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Few organisations have done, and are doing, as much to help Australian musicians and singers build international careers through supporting their work in the UK than the Tait Memorial Trust. Founded in 1992 by Isla Baring OAM in memory of her father Sir Frank Tait and his brothers – five men whose influence on the establishment of theatre and the performing arts in Australia was profound – the Trust delivers awards and grants for postgraduate study and performance. The current list of artists, from Connor D’Netto and Jade Moffat to Andrey Lebedev and beyond is impressive enough, not to mention a list of former beneficiaries that includes Li-Wei Qin, Morgan Pearse, Jayson Gillham, Benjamin Bayl, Amy Dickson, Duncan Rock, Grant Doyle and Elena Xanthoudakis.
Perhaps surprisingly, one name you won’t see on their lists of alumni, however, is Stuart Skelton, currently Australia’s most successful operatic export and a singer whose dazzling career has taken him to all the major houses, especially those on the lookout for a voice to encompass one of Wagner’s heavyweight heroes. When Skelton agreed to place his considerable voice at their disposal for a London fundraiser, the Trust couldn’t believe their good fortune.
Stuart Skelton. Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke
“I see Isla Baring at a lot at performances around the place, and she wrote to me because she knew I was in town, and said could you do a Wagner concert,” Skelton tells me over Skype from his flat in central London. “She's a big fan of Wagner and really wanted it to be a big part of the event. We have Jayson Gillham, Debbie Humble, Liane Keegan, Kate Sheppeard – there's quite a few people involved, all of whom I think at some level have benefited from the Tait Trust in some way. It really is doing some amazing work in the UK for Australian singers.”
At the time of our interview, Skelton’s growing programme was down to include Winterstürme from Die Walküre, Lohengrin’s In fernem Land, the Act Two Liebesnacht from Tristan and more. “It’s a bit hazy at this point,” he laughs. “I don't know where the particular edit for the Tristan is up to, but I'm pretty sure that we've got at least some of the Brangane included as I think Catherine Carby is singing that. And I think I've just had Nur eine Waffe taugt from Parsifal added as well.”
In fact, Erik in The Flying Dutchman was Skelton’s first Wagner role back in 1999. Then Lohengrin, followed by the lead in Rienzi, Siegmund in Die Walküre, Parsifal and most recently Tristan. The latter role he’s now sung in Baden Baden under Sir Simon Rattle, in London at the English National Opera and to open the 2016/2017 season at the Metropolitan Opera. Next year he’ll sing it again under Asher Fisch in Perth.
Skelton as Siegmund in the Seattle Ring © Chris Bennion
Skelton is one of the most thoughtful of singers, and clearly fascinated by the mind and the artistic creations of Richard Wagner – the endlessly complex composer of some of the most ambitious works of art of the 19th century. With a generous 45 minutes of his time on offer, here are a wealth of insights as he takes us inside the challenges and pleasures to be found in a handful of Wagner’s heldentenor heroes.
Skelton on Rienzi
“I actually loved singing it. I know that [Wagner] considered it juvenilia, but I don't agree. I think Das Liebesverbot probably falls into that category, but I think Rienzi is a much more interesting piece because it still bears all of the hallmarks of Wagner's genuine love of bel canto. He wasn't a fan of Meyerbeer as a person, but he did rather like to copy the French grand opera, and of course Bellini – he was quite vocal about his love of Bellini. There's this real bel canto style to the whole thing, but every now and then, the Wagner that we're going to see in the early 1840s and then into the 1850s and 60s, makes an appearance for three or four bars. It's really fascinating to hear these big, basically Bellini melodies. The first aria that Rienzi sings, I swear to you, if it had Italian words, you'd think it was Suoni la tromba. It sounds like the Italian National Anthem! But then out of nowhere you've got these tiny little two or three bar phrases that are ‘hang onto your hats, kids’, because in Siegfried this is going to be really important. You can hear and see that he's searching for a new language. It's a remarkable piece if only for that reason – that and also, if you do it uncut, at six hours it's the longest thing he wrote! It's five arias and four ensembles, and the last thing he has to sing is Allmächt'ger Vater, the prayer that everyone's been expecting. Like Lohengrin, you get the hardest thing to sing in the last half hour.”
Skelton on Lohengrin
“Lohengrin has been with me for 17 years. I don't think the way I think about him has changed all that much. He is, for good and bad, quite a simple character. He comes into the world we see him in when he arrives in Brabant, quite naive about other people's expectations and about how things will happen. ‘Hi, I'm here to rescue you on condition that you don't ask me who I am or where I'm from,’ he says, which seems highly unreasonable – and he can't even tell you why you can't ask those questions. Inevitably, the question gets asked, and then he has to leave. He's an on-off kind of guy. A little bit black and white, but then of course he's a knight of the grail, so the code there is black and white. There's not a lot of grey involved. He's dealing with people who aren't part of the Templars, I guess, who have a much more nuanced view of the world because they live in it. I think he gets quite taken aback that treachery exists, and that people would doubt things, and I think he's genuinely quite shocked by the end. ‘I arrive on the back of a swan, and everything I've said was gonna happen, happened,’ he says. ‘What part of me telling you I was going to sort this out did you not get?’ But the most heartbreaking thing about Lohengrin is that I think he genuinely loves Elsa, I really do, and it's a real blow that he can't be with her because she went and asked the question. This was his chance, and the chance goes away.”
As Parsifal at ENO. Photo © Richard Hubert Smith
Skelton on Parsifal
"I don't think there's a parallel between Lohengrin and Parsifal – well, I don't draw one – because the Parsifal of Act One is the Lohengrin we see for the whole of the opera. The Parsifal of Act Three is a much different person. In one of the original concepts for Tristan and Isolde, Wagner had Parsifal as a silent character – the Parsifal between Acts Two and Three, the wandering Parsifal – happen upon and see Tristan at the height of his suffering, and take on part of that experience before proceeding to Monsalvat. Parsifal in Act Three is a much more fleshed out, much more weary, hard-bitten character who's now able to feel. Empathy was something that he needed to learn, even in a brutal fashion – that’s something that Siegmund goes through as well. When Parsifal comes back having retrieved the spear from Klingsor and avoided the traps of Kundry, he’s very much battle scarred. We see that too in Act One of Walküre, and we see the beginnings of battle scarring for Lohengrin in the last 15 minutes of the show. I think they're the same prototype, the same archetypal Jungian thing, just at different stages of their development.”
With Eva-Maria Westbroek and the Berlin Philharmonic in Tristan und Isolde
Skelton on Tristan
“I’ve sung Tristan 24 times and all within the last 18 months. What was I thinking? The biggest concern – and I didn't see this coming when I was preparing it – the biggest concern is Act Two, strangely enough. I know Act Three is a very, very, very extended scena, but there's something about Act Three that buoys you along for most of it. Just when you think you're going to hit the vocal wall and there'll be nothing left, suddenly he gives you a couple pages off, like he almost knew instictively what a voice could actually be driven to do. But Act Two for me is the really hard one, because the tessitura is so much more fiendish. He does make it very difficult. He's got these huge outbursts when they first see each other, and this frantic, almost falling over each other vocally. Then it gives way to the O sink' hernieder, which has to be just ineffably, sublimely sung to make the music worthwhile. And then you come out of that and it goes absolutely berserk. And when you get to the end of that, you're still not done. King Marke comes on and there's this whole sense of physical degradation and mental degradation and separation. No, Act Two was the one I didn't see coming. I guess like most Tristans you're thinking, ‘Right, Act Three, I've got to make sure that everything's set for Act Three,’ but it really is those sudden, extended outbursts in Act Two that you need to be most wary of.”
Stuart Skelton sings Wagner with Richard Peirson at St Paul’s Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge. Guests include Catherine Carby, Deborah Humble, Katrina Sheppeard, Jayson Gillham and Liane Keegan. The evening will be introduced by Richard Wagner’s great-great grandson, Antoine Wagner.