In Conversation: Stuart Skelton

In Conversation: Stuart Skelton

On Wagner, musical preparation and the importance of text.

In Conversation: Stuart Skelton

On Wagner, musical preparation and the importance of text.

A huge congratulations on the new record, Stuart! This disc in part traces Wagner's development as a composer across the span of his career, beginning with Rienzi and ending with the Wesendonck Lieder. Can you tell me about your relationship with the composer; when you first heard and performed his work, and how it has influenced you as a performer?

Ah, I was first exposed to Wagner at Graduate School in the US, when I was completing my vocal studies there. It’s important to remember that I had no idea at the time that Wagner would figure so heavily in my future. My first Wagner performances were in 1999 in Strasbourg as Erik in The Flying Dutchman, closely followed by Lohengrin in 2000. I don’t honestly know if it has influenced me as a performer because I tend to approach all my performances the same way: to let the composer’s reaction to the libretto and the SCORE guide me and move me in a way that allows me to then move an audience in the same way.

You have performed Wagner's operatic roles in houses across the world, some of which feature on this record. Did your preparation have to shift at all to get ready to sing the featured arias for recording in comparison with how you would approach performing them on stage?

Not really, no. Certainly, with a recording there are many more opportunities to go back and make very fine adjustments to one’s performance, which you can’t do live! But otherwise, I think the total investment that this repertoire requires, both vocally and histrionically, is the same across any platform.

Speaking of the recording experience, what was the process of working on the repertoire with Asher Fisch and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra? Do you have much time for rehearsal before the microphones get turned on, or does everyone have to go into the recording space completely prepared?

The process was truly revelatory; Asher and I have been friends and colleagues since 2003 and he is a consummate and passionate Wagnerian, so we have a certain innate understanding of each other and what each of us love about this music. WASO are a truly wonderful orchestra and their relationship with Asher is a joy to watch - the way they respond to each other is really quite remarkable.

In terms of preparation, obviously the repertoire for this recording has been under my and Asher’s skin for some time, separately, and you go into a recording of this nature like you would a concert performance. It’s all on the line every time. There was opportunity to rehearse each piece before we started recording, but I think the mics were ALWAYS on, and it’s the axiom, I think: “Always assume a mic is live.”

The Three Poems of Fiona Macleod by Charles Griffes and Samuel Barber's Sure On This Shining Night also feature on Shining Knight - can you tell me about how you came to choose these works and why they fit so well musically alongside the Wagner?

Certainly, the Griffes works have held a place in my heart since grad school and when the opportunity came to make additions to the Wagnerian repertoire that we’d already decided, it was a great way to bring these relatively unknown works into some spotlight. Griffes was born the year after Wagner died, but Wagner’s musical legacy was broad and deep and it certainly plays out in Griffes settings of these songs, which are at the same time quite perfumed in a very French, impressionistic way and yet still thrumming with post-Wagnerian German romanticism, like Korngold and Zemlinsky.

The Barber piece was actually suggested by Toby Chadd, at that time the head of ABC Classics, and although the piece is unapologetically American in its harmonic language, it does provide, I think, a genuinely lovely coda to the significant Sturm und Drang of the rest of the album. It also ended up, serendipitously, the inspiration for the title of the CD.

In August, you will be performing Tristan and Isolde in its entirety with WASO. From a musical perspective, how do you get prepared for a role as big as this one? Does your process differ depending on the score, or do you stick with one method regardless of the work?

My “method” never changes, although in this case, having done Tristan a number of times before in the last 2 years, the method was a bit shorter. You prepare for Tristan like you would prepare for anything: by getting it under your skin in a way that makes you wake up with the music in your head at annoyingly inappropriate times.

The Wesendonck Lieder will feature in your upcoming solo recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre, alongside other little-known or rarely performed art song and lieder gems. What interests you about art song and giving performances of works that aren't frequently heard on the concert stage?

If I’m honest, some of the joy of a recital lies in the fact that so often people are SURPRISED that I sing recitals at all, the assumption apparently being that with the repertoire I sing, scaling my voice back to more intimate repertoire and venues being a stretch too far! But largely, it’s the opportunity to sing repertoire that genuinely moves me, not only Wesendonck, which is an obvious touchstone, but also utter perfection of the Korngold cycle, Lieder eines Abschieds (Songs of Farewell), which is rarely performed and, I think, almost never by a male singer. Certainly the Grainger songs are totally fabulous and a little zany, not unlike Percy himself, and the 4 poems of Victor Hugo in this revised setting by Liszt are truly incredible songs, with both soaring melody, delicacy and very cheeky humour. And the Poema en forma de Canciones are full-blooded, Iberian joy and include a stunning, bravura solo for my brilliant collaborator, Richard Peirson.

For developing singers working on their own art song repertoire, how do you approach curating a program of works? Do you take one piece as a springboard for building the program, or does a central theme help you decide what to perform?

It will be different for each singer. In this case, it was the Korngold Lieder that I wanted to give a platform to and then build around them, from similar periods from different parts of the musical globe. It is sort of an essay on the transition from romanticism to modernism, in a way. Ha, I should have titled the recital “The Modern Romantic”. Opportunity missed there, I’d say.

Finally, do you have a piece of advice for young musicians approaching lieder or art song for the first time?

Yes, indeed I do. The text is EVERYTHING, right up to the point when it’s not. The text came FIRST, and the music is the composer’s reaction to that text. Trust your composer. After all, some of the great poets trusted them with their words! We should show them the same courtesy.

Stuart Skelton's debut solo recording for ABC Classics, Shining Knight, is now available to stream and purchase. See him live in recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre on the 3rd August, 2018. Featured image of Stuart as Peter Grimes for ENO (Clive Barda).