LONDON (Reuters) - Some opera tenors have all the plush roles and get to kiss the divas, but when Australian tenor Stuart Skelton takes the stage, he’s often cast as the lout who abuses women and children, or as a Teutonic hero with more brawn than brains.
“I keep getting typecast as all these broken characters, because I don’t really do romantic leads very well,” Skelton, 43, said in an interview as he prepared for an English National Opera (ENO) production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”.
He sings the role of the huntsman Erik, whose girl jumps off a cliff to show her devotion not to him, but to the accursed ship’s captain of the opera’s title.
“I’m the ‘before shot’ in the romantic lead pictures - here’s the romantic lead before he went to Jenny Craig (weight loss centers) for three months,” Skelton, who is no Pavarotti but could easily pass for a rugby player, said with a laugh.
“You know, you’ve got to be a credible hero at some level, so that’s why they usually hand me a sword and say, ‘Go kill some stuff’.”
A lot of the slaying he’s done over the years, since he made his debut in a leading role in the late 1990s, has been of critics, who don’t seem to be able to get enough of him.
The reviews were sensational when Skelton sang the lead of the child-exploiting fisherman in the ENO production of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” in 2009, and which he will reprise in a concert version for this year’s BBC Proms, and there were raves again when he began the current run of “The Flying Dutchman”.
“Skelton’s Erik, beautifully voiced and phrased, has rarely been bettered,” critic Tim Ashley wrote in The Guardian.
This could all go to the head of a self-categorized “heldentenor”, a German term which roughly translates as “heroic tenor” and usually means someone whose voice ranges from baritone to tenor but, perhaps more importantly, has the stamina and lung power to sing Wagner.
Skelton does a lot of Wagner, including a “Flying Dutchman” act of his own, with his last-minute engagement by ENO to sing Erik meaning he has had to commute, sometimes to get there the next day, between London and New York, where he sang Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walkure” at The Met.
That is indeed heady stuff but what Skelton says he is looking forward to is taking off most of the month of June so that he and his partner, who makes her living writing for music publications, can be together at their home in Orlando, Florida, where Skelton, who avoids alcohol like a curse while on the road for its drying effect on the vocal cords, says what he likes to do is “drink, and that’s not a joke”.
“It’s nice to have a margarita at 11 o’clock in the morning and not care,” he says.
Here’s what else he had to say about what it takes to be a heldentenor, how he shakes off some of the gloomy roles he sings, and one or two of his cocktail favorites:
Q: What makes a “heldentenor”, and why isn’t Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez one while you are?
A: “I don’t know whether it’s so much a physique thing as a providential physiology of the instrument, and I think the physique and the instrument are things that are separable. At the end of the day, even if I looked like Juan Diego - and there are some days I do wish I looked like Juan Diego and somebody said, ‘Okay, insert incredibly cool-looking tenor here’ - assuming I had the same vocal mechanism, I’d still end up singing the same stuff because that’s what my voice does.”
Q: So heldentenors are born to the breed, with, say, a Rheingold spoon in their mouth?
A: “I’ve been dealing with this recently, I did a master class in New Zealand, and Twitter feed for ENO for an hour, and a couple of people said, ‘I’m a young heldentenor’ and I think that’s oxymoronic. I don’t think you can be a young heldentenor, I think you’re either a young tenor or a heldentenor, but you’re not both....The concept of a young heldentenor scares me a little bit. I don’t think heldentenors specialize until much later in life.”
Q: It must be hard being typecast as the sociopath fisherman Grimes or the face-slasher Laca in Janacek’s “Jenufa”. How do you get out of role?
A: “Coming away emotionally from ‘Peter Grimes’, some nights you sing it and you come offstage after that final scene before the chorus comes back on, sometimes in two or three minutes everything’s back with your system and sometimes it’s not. I don’t really know what makes the difference between some nights it washes off really easily and sometimes it takes a little while, but I very rarely take it home. It never lasts longer than getting out of costume and showering, all those sorts of things help. And of course, if it’s been a good night there’s the euphoria of it having been a great performance, which is a great counterbalance.”
Q: Roles like that could lead a lesser man to drink. You told one interviewer about a “breakfast martini”, made with bacon and egg white, but what’s in the drinks cabinet for Orlando this coming June?
A: “I do make cocktails, I’m a big fan of cocktails and I love it there. It gets unbearably warm but I love it. And I could have a margarita but it’s usually mandarin vodka, ruby grapefruit juice and sage leaves. Crush them just a little... with ice.”
(Editing by Paul Casciato)
reporting by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato