A lover of fast cars, cigars and cocktails, the Australian operatic tenor Stuart Skelton, 52, is one of the world’s most exciting singers, acclaimed for his epic Wagner roles and as a brilliant Peter Grimes in Britten’s opera, a role he will reprise in Munich next year, with Edward Gardner conducting. Resident in Florida, married to an Icelandic violinist, Skelton might be driven by adrenaline but he has enough patience to make a classic manhattan from scratch. He will star at the Last Night of the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, next month.
Simon Rattle recently said he felt uneasy about the “jingoistic tendencies” of the Last Night of the Proms. Presumably you don’t share that feeling?
As a colonial kid growing up in Australia, I’ve always loved the Last Night – an internationally iconic event. I still do. Given the past 18 月, it’s a chance to enjoy the event for what it is – a wrap party for the biggest music festival on the planet. As for flag-waving, people love it or hate it, they do it or they don’t. I’m not here to judge. I’m just incredibly excited to be singing in this once-in-a-lifetime event. As an antipodean, it has to be high on my bucket list, and it’s a fantastic honour.
What can you reveal about the Last Night? I’m guessing there’s Wagner?
はい, given so much of my singing life is around Wagner, I’m glad it’s included. It’s the meat of my career. I’m happy to flex my Wagnerian muscles and show it’s not all loud and stentorian. But I think there might be some Percy Grainger too, and he was Australian! There are a few surprises in the second half. I’m not saying what.
You’re a heldentenor, a rare and powerful voice type…
Basically it means “heroic tenor”, and it tends to be a feature of German romantic repertoire – especially Wagner. You have to have enough noise to come over a full orchestra for four or five hours. Singers are like athletes doing long-distance competitions. You get to the point where you’ve reached your physical limits. You hit the wall. Then it’s a mental game of trying to dig deep into your technical resources to keep going. The first time, it’s totally terrifying. It has happened to me towards the end of Tristan. Then you have to go back, practise, make a psychological plan so that when it next happens – and it will – you don’t panic.
Does it happen when you sing Britten’s complex and damaged fisherman, Peter Grimes?
番号, not technically. But yes, emotionally. You have to take the audience to the edge of the abyss with you, and when you jump, you pull them in too. It you don’t, it doesn’t work.
Lockdown has been a bad time for all musicians. How have you coped?
The glib answer, at first, was alcohol – probably true for many of us in those first months, when our entire schedule for the next year was wiped out. As freelancers, it was frightening. My wife Ása [Guðjónsdóttir] a violinist in the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, wasn’t playing either. After the first lockdown we went from Florida to Reykjavík. I started to learn Icelandic. I’m not bad at languages, but this is the hardest I’ve ever tried. Some of the grammar! I’m working at it.
And did you keep singing in those months without performances?
最初は, not at all. I couldn’t even open an opera score. But I’ve been teaching, in Cincinnati – where I studied as a postgrad myself back in the 1990s – and in Reykjavík, and that forced me to have a bit of a reset. It got me back into singing, shook the barnacles off the hull.
Apart from the music you’re working on, what do you listen to?
I’m a big fan of British electronica stuff from the late 1970s, early 1980s – the Human League, Joy Division, Pet Shop Boys. I guess it was all kicked off by Kraftwerk, and not possible without Pink Floyd, or Stockhausen or Steve Reich. It’s the music I grew up with as a teenager. But I listen to a lot of Bill Evans and Django Reinhardt, and symphonic stuff: Bruckner, Mahler, especially Sibelius. Go and see a Nordic landscape, a still lake, snow-frosted mountains, fir trees, and that music, monumental and melancholy, all makes sense.
You’re a singer, with a precious voice. What’s with the cigar-smoking?
There’s no inhaling. 私のために, it forces you to take your time, to slow down. A really nice cigar can take upwards of 40 minutes from lighting to stubbing it out. You just focus on that little ember at the end. But you have to be moderate, and very disciplined. I don’t smoke within 10 days of a rehearsal, let alone a performance. It’s a discretionary expense and I can tell you it’s a while since I bought any…
You’re well known in musical circles for being an ace mixologist. Could you recommend a cocktail to cheer any world-weary 観察者 readers?
In hot weather, a negroni is pretty much the best thing you can do with gin. But as the weather cools, do something that takes you more than five seconds to whip up, an old fashioned, or a Manhattan. I’m a fan of classic cocktails that take a bit of time and effort. Soaking the sugar cube in the bitters, then muddling it in a glass till it’s a paste, and going to the trouble of getting the orange zest off the orange… it’s incredibly rewarding. It forces you to pay attention to the thing in front of you. I may be a bit of an adrenaline junkie but I need my downtime.