For its first major event of 2018, Brisbane Festival has announced that Australian-born, international star Heldentenor Stuart Skelton will travel to Queensland for two semi-staged concerts of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes – the first time he’s performed his signature role in Australia since Neil Armfield’s 2009 production for Opera Australia.

Stuart Skelton, Peter GrimesStuart Skelton as Peter Grimes. Photo © Clive Barda

The performances of an opera last seen in Brisbane a remarkable 60 years ago this year will be a co-production with Opera Queensland, Philip Bacon AM, QPAC and the QSO. “Peter Grimes is the defining British Opera of the 20th century,” said Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director Patrick Nolan. “This epic, semi-staged performance is a rare opportunity to see one of the great operas in Brisbane – FOMO is quite justified in this case.”

In order to pull it off, Skelton will be jetting into Brisbane during a break in rehearsals for Wagner’s Die Walküre at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, but Brisbane Festival Artistic Director David Berthold believes it will be well worth the travel. “Stuart is indisputably the finest Peter Grimes on the planet,” he said, describing the performances as a coup. “I heard him sing it six months ago, and it was the greatest musical experience of my life.”

Recent reviews would agree, with Georgia Rowe for Opera News writing of San Francisco Opera performances that “Stuart Skelton’s magnetic performance captured Grimes’s blunt, looming physicality and wounded fragility in equal measure. Skelton’s tenor is astonishingly virile – stunning in its power at forte, softly sensitive in “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” and honeyed in the lyrical passages describing his dream of love for Ellen Orford. His early scenes projected a blunt, defiant misanthrope given to quicksilver flashes of rage, and his final scene – a wrenching descent into madness – was shattering.”

Skelton first sang the role in 2004, when he was a principal artist at Oper Frankfurt, and since then has performed the role almost 50 times. “There’s always something new you discover; a turn of phrase that’s slightly different or a different emotional resonance,” he says. “It’s rarely something you plan for. In the heat of a performance, a single word may take on incredible importance and you invest in that and just go with it.”

Stuart Skelton, Peter GrimesStuart Skelton as Peter Grimes. Photo © Opera Australia

He’s also of the belief that the role’s vocal hurdles have been sometimes over-emphasised. “Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t agree that it’s a difficult sing; anyone who has the notes can sing the role,” he says. “It’s beautifully written for the voice; Britten knew what a singer could and could not do. It’s challenging from a performing point of view, because you need to be able to take yourself to some very uncomfortable places. To the edge of the abyss. It needs to be physically painful for audience to watch the disintegration of Grimes.”

From the Metropolitan Opera to Baden-Baden, Skelton has been notching up successes of late in Wagnerian roles  – notably Tristan, a role he will sing in Perth this year – but that doesn’t mean he can’t still enjoy the subtleties of Britten’s complex antihero. “I sing Wagner the same as I do Britten and vice versa,” he says. “People are used to the mantra that Wagner needs to be sung loudly and at full-voice at all times but I don’t agree with that. If you sing Wagner the way he intended it, you don’t need to ‘scream’ it at anyone, ever. Britten doesn’t have to be huge. There are big outbursts, but so much is about navigating the incredibly delicate, ethereal moments that make the outbursts stand out.”

The two concerts will feature 18 top-shelf soloists, the Opera Queensland Chorus and the QSO under the baton of rising star Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald, with (“semi”) staging by UK director Daniel Slater. British soprano Sally Matthews will sing the role of Grimes’ friend, the sympathetic school teacher Ellen Orford, while British baritone Mark Stone will sing pragmatic and bluff-hearted Captain Balstrode. Other roles will be taken by Australian singers including Michael Honeyman (the apothecary Ned Keene), Jacqueline Dark (the morphine-addled busy-body, Mrs ‘Nabob’ Sedley), Brad Daley (Methodist preacher Bob Boles), Katie Stenzel (one of Auntie’s ‘nieces’) and Jud Arthur (the lawyer Swallow).

“Expect to go away forever changed,” says Skelton, a man who should know by now. “It’s a piece that does that to you, it really does, both musically and dramatically. Audiences will leave wondering why it’s taken 60 years for Grimes to come back.”

300 pre-sale tickets for the performance on September 20 go on sale from 9am Friday March 9.

General tickets will be released for sale at 9am Wednesday 4 April via