In February, English National Opera made its big screen debut when David Alden’s hit production of Britten’s Peter Grimes was beamed live to over 300 cinemas. Stuart Skelton’s performances of the title role in this production have garnered international acclaim. Last week, as part of Opera Month, we heard from his other half, Sarah Noble, on the experience of watching the production (more well known to her than most) from the comfort of the cinema. Stuart, who has just won the Male Singer of the Year award at the 2014 Opera Awards, here tells us what is like being in front of the HD cameras.

Stuart Skelton © Peter Havas
Stuart Skelton
© Peter Havas

Have you noticed a difference in the way productions are directed when HD cameras are in the House? 

To be honest, not really, although of course this Grimes is the first HD broadcast in which I’ve been involved. And let’s face it, I don’t think anybody was ever seriously considering trying, or wanting, to change the way David Alden directed the show. Actually I think David was a bit sceptical about having cameras on the stage but the cinema guys managed to smuggle a cameraman into the chorus for a bunch of rehearsals without David even noticing, so once they’d got away with that, he left them to it. But no, there was no real difference to me in the way it was directed, and certainly no difference in the way we all played it. For me the whole idea of the cinema concept is that people in movie theatres have as close as is humanly possible to the theatrical experience, so there’s no point trying to be more “cinematic” or anything like that, you just do it the way you always do it and hope that that comes across well on screen.

What do you think are the advantages of HD relays to a singer?

Well it’s kind of cool walking through Leicester Square and seeing yourself on a cinema poster! But the exposure is great, if a little daunting. And if it’s a role which is particularly important to you, which Grimes very much is for me, it is nice to have a chance to share that in a rather wider forum. I’m still holding out hope that this Grimes might make it to cinemas in Australia so that my family could go and see it! And I guess, though of course I haven’t seen myself in HD (about which I am happy!), that in some ways cinema is even more effective than the theatre for getting across those nuances and that really fine edge that we all try to bring all of our performances. Obviously we try to get everything to travel as far over the footlights as possible but there is a level at which it’s nice to think that the cameras can do a bit of that work for you.

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

Is the popularity of HD broadcasts having an effect on the style of productions staged?

You’re probably asking the wrong person! This is my first HD experience, and it’s been quite a few years now since I’ve seen one in a cinema, so I can’t say I’ve really been following any trends in that sort of thing. To be fair, I guess any time an opera house does something which is massively successful, they’re going to want to recreate that success, so maybe that could affect the style of productions. One of the criticisms of The Met’s Ring was that it was a much more satisfying experience in the cinema than it was in the actual opera house, at least visually, so I guess that at a certain level there are some directors for whom the experience is becoming primarily a cinematic one. I don’t know that this is particularly a trend, nor do I know whether the criticism is valid or not, as I only saw it live.

What hazards have you come across when performing for the big screen?

No more hazards than I do every time I’m on stage, which is to say I have a habit of breaking parts of the set and myself… although I did have to wear not one but TWO microphone packs for this broadcast, because apparently there was a concern that because I’m running around all night and being doused in water and so on, the first one might die and they wanted a back up. My partner, Sarah, keeps telling this is because I’m just so butch that one microphone won’t do, but I’m pretty sure it’s just because I tend to sweat a LOT! Of course, being a “pushed lyric” perhaps the two microphones were to compensate for my lack of vocal heft!

Stuart Skelton (Grimes) and Timothy Kirrage (John) © Robert Workman
Stuart Skelton (Grimes) and Timothy Kirrage (John)
© Robert Workman

People go along to their local cinema to watch you in HD. What would you say to them to convince them to take the next step and come into the opera house itself?

I think basically that the major reason to take that next step – and I assume we’re talking about people here who may only have seen opera in HD and have not been able or willing to come to an opera house yet – is that you get to be in the same room as all that music and experience it entirely through your own filter rather than somebody else’s. No matter how beautifully filmed and directed an HD production is, it’s still essentially another person telling you where to look and when. And the same, though not so many people talk about this, is true of the sound: trust me, you really don’t know what a singer sounds like, either in and of themselves or in relation to their colleagues and the orchestra, until you’ve heard them live. Besides, the only reason HD can exist in the first place is because people keep supporting live opera as well. If audiences stop coming then there’ll be nothing to film, simple as that.

As long as the cinema version of opera doesn’t become the rule, as opposed to the exception, I think it’s a wonderful thing. I’m always wary of any technology that compensates for the lack of something live, whatever that lacking something might be. It is incredibly important to ensure that for those performances that are relayed, the focus and concentration is on the live, in-theatre performance and that the cinema experience doesn’t become the raison d’être of the whole business. It’s a live performance brought to a screen, not a film that happens to happens to have a live audience somewhere in a theatre (as opposed to a cinema).


Our thanks to Stuart for answering our questions and our hearty congratulations on his Opera Award.