“It was a bit stupid really!” says Stuart Skelton, reflecting on the past year which brought the challenge of taking on the taxing role of Tristan for the first time, performing it in three runs of two productions. In our extensive chat during rehearsals for his Paris Lohengrin, the amiable Australian Heldentenor shared his preparations for learning Tristan, his thoughts on the two productions and his passionate views about the current state of Opera Australia and ENO.

Stuart Skelton © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Stuart Skelton
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

How did you prepare for Tristan? What are the challenges?

The challenges are manifold and varied, the biggest being just how long it is, particularly how long and how demanding Act 3 can be, because you’ve just come off the end of Act 2 and there’s really not much down time. The other thing is that so much of the music is ecstatic and that tends to put you and your Isolde at the extreme of what the voice can do.

Like most Wagner roles, I tend to start at the back and work forwards because most of the big roles tend to reserve the really demanding stuff for the end. By the time you get to learning Act 1, you’re thinking “piece of cake”!

Sir Simon Rattle put the offer on the table to instigate the cut of 11-12 minutes in Act 2 for Baden Baden. I’d spoken to a number of conductors – and at least two Tristans – all of whom had said, "If they offer you the cut, take it." You gain nothing by keeping one purist critic happy. I was very pleased ENO agreed to it too, because I knew that originally Ed Gardner had wanted to open out that cut – I wasn’t prepared to learn it in English and open up the cut at the same time. Yes, there’s some lovely music in it, but there are also moments where Tristan is just screaming at the top of his lungs about the same thing over and over and over again! Everyone on the planet admits that Wagner really needed an editor. When you finally get the opportunity to edit in a way that he himself might have approved of, suddenly you’re a philistine!

Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Isolde) in Baden Baden © Monika Rittershaus
Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Isolde) in Baden Baden
© Monika Rittershaus

I tend to play the score at a piano from beginning to end so I get a general feel of the musical architecture and where your role fits into that. When I got to the performances, I’d just break it into little chunks. I think if you go into Act 1 thinking about singing Act 3, you’d psych yourself out. Just this bit, then I’m done. Not even the whole Liebesnacht – just this bit, then I’m done. Break it up into small manageable bits and suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a daunting thing.

How difficult was it learning a new role in German, then having to learn an English translation shortly after?

There was only one reason I’d do that… and that was because Ed Gardner was conducting. There’s nobody else on the planet I’d do that for. Ed and I caught up in Berlin just at the end of the concert performances at the Philharmonie. He asked me how I was going with the English translation and I promised him that I wouldn’t start looking at it until I’d finish the run in Germany. If I’d started to look at the English beforehand, I would have sung something wrong in German. Even once we were at ENO, we’d occasionally slip into German for a couple of words. There was one point that Heidi Melton (who was singing it in Karlsruhe at the time and was slipping away between rehearsals) during the middle of the Liebesnacht swapped into German and just kept going!

Anish Kapoor’s sets were very beautiful – especially for Act 2 – but they must have posed huge challenges?

Behind the rocks, none of the stairs were the same depth or height even in one flight, which was frustrating. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that it would be difficult to navigate.

We were slightly confined with what we could and couldn’t do to compromise that to make it easier for us because Anish can be a little prickly about changing things. Everyone seemed blown away by the effect that it had, especially some of the very clever lighting.

Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Heidi Melton (Isolde) at ENO © Catherine Ashmore
Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Heidi Melton (Isolde) at ENO
© Catherine Ashmore

How did the two productions differ?

One wasn’t even remotely allegorical. Mariusz Treliński’s one in Baden Baden was set on a modern warship and because Mariusz comes from a film background, a lot of it was to do with what was projected on the scrim, which was there for the entire performance. It always boggles my mind ever so slightly that experienced stage directors are surprised scrims are hard to see through and hard to hear through! When we got to New York, of course, particularly for the HD, they had to take the scrim out and light us from the front with follow-spots, which I’m sure diluted some of the wondrous effects, but in terms of the HD we would have been invisible.

Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Nina Stemme (Isolde) at The Met © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Nina Stemme (Isolde) at The Met
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Wagner is probably subjected to more Regietheater than any other composer. Have you ever intervened or challenged a director about a particular idea?

I have challenged directors before. Daniel Kramer and I spent a lot time discussing the whys and wherefores of the production in London and it wasn’t dissimilar in Baden Baden. But this Lohengrin here in Paris, for instance, has existed since 2012. There's no point me trying to change it now. But if you're there from the outset, then absolutely I don't think there's any point in just acquiescing. You've got to make it believable for you to make it believable for the audience. I don’t have any problem with the physical aspects of a production being awkward. Awkward's never bothered me. What bothers me is anything in an opera where the director has to write a six-page article in the programme to explain to people what they're seeing. Show us... we're not morons!

I don't have a problem with Regietheater if it's intelligently done and finds a particular part of the story that has a real intellectual weight to it. And I have no problem with updating a staging whatsoever. But I do start to get less and less tolerant. I guess my BS detector goes off the scale when you have to ask "If you can't explain it to me in the rehearsal, and we're here for 6-7 weeks, how do you think the person who buys a ticket and has none of that background is going to understand it?

Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Craig Colclough (Kurwenal) at ENO © Catherine Ashmore
Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Craig Colclough (Kurwenal) at ENO
© Catherine Ashmore

What's it like returning to Lohengrin? Is it an easier sing?

It's phenomenal! I hadn't really considered how much shorter it is than Tristan! By the time you get to the end of Lohengrin, you'd still have the whole of Act 3 of Tristan left to do.

The vocal challenge of Tristan is getting to the end – if you get to the end unscathed, people are pretty happy with you. In Lohengrin, the really demanding stuff is in the final 15 mins of the show where everyone's listening for the Gralserzahlung (Grail narration). And also for the very first thing you sing... "Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan!" which is accompanied by basically nowt in the band and it's right in the middle of your passaggio and yet it's piano, so it's a bit of a bugger. It's actually the same tessitura as "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" and it's not that different from "Di quella pira" but there's the expectation that it has to be ethereal – otherworldly – and so it should be. You've got to go out and get that absolutely right. It's like "Celeste Aida" or "Che gelida manina" which happen very early on and everyone's listening for it, so it's a more self-imposed challenge than real vocal challenge.

You've had a really long relationship with Siegmund, yet you've stated that you'll never take on Siegfried.

The guy's an idiot. His solution to all problems is to kill it, so he's a bit two-dimensional. I understand that his parenting wasn't ideal, but he really is a bit of a boor and the disrespect with which he treats Wotan in Act 3 is a bit hard to reconcile. The other thing that I'm always aware of is that in my head there's a perfect Siegfried sound... and I'm not it! The perfect Siegfried sound in my head is Manfred Jung. I'll never sing Siegfried or Tannhäuser.

Away from Wagner, one of your great roles is Peter Grimes. Hugh Canning wrote in The Sunday Times, "he's surely the finest on a London stage since Jon Vickers". What fascinates you about Grimes?

He is misunderstood, though that doesn’t excuse him. The most interesting thing about Grimes is the self-fulfilling nature of the prophecy. There are a number of times during the early part of the opera where people who really care about him present to him a feasible option to get himself off the path he's on. Yet he rejects them out of hand every time. Grimes would cease to exist if he didn't have anything to rail against.

I always have this impression that Grimes washed up fully formed on the beach at Aldeburgh. He was spawned by the elements that he returns to at the end. This constant repetition of his name towards the end is as if he's coughing up seawater.... as he clears his lungs, what's left is this shell of a man. Everything that made that shell Peter Grimes is now gone.

Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes) at ENO © Robert Workman
Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes) at ENO
© Robert Workman

David Alden's ENO production was one of your huge successes.

It really was. When we did it in 2009, we didn't fully realise what we had until after it had opened. The world caught fire. Then in 2014 we even found another gear. By then the relationship between Ed and the ENO orchestra had fully matured and by that stage, we knew what we were capable of in that production with a little application. It was a real privilege to be able to do that Grimes again at that time. It was a remarkable thing for the company.

You are one of the most celebrated Australian opera singers, yet I look at our Opera Australia listings and you're not there.

No sir, I'm not. How many times can you do Gale Edwards' Bohème? Four times in six seasons? And it's not selling any more. The subscribers aren't going back because they're getting the same stuff over and over and over again. Okay, they've increased ticket sales but they've increased ticket sales to My Fair Lady. I understand that it's paying the bills and that's terrific but I have a massive problem with any opera company that's collecting government subsidy for something that's commerically successful. Are they giving that part of their subsidy back? Not likely! That's a travesty.

There’s no way they can justify laying off this wonderful ensemble of singers who form the absolute heart and soul and guts of the company, put them all on part-time contracts, then fly in every second-rate singer from anywhere to sing stuff when we've got people in Australia who sing those roles just as well.

To be fair, OA has just opened a new production of King Roger, which I suspect will be a brilliant show, but let's face it nobody's going to go. They'll go to opening night and go "Oh, that's like Tristan but not quite" and it's in Polish and they'll panic. OA have only got themselves to blame at a certain level because they don't take that repertoire to the audience. They expect the audience to come to them.

Stuart Skelton © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Stuart Skelton
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Opera companies make the mistake of taking slightly off-beat repertoire and instead of the off-beatness being the attraction, they've taken it and married it to a completely wacko production, so you've turned people off twice. If you're going to do stuff that's not slap bang in the middle of the repertoire, then for God's sake don't let Calixto Bieito touch it. Or Damiano Michieletto. If you're going do William Tell, don't piss your audience off. I know it sounds glib, but if you're going to do stuff that's a slightly difficult sell, make everything else about it easy to sell. 

Rare rep can work though. Look at Akhnaten at ENO.

There's a whole heap of repertoire, in English, by American composers that they just won't use at ENO. You've got a company in the biggest theatre in London with a magnificent chorus and orchestra and a history of having terrific music directors – albeit sometimes very short-lived – and they've not done Carlisle Floyd or Dominick Argento or Samuel Barber. They've not done Vanessa, or Antony and Cleopatra. They're happy to bring in American singers but they won't bring in American opera. This repertoire is approachable. When was the last time ENO did The Rake's Progress? It boggles my mind!

Instead of doing that, they've got a new artistic director calling Janáček fringe repertoire. It's the rep that's built that house's reputation! Jenůfa and Káťa Kabanová – that's the stuff that ENO does better than the Royal Opera.

I love ENO so much but what’s their plan? I don't think Cressida Pollock is malevolent but I think she's out of her depth. And I firmly believe that, as personable and as engaging as Daniel Kramer is, he should not be running that company. He's the wrong man for the job. Not only is he not experienced but the only times he's been in something genuinely large scale, it fell over. There's a level at which he's also irretrievably American and all the optimism on the planet won't actually get you over the line if the product is poor. In Tristan there were so many ideas, but the amount of time it took to shed those ideas when it was clear they weren't going to work took way too long. The artistic director of the company can't put their foot in their mouth that often and get away with it. I think it's a shame because he’s a personable guy who totally means well, but I don't think he has any clue long term what ENO means to its audience and that audience has been slowly but surely bleeding away.

Stuart Skelton © Simon Fernandez
Stuart Skelton
© Simon Fernandez

Which tenors were your heroes/role models?

Probably James King and Jon Vickers. I don’t think anyone would claim to have taken anything from the techniques of either of them, but one of the things, particularly about James King, was the thrill of a virile sound that didn’t ever stray into being anything less than beautifully produced. Even in the most demanding repertoire, King always had that beautiful masculinity to his voice, but it was never a masculinity that compromised in fastidious attention to really beautiful and elegant singing. To an extent that’s true of Vickers, though he was less elegant in some ways. But at the end of the day, and in the repertoire that those two and I share, you have to be fully invested in the character both dramatically and vocally – it’s the only way to make the characters really three-dimensional and palpable for the audience.

That’s not to say that King was always the most galvanising performer ever, nor is it to say that Vickers was always the most fastidious, but like all of the true greats, such as Callas and Tebaldi, you always forgive them the one arrow in their quiver that was missing – you will never get rid of all of your weaknesses. What you learn to do is to minimise those weaknesses, maximise those strengths and play to them.

Stamina is very important for all singers but particularly for Heldentenors. How do you keep your voice in good nick?

I don’t make a lot of concessions. I have the notorious 72-hour rule which predicates that before any rehearsal with orchestra and/or any performance, I forgo alcohol, including on the day of the performance. Apart from that, I don’t make any other concessions. I don’t stay out of cold weather. I don’t travel with a lot of sprays and potions. I don’t fly with a face-mask of any description, largely because what anyone does for a living – albeit opera singing or being an accountant – they do so it can afford them the lifestyle that they’re happy with. At the end of the day, I don’t live to sing. I sing to live. And when I’m not singing, my downtime proclivites are relatively well known! I don’t mind attacking the occasional bottle of Burgundy, I mix cocktails and I have a soft spot for Cuban cigars – now all of those things just need to be well-timed! If your body is healthy, your voice is healthy.

And finally, imagine you wake up as a bass or baritone. Which role would you sing?

Gurnemanz: it’s the greatest bass role ever written. If I woke up as a baritone it'd be Rigoletto.  How could you resist the temptation of singing "Cortigiani"?!