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Stuart Skelton has taken Australia’s national opera company to task for what he sees as repetitive programming, utilising government subsidy to produce musicals and casting “second rate” international singers over home grown talent. Sydney-born Skelton, today’s most sought after Tristan who has received excellent notices recently in London and New York, made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with Mark Pullinger at online classical music site Bachtrack. In the same interview, he also took aim at English National Opera’s new Artistic Director Daniel Kramer and the senior management team at London’s troubled ‘second’ opera house.
Stuart Skelton. Photo by Sim Cannetty-Clarke
“How many times can you do Gale Edwards' Bohème? Four times in six seasons?” he replied, when asked why he wasn’t performing any more with Opera Australia. “And it's not selling any more. The subscribers aren't going back because they're getting the same stuff over and over and over again. Okay, they've increased ticket sales but they've increased ticket sales to My Fair Lady. I understand that it's paying the bills and that's terrific but I have a massive problem with any opera company that's collecting government subsidy for something that's commercially successful. Are they giving that part of their subsidy back? Not likely! That's a travesty.”
It’s no secret in the industry that Skelton’s relationship with OA in recent years has been strained (he last appeared as Siegmund in the 2013 Melbourne Ring Cycle and many questioned why he hadn’t been cast to reprise the role last year). One of his beefs is with diminishing opportunities for Australian singers at home, a concern picked up in last year’s National Opera Review.
“There’s no way they can justify laying off this wonderful ensemble of singers who form the absolute heart and soul and guts of the company, put them all on part-time contracts, then fly in every second-rate singer from anywhere to sing stuff when we've got people in Australia who sing those roles just as well,” he said.
Opera Australia were quick to respond, adding a list of “factual corrections” to the online article. “La Bohème sold 92% of capacity this season,” they pointed out, maintaining that “no government funding is spent on musicals. In fact, musicals subsidise the opera” and that in 2017 “94% of the Principal singers employed by Opera Australia are Australian.”
Opera Australia's King Roger. Photo by Keith Saunders
Skelton gave OA credit for programming a new production of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger, “but let's face it nobody's going to go,” he said. “OA have only got themselves to blame at a certain level because they don't take that repertoire to the audience. They expect the audience to come to them. Opera companies make the mistake of taking slightly off-beat repertoire and instead of the off-beatness being the attraction, they've taken it and married it to a completely wacko production, so you've turned people off twice. If you're going to do stuff that's not slap bang in the middle of the repertoire, then for God's sake don't let Calixto Bieito touch it. Or Damiano Michieletto. If you're going do William Tell, don't piss your audience off. I know it sounds glib, but if you're going to do stuff that's a slightly difficult sell, make everything else about it easy to sell.”
OA countered by offering the statistic that “nearly 14,000 people are seeing King Roger in Australia,” and pointing out that Calixto Bieto has not worked in Australia, while Damiano Michieletto has directed an acclaimed production of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci for Opera Australia this year.
While the Bachtrack interview offered many interesting insights into the singer’s inspirations, his relationships with directors, the European concept of Regietheater and his approach to the role of Tristan in the various productions that he has done to date, the headlines were grabbed by his concerns for London’s English National Opera, a house at which he has enjoyed a series of artistic triumphs in the past.
“I love ENO so much but what’s their plan?” he queried. “I don't think Cressida Pollock [ENO’s CEO] is malevolent but I think she's out of her depth. And I firmly believe that, as personable and as engaging as Daniel Kramer is, he should not be running that company. He's the wrong man for the job. Not only is he not experienced but the only times he's been in something genuinely large scale, it fell over.”
With Heidi Melton in ENO's Tristan and Isolde. Photo by Catherine Ashmore
In fact, Kramer directed Skelton only last year in a production that many critics, Limelight included, found problematic. “There's a level at which [Kramer] is also irretrievably American and all the optimism on the planet won't actually get you over the line if the product is poor,” Skelton went on. “In Tristan there were so many ideas, but the amount of time it took to shed those ideas when it was clear they weren't going to work took way too long. The artistic director of the company can't put their foot in their mouth that often and get away with it. I think it's a shame because he’s a personable guy who totally means well, but I don't think he has any clue long term what ENO means to its audience and that audience has been slowly but surely bleeding away.”