general...

It's one of those difficult things. Particularly in the first two acts, some of his music does really invoke a certain sort of moral fortitude or uprightness which buys into that nobility theme, but once he starts to descend, particularly in Act 3 or Act 4, I'm not so convinced that the nobility is with him any more. It's hard to perform: you really have to come up with ways to find where the breaks happen and every time he breaks, make a little bit more of it so the psychotic jealousy consumes everything else, so at the end, it's a believable transition. Otherwise, when it snaps, it snaps and that doesn't seem like the kind of guy that we're supposed to believe he is at the beginning of the opera.

It's not dissimilar to Grimes, it's finding ways where those little fissures in the surface are visible and he desperately tries to paper over them somehow, but slowly but surely those fissures become all-consuming and something that you just can't keep a lid on any more.

You talked about not blacking up - is Otello a piece about race, or is it just incidental that Otello is a moor?

In the Verdi version, race doesn't really come into it. Obviously, in Shakespeare's prologue, you've got the character saying "go on and tell Desdemona's dad", so it's pretty overt, whereas Verdi, whether cunningly or not, leaves that entire part out. It'll be really interesting in Bergen, because both Desdemona and Iago are African American singers, which gives us a real opportunity to find a completely different reason for Otello to believe he's on the outside. We haven't discussed this yet, but I'm interested to explore the theme that what sets Otello apart is the fact that he's significantly older than Desdemona. With both Desdemona and Iago being African American in this particular cast, it's believable that Iago is jealous of Otello because he actually fancies Desdemona, not because of any perceived lack of promotion or anything else. So I'm wondering if that's not a much more interesting and much more subtle and kind of cool way to think about it.

As Peter Grimes in Bergen, May 2017 © Thor Brodreskift
As Peter Grimes in Bergen, May 2017
© Thor Brodreskift

The Peter Grimes in Bergen was described as a concert performance, but the props and acting were so good that staging became almost redundant...

Ed and I knew the concert format could work, because we did a concert performance at the Proms in 2012 with ENO. We knew that with really minimal stuff, with a little bit of a hint towards costuming and a prop or two, a rope, a net, you could evoke what you needed to evoke without having to slap people around the head with it. I think it gives you the opportunity to get laser-like focus on the vocal drama of the piece, which lies at the heart of all the truly great operas.

Will you be able to do a similar kind of thing for Otello?

There won't be any music stands – it's all from memory. I don't know much about Peter Mumford's concept about it at this point, except that there will be some small platforms upon a few people can be at any given time. There's the big scene in Act 3 with Iago and Cassio where Otello is supposedly watching from behind a column of some description; we can have something in the foreground and something slightly offset so we can see that drama interact and understand that the two people at the front of the drama can't see the person behind the curtain. And Peter is well known as a lighting designer, so there will be some pretty cool stuff going on in terms of lighting.

There are a lot of tenors around with attractive voices, but it's the acting side that has distinguished your performances. How did you initially learn your acting, and how do you go about it today?

Unlike non-music theatre, where so much of your delivery can be interpreted in terms of the gap between one word and the next and where the emphasis in a particular phrase falls, we're spared that. With all the good composers, the high point of the spoken phrase is the high point of the musical phrase, so some of the responsibility at that level of interpretation is taken away from us.

I've never taken an acting class in my life. A good actor can convince in roles that they have no emotional connection to, which I can't, so I never considered myself an actor, as everyone who is close to me knows. But what I've managed to do, over time, is to find that handful of roles where the characters I portray speak to me from the inside out. And once you find those roles, you really just follow the instructions. The really great composers that I sing regularly were absolutely brilliant at making those roles believable, and if I can make the character believable for me – and I only have a handful and I believe them all – it then becomes a much easier prospect to make him believable for the audience. And I think I have a decent sense of humour and I like to laugh, but I can't do funny on stage: you can put me in any comedy on the planet with the greatest stage directors in the history of the world and I cannot make stuff funny.

As Tristan at ENO, 2016 © Catherine Ashmore
As Tristan at ENO, 2016
© Catherine Ashmore

Grimes, Otello, Tristan, Siegmund: they're all tortured and self-harming characters. The only one who isn't is Florestan, who is actually being tortured by someone else. Is there something that appeals to you about playing these kinds of characters? What does that say about you?

That's a very good question. The thing that occurs to me most is that I seem to be attracted to those characters that precipitated that music in those composers of that music. There was something about those characters that had those composers write so sympathetically, so compellingly. Parsifal has the biggest journey of all of the characters that I sing, and even Laca [in Jenůfa], they don't have the world sorted out and I think that's true of all of us. I just got lucky, to be blessed enough to be singing characters that the composers have found compelling enough to give compelling music to.

I watched the Bergen Grimes and – please take this as the highest compliment – I was pretty much at the limit of my personal pain threshold: it was a horrifying experience to watch this man destroying himself on stage. Are there limits to the level of pain you can inflict?

With Grimes, and this will be true until I can't successfully be Peter any more, the only limit on how much pain I can inflict on an audience is how much pain I can bear when I'm singing it. That literally is where it comes to, that's the intention: whatever I can carry it, you're going to have to live with at the other end. Which is what I think makes Grimes so compelling to an audience, and almost so compelling that you have to look away.

Make no mistake, I want the audience to not know if they can keep watching. Because that's how I feel – I'm not sure I can keep carrying this on. I will come off stage at the end of that scene before the chorus comes back on to sing the boat out at sea, and you don't want to be around me for the next twenty minutes, I promise you, because I'm not in a good place. So whatever I can carry, that's the audience's, we're going to share that together.

The opposite of which is Parsifal. Ed and I were talking about this just recently, about the difference between Tristan and Parsifal, and they're about the same length and they're both equally sublime, but Tristan takes away from you for the whole opera, and Parsifal spends the entire night giving. Singing Tristan, you literally have to do the Grimes thing, only twice as long, whereas Parsifal feeds you over the same period of time, it lifts you, takes you to another plan in exalted sense rather than a completely drained sense. With Tristan, my goal was to make the audience think "I'm not sure I can watch the rest of this". With Parsifal, you want everyone to say "we need to see the redemptive process, we need to be uplifted by it, we need to be carried along by it".

As Peter Grimes at ENO, 2014
As Peter Grimes at ENO, 2014

What about Otello? You've got that incredible aria "Niun mi tema" to close it off...

I think Verdi writes this role absolutely perfectly. Whereas Wagner almost always leaves you the most difficult, the most exposed parts until the end of the four acts, Verdi winds it down for you. It starts "Esultate!", tenor wow, all that sort of stuff, then you get into Act 3 and "Dio! mi potevi", which sits almost monotone, and then "Niun mi tema" which is almost a funeral march, very solemn. It's a beautiful way to wind down, and for a voice like mine, and I'm guessing a voice like Plácido or Jonas or José Cura, at that end of the night, the baritonal colours are your friend. It sits beautifully to get to Act 4 and "Niun mi tema" and know that the colours you need are all there, you've just been avoiding them all night. If you can mirror the real solemn stillness of the way that aria starts, then it really is just these big orchestral bell tolls, this huge "ask not for whom the bell tolls" kind of thing. And the minute that funeral march starts, even if he hasn't yet decided that he's got a dagger hidden somewhere, even if he hasn't yet come to that decision, that bell-like slow pealing of the funeral march is inexorable.

But I think the best music is the stuff that happens after he's died, that incredible, that huge pedal point in the bottom – C major, A minor, F and then the F just slides down, it resolves to exactly where you think it's going to resolve to that glorious E major. That's not Verdi, that really isn't. I mean it is, but at that point, that's the sort of stuff that the German Romantics were starting to do. It makes you wonder, if Verdi had been born later, what he would have been able to do after Falstaff.

At the other end of the opera, "Esultate!", I've heard an awful lot of tenors who aren't warmed up...

If you're not warm, then you haven't been in the dressing room long enough. You've got to be ready to go when your first entrance comes through. Like all good opera, you've got to pretend that every single phrase in the opera is the least of your problems, but particularly that one, it tells the audience the sovereignty of Otello's ability to bring that boat in through the storm. How do we know how masterful a military commander he is? Because when he comes out and sings that first entry, he makes it look and sound easy: he comes out and punches the air and nails this impossibly difficult phrase. It's high and it's sustained and it's out of nowhere and of course everything on stage stops and looks at you. So there's nothing you can do, the focus is on you, so don't f*** it up.

One last question: after Otello, we're all going to need a stiff drink. Give us some cocktails: one for before the show, one for after?

Before the show, something champagne-based, because the show kind of fizzes to start with. I'm a big fan of Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, particularly as it's going to be cold weather, so that's not a bad way to go – but please use proper Luxardo maraschino cherries, and you have to use Bourbon, whisky doesn't work, I've tried. I like mine perfect, so I use half dry vermouth and half sweet vermouth, a little Luxardo in the bottom, stir it over ice, twist of orange. But I haven't done that for a few days: I'm vocally on the clock until the 15th!