March 2006

A judiciously planned career path


When Stuart Skelton left San Francisco in 1995, he had already laid the firm foundations of his opera career.

At only 24, the sturdy blond Australian tenor had completed the San Francisco Opera Center Merola training program and an advanced Adler Fellowship for further study and had made a widespread American tour with Western Opera Theater in Le Nozze di Figaro. And he had covered Sergei Larin as the Prince in the SFO production of Rusalka with Renée Fleming, an experience that proved precious when he sang the role himself in 2005 at the Paris Opéra.

To climax his opening career chapter, he placed first in the prestigious Belvedere competition in Vienna. Being an Adler Fellow had helped him to become better known at home, securing him roles in La Traviata and Tosca in Australia. The Belvedere brought him to the attention of the principal European casting directors.

Profiting from those contacts, Skelton went back to Europe, to audition all over France and Germany. The result was so many job offers that Stuart and his wife Meredith decided to move to Vienna. They have lived in Europe ever since, making many forays to other continents for engagements. If Skelton has any engagement longer than a few days away from home, Meredith goes with him.

When he returned to San Francisco in 2005, it was on a resounding note of triumph. In 10 years, he had become an internationally known heldentenor, invited by the San Francisco Symphony to perform the title role in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex.

The San Francisco Symphony performance of Oedipus Rex:
Stuart Skelton as Oedipus, Ayk Martirossian as Tiresias
Skelton with Michelle DeYoung as Jocasta

The composer's Le Rossignol formed the other half of a Stravinsky evening double bill "semi-staged" in Davies Hall, the 3,200-seat home of the SF Symphony. To its music director and conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, belongs credit for the enterprising notion of semi-staging. In orchestral concert halls everywhere, soloists usually perform in front of the orchestra or stand to one side. Here the balconies, boxes and stalls of the vast auditorium and the entire stage, its side balconies and the huge organ pipes above and behind it became a theatre not for excerpts but for entire operatic works.

They are usually presented outside the regular symphony subscription season and are always sell-outs. The orchestra is seated in various parts of the stage, often on different levels. Performers are in costume; set designs may be simple or elaborate with lighting, projections and even special effects - a long way from merely putting a trumpeter on a balcony or a soprano on a bench.

In his 10 years as SF Symphony music director, Tilson Thomas has always employed outstanding international artists as performers and designers. His first semi-staging was of the little-known Stravinsky opera Mavra in a brilliantly elaborate production in Russian.

It was so successful that he went on to produce an opera every year, arriving at such works as Fidelio and Der fliegende Holländer. Those operas in Davies Hall had so much visual excitement and dramatic power that they outshone full-scale productions in the War Memorial Opera House, which happens to be across the street.

For Le Rossignol in December 2005, the Nightingale herself appeared inside a huge luminous moon suspended magically at the rear of the stage while a dozen singers, actors and dancers, all in gloriously Oriental costumes, enacted Stravinsky's musical fairy tale. This time the orchestra was barely visible in a distant landscape beyond the moon.

The opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, adapted from Sophocles, was performed as Stravinsky intended, with a narrator, here actor Roger Rees, speaking in the audience's language while the musical passages were sung in Latin. Men of the superb SF Symphony Chorus took the traditional role of the Greek Chorus, singing from stage balconies, in masks and with one red glove apiece.

Stuart Skelton had performed the role of Oedipus recently with the Boston Symphony Orchestra which was why San Francisco called on him to replace Anthony Dean Griffey, giving him only ten days' notice.

"Skelton rose superbly to the challenge of the role," said one critic, "his singing was sinewy and clear." Michael Tilson Thomas simply asked that he be notified whenever Skelton had any time available, adding the word "forever".

Skelton found that "MTT is such a great musician, so enthusiastic and detailed and at the same time he gives each one of singers their head in interpretive ways. He's exacting and fabulous to work with, knows how to show you what he wants. This is a wonderful production."

When the Oedipus call came, Skelton was about to leave his current home in Wiesbaden, Germany, with Meredith for a Caribbean cruise. Recently he had performed Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in New York's Carnegie Hall with mezzo Michelle De Young, who was an impressive Jocasta in San Francisco.

Skelton had earned his holiday cruise. He had been working almost continuously for years. His career illustrates the importance of intelligent planning - finding expert managers after trial and error and learning when to be guided by them - hard work and hard study, some risk-taking and a good deal of just plain luck.

His European career began in a big way with a Lohengrin in Karlsruhe. Then, within the same 10-day period, by chance he made his Vienna State Opera debut as Florestan, replacing Gösta Winbergh who had just died, and then his Berlin State Opera debut. During a Berlin Wagner festival with Daniel Barenboim, Skelton was to have sung Erik in Der fliegende Holländer but the Lohengrin became ill so he stepped into that role. Again it was Skelton's luck to be in the right place at the right time, knowing the right role.

And it happened the same way with his debut in Leipzig as Don José. Because he was there and had worked with the conductor, he jumped into a Wagner festival to replace a well-known German tenor in the first act of Die Walküre.

Still in his early years in Germany, Skelton moved from Karlsruhe to Frankfurt for an offer he couldn't refuse: Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Parsifal, and Peter Grimes. Grimes is a role he calls "one of my ‘life parts’, one I would like to do forever. If the opportunity comes again, I'll jump at it. It was a real seminal experience for me."

Not yet 35 when he first sang Grimes, Skelton has given much thought to that complex character, striving to create an interpretation which is not like Pears' or Vickers' or anyone else's but his own. He does the same exploring, deepening study and reflection with operas such as Frau.

Skelton also sang his first Laca in Jenufa at Frankfurt Opera, an important house not very far from Wiesbaden. He loves the new beautiful theatre and the company. He has made an arrangement he calls "ideal" to do several operas a year there. The rest of the time is his own.

Skelton is a proud Australian: his country comes first in his official bio. And he is an Opera Australia loyalist. He is invited frequently and would love to spend time there each year, he says, if Opera Australia could plan far enough in advance. As with any opera company, the problem is to be certain years ahead of adequate funding.

But it worked out in 2000 for him to be there for what he calls "a really huge run of Carmen. They did 18 performances!" Don José is another of Skelton's beloved roles. (He returns to it at SFO in November.)

"Considering their funding problem and the necessarily small size of the staff, Opera Australia is doing a spectacular job," he believes. "Their musical standards give no quarter to anyone in the world. The core of salaried artists in Australia is a really great bunch of singers. So they've got everything in place. Come the day when they have a really secure financial basis, they're ready to go. Every time they get an injection of federal or state money, they do wonderful, wonderful productions.

"Obviously I would love to be there if they could come up with something they thought was appropriate for me and I was interested in doing. It's not that Opera Australia hasn't asked me about my availability but the trouble is fitting it in because they're planning for maybe one season in advance and by then I'm just not available. I would love to make myself available, to set some time aside every year and come back."

In 2004 he was at the State Opera of South Australia singing Siegmund in the three Ring Cycles and enjoying it all enormously. "They spent $15 million and it showed," he says. "It was the most spectacular thing I've ever done. In the wonderful Adelaide Festival Theatre with its 2800 seats you can do fabulous things like that.

"It won't come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that I'm a massive Wagner fan," Skelton says, "but to sing in the entire Ring! That's something else!" It was surely not his last: he'll be in a new Ring in Hamburg in three years and has high hopes that the Adelaide production will be revived.

Meantime, leaving Wagner and Strauss for a while, Skelton was in Perth last month at the International Arts Festival for a role debut as Samson in Samson et Dalila (in concert). Recently he has had his first inquiries about Siegfrieds and Tristans and Tannhäusers. But he continues to follow an intelligently and judiciously planned career path.

He is bound to reach those roles but for the present he is staying happily with Siegmunds and Lohengrins.

"To me Siegfried and Tristan are Everest," he says, "because of the nature of their vocal requirements. And I have a theory. If you're going to sing Tristan, if you're going to sing Siegfried, don't bother unless you are going to be the best one going. Once you're out there, it's not likely you can do the Lohengrins again. You're out there for good."

Copyright © 2006 Opera~Opera (Pellinor) Pty. Ltd..

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