Singer's heroism stops short of naked roles
Stuart Skelton was never going to be a Rodolfo. He knew it, his singing teachers knew it. But if you have a huge tenor voice that is too big for the romantic heroes of Puccini and Verdi, what to do? For this blond and burly Sydney boy, it meant years of studying and waiting until the vocal cords were mature enough to take on the repertoire he was born to sing.
''There is no such thing as a young heldentenor,'' Skelton says, fresh from singing the title role of Peter Grimes in the prestigious London Proms at Royal Albert Hall.
The term ''heldentenor'', roughly translated as ''heroic tenor'', refers to a strong, agile voice type that can meet the superhuman demands of music by the likes of Wagner, Mahler and Strauss. The big stuff.
Maturing into his role ... Stuart Skelton rehearses with the Sydney Symphony and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Sydney Opera House this week. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Skelton is one of the world's leading heldentenors. But membership of this elite club is rarely a matter of personal choice: it takes a combination of physical attributes, stamina and smarts to reach this level.
"The whole concept of a young heldentenor is oxymoronic. The opera world is a graveyard of people who had 'heldentenor' attached to them very young," Skelton says. ''You sing whatever you can sing and whatever your voice fits into at the time. If you are, in fact, a heldentenor, that will be made clear at some point."
Skelton's first big role came at the relatively early age of 29, when he was invited to sing the title role of Lohengrin with Karlsruhe Opera in Germany. He rang his teacher to ask for advice and was told to get off the phone and get on with it. He has not looked back.
Fifteen years on, a big year looms - 2013 is the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth - and Skelton has a full diary. ''I'm only doing three [Ring cycles]: Paris, Seattle and Melbourne. And of course I'm doing Parsifal, and it's the Britten year …''
Before all that he has a new role to conquer, Herman in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. He is joining Sydney Symphony for two concert performances.
''It's a monster!'' he says. ''Herman never stops singing. But for good or bad, that seems to be the genre into which I have been thrown. So I go with it.''
The Queen of Spades is a torrid tale of love and obsession. Herman, an officer in the Russian army, is torn between his passion for another man's woman and his search for a fabled gambling formula.
Skelton is happy to be doing this new role in concert: he loves Vladimir Ashkenazy, the orchestra's principal conductor, and does not rate his own acting ability, saying he relies heavily on the music to shape his performance. The strategy obviously works but Skelton has a love-hate relationship with modern theatre. He likes a director who stretches him, and relishes physical theatre, fights and falls, but has a defiantly conservative streak.
''I love Quentin Tarantino,'' Skelton says. ''But life is too short to go and see Quentin Tarantino in opera. Clothes off, brutality and sexual violence - it has no place on the operatic stage. Unless you're doing Wozzeck or Lulu.
''I certainly would never ever consider going on stage anything other than fully clothed. And that's for the audience's benefit, rather than mine. No one wants to see me with my kit off.''
Opera traditionally prioritises voices over looks but Skelton feels times are changing and not, in his opinion, for the better.
''I understand the good intention behind wanting opera to be an equally visual medium as others,'' he says. ''I have no issue with stage directors wanting to have as much uniformity across a performance in terms of musical values and histrionic values.
''The problem for me is that technology is becoming so good that you can take people who look good and make them sound good enough to get away with it. And that's a very, very dangerous thing to do. This isn't catwalk. This is opera.''
Skelton tells how one of his more svelte colleagues, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, gets frustrated that people come to look at his body, rather than hear his voice. ''That's the advantage I have,'' he says with a grin. ''If people are coming to see me sing I know for sure that it's not because I look good in the costume.''
Stuart Skelton appears with the Sydney Symphony on Saturday and Monday at Sydney Opera House.