Stuart Skelton: One man, two tenors

The Australian heldentenor tells Anna Picard about cigars, being an 'aryan hunk', and the secret of singing in two places at once

A great, blond bear of an Australian, with a voice of unparalleled beauty and strength, Stuart Skelton has made his career playing the man who is loved too little, too late or not at all.

Sailing to his death in Peter Grimes, stumbling into the arms of the woman whose beauty he has destroyed in Jenufa, taking his pleasure with another man's wife in Wozzeck and Kat'a Kabanova, predestined to suffer in Die Walküre and Parsifal, he is a compelling presence. Last night, he will have watched his fiancée leave him for a ghost in Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman. This morning, however, he will be enjoying a leisurely breakfast with his sweetheart, Sarah, who writes on opera for the Australian press, and the most well-connected, hard-partying, social media-savvy plush-toy mascot in classical music: Pigmund the Rock Pig.

Chowing down on a tuna sandwich between rehearsals in a sinister, strip-lit room in Three Mills Studios, Skelton, who likes the odd cigar, is pleased as punch to be back in London, where the walk from the stage door of the Coliseum to his apartment in Southwark lasts "exactly one Cohiba long". He flew in from New York less than 24 hours earlier but doesn't seem jet-lagged. Far from melancholy or brooding, he is in his own words "pretty gregarious". (Bryn Terfel is a drinking buddy.) A foodie and amateur mixologist, Skelton meticulously documents the development of his cocktail recipes. When he makes a Negroni, he squeezes orange zest over a lighted match so that the oil puddles, just so, on the cocktail. His recipe for key lime pie Martini stipulates crushing Graham crackers "to the consistency of sand" using a bottle of Grey Goose vodka as a rolling pin. Is he a bit of a control freak? "I am a bit nuts," he admits. "I also hang my shirts left to right in colour order."

The Cohiba will have to wait until the end of the run of The Flying Dutchman. And any cocktails will be fitted around Skelton's 72-hour no-alcohol rule, before singing with an orchestra, while his Thames walk home will be spent in post-performance analysis: "You have to be realistic about what you can and can't do well. If you didn't do it well, is it fixable? If it's fixable, fix it!"

Of all voice types, his is the rarest, a true heldentenor or heroic tenor: muscular and flexible enough to ride the vast waves of Wagner's operas without flagging or fraying. Far from being an overnight sensation, the 43-year-old has worked towards this moment for decades, first as a post-graduate student in America, then in Karlsruhe and Frankfurt. Germany, he says, was a great education: "I did my first Lohengrin at 29 – but in a 1,000-seater auditorium with a really great conductor and a terrific orchestra. I have been lucky in a lot of ways. I've also got to say, never underestimate the power of saying no. It's hard. Especially when you're establishing a career. But it doesn't hurt to be unavailable occasionally."

One company he is unlikely to say no to is ENO. Dutchman didn't figure in his 2012 diary, but when ENO lost its Erik, Skelton flew to the rescue, joining the last two weeks of rehearsal only two days after singing Siegmund at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Buzzing from the pleasure of working on Dutchman with Kent, a director who has "a reason for every move", Skelton recalls stepping in as Florestan in the Vienna Staatsoper's Fidelio two days after Gösta Winbergh's death, to directions written down 20 years before: "Here's the rock you're going to be chained to. Now, go!". Wasn't it terrifying? "I've never been terrified, no."

Skelton's home is now in Florida, although he's on the road for 10 months of the year. And yet he regards ENO as his home company. Since his house debut as Laça in David Alden's Olivier-winning production of Jenufa in 2006, Grimes, Kat'a and Parsifal followed with "one of the few companies where you do a run and at the end they come and sit down and talk about future plans and those future plans come to fruition". Strange, then, to discover that he has no affinity with Janacek's music ("I just don't get it. It doesn't move me"), let alone the characters of jealous Laça and trapped Boris. Stranger still to hear him say "I like my operas to look pretty". Is he a theatrical conservative? "Yes. Absolutely."

So Campari rocks and Calixto Bieito sucks. Wittgenstein? Kinda cool. Plato? Horribly misused. Mohitos? Love them! In the course of an hour's frank conversation, mostly on the record and including a beautiful impression of Gerald Finley's Balstrode in Grimes, Skelton only misses a beat once, when I read out a comment from the ultra-critical, high-camp, New York-based opera website, Parterre Box, which described him as " a real blond nordic aryan hunk". "That's um ... that's um ... I don't get that often, to be honest," he blinks. "Nordic, I can see, but I don't think anyone's ever thought of me as a hunk!"

Maybe not. But in a field where increasing emphasis is placed on looks, Skelton's farm-boy face and Six Nations physique seem advantageous. If it is hard to imagine him as Rodolfo in La bohème or in the title role of Werther, it is easy to believe him as a tongue-tied mill-worker, a soldier, a fisherman.

This summer, the cast of ENO's Grimes will be reunited for their 24 August concert performance at the BBC Proms, with Iain Paterson (another buddy) replacing Finley as Balstrode. Britten's alienated antihero is a role that stays with Skelton. He has done it twice now with Alden, in London and Oviedo, once with Neil Armfield for Opera Australia, and will be revisiting it in Tokyo this October. His voice is probably at its finest in Grimes's aria "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades", that cool, firm, silvered sound deepening into an anguished expanse of gold, far from the pinched fluting of the archetypal English tenor. Then comes his first Hermann in The Queen of Spades, in concert, in Sydney. Another neurotic? "Yes, I'm being typecast!"

As far as Siegfried goes, he is still saying no. Along with Otello ("in a couple of years") and Tristan (2016), Hermann is one the few new roles he has said yes to, after much thought, perhaps over a martini and a cigar. What Pigmund will make of it, we'll have to wait and see.

 

The Flying Dutchman, Coliseum, London, six performances, 1-23 May (eno.org)

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