Interview with Stuart Skelton – Peter Grimes returns to English National Opera on 29 January 2014 – “It seems to have struck a chord with pretty much everyone… We are all very excited to get this thing on its feet and get that curtain up!”

Written by: Ben Hogwood

Stuart Skelton Interview

22 January 2014 – The Coliseum, London


Stuart Skelton. Photograph: John Wright

David Alden’s production of Benjamin Britten’s most successful opera, Peter Grimes, is returning to ENO, five years after it was an enormous success in 2009. Much of the cast are returning too, among them Stuart Skelton, who will reprise the title role. We reflect on the impact of that initial production, and on how Grimes has been close-by ever since. “It seems to have struck a chord with pretty much everyone, which is a nice feeling”, Stuart says modestly, “and I’ve done it almost every year since then! The role has been very kind to me, and Peter’s been with me for quite some time now, so it is a really great and very special thing to come back with this production and in this house. It is quite a privilege, I’ve got to say.”

Has anything about his interpretation changed since the first run? He laughs. “Well my knees are five years older! It is still a very physical role, but that’s more about icing them down after the show. I don’t think it has, really. So much of the interpretation grew out of this production as we were rehearsing the first time round in 2009, and everything came together so organically that there is still a lot of that under the surface. When you come back to the production, with the cast almost identical apart from a couple of changes, those things that just became part of the interpretation are really easily accessed. There are not a lot of changes, to be honest. I was talking to Ed Gardner about this. We didn’t know, in 2009, how this was going to go, doing it for the first time. Now we know, based on how successful it was at the time for everybody, that with great concentration and commitment we can have an amazing result, and to find those places that last time we didn’t know we were going to be quite as effective, and nail them down – it means we can be really specific. It gives you the freedom to let the music and the story happen more. I think that is the largest part that is a little different. We now have a much better understanding of what a treasure we have in our hands, and how best to really show every facet of it to its best possible outcome.”

We move on to reflect on when Stuart first heard Peter Grimes in its entirety. “The first time I heard it properly was when I did it in 2008. I went to see it in Frankfurt in late 2003, I think, and I had also heard the Colin Davis recording. I had seen snippets of the production from the Royal Opera with Jon Vickers, with John Tomlinson as Hobson, which was truly amazing. I’d seen snippets of it, but it wasn’t until I started looking at the role in terms of performing it in Frankfurt that I really took the score and pulled it apart. I stopped listening to recordings around the time.”

Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes (English National Opera). Photograph: Robert Workman

He explains the reasons behind that decision. “Most recordings are in some way a reference, a benchmark, and I didn’t want to have something so powerful worm its way under my skin, to the point where you weren’t able to divorce yourself as a performer from what had come before. It was a renewal in Frankfurt, they had done it before with John Treleaven, and they gave me a video of it so that I could see how things were going to go, as it was a relatively short rehearsal period. I watched it and made some notes in the score, but I didn’t watch the final scene. I didn’t want to know what had happened, and never do. I said to the director when we got to that bit, ‘I haven’t watched this. Can you give me an idea of the geography of the stage – what’s there and what isn’t, where it is that I start, and where it is that you want me to end up?’ We just pressed the ‘go’ button to see what happened, and it was always a little different each time. He was really quite accommodating, and said ‘Absolutely, I understand, let’s do that’. So I really didn’t get intimate with Grimes until that time.”

In terms of the recordings he has heard, I ask Stuart if he has a preference between the differing approaches of Peter Pears (the original Grimes) and Jon Vickers (his portrayal not liked by Britten, it seems), for example. “Not really, because with the recordings and the performances that are out there – Vickers, Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Peter Pears, even Ben Heppner at the Royal Opera – this role gives you so much scope for every possible voice type, to pull it off and make it yours. If you listen to one over the other, you tend to lose the perspective of what the role is and of itself, rather than what it is in the hands of Pears or Vickers or others – insert towering performance here! It wasn’t about me preferring to listen to one or the other. In any case, when I’m listening to music in general, either opera or symphonic, I tend to listen not necessarily for who was singing but for who was conducting. There’s a level at which the conductor shapes anybody’s interpretation, and I think that an important thing to take into consideration, particularly with this piece, like Colin Davis and those conductors who all but grew up with it. It premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 1945, and outsold Madam Butterfly and Tosca! Twelve months later, when they were running it again, against Madam Butterfly and this time Sir John in Love [Vaughan Williams], it still outsold them both. It’s about the piece and what different people at different times have brought to it. That’s not to take away from those performances, and particularly Vickers, because of the raw nature of his voice, which leaves an indelible mark in a really good way.”

Does David Alden’s production provide a solution to how Stuart imagines the opera itself and the character Peter Grimes to be? “I suspect it does in a certain way. I’ve been lucky to do a number of productions of Grimes, all of which were very powerful in their different way. I guess it’s inevitable that when I’ve been to other performances I have brought something of the Alden production with me. Whether that’s remained or not, I’m not really aware, but this production does cast a long shadow for me, in the best possible sense. It makes it very easy to make Grimes the compelling character, dramatically and vocally, that he is. This is the production that I go to in my head to work out how I’m going to access those things that make the story mean something visceral to the audience.”

Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes (English National Opera). Photograph: Robert Workman

We move on to consider why the opera still carries such a powerful impact. “There are two things. One is the universality of the philosophy, the concept of the one or two who are outside the group, or the clique, and how fluid the nature between the outsider and the group is – and not particularly Grimes, either. When Grimes is not around in the story, the focal point of ‘who is the outsider?’ changes for ten minutes. The Borough turn on Ellen Orford, they turn on Bob Boles, they turn on the Rector. Everyone gets their moment in the sun as being the person that bears the brunt of the group’s collective disapproval. It’s easier to assimilate yourself into the group and disapprove of the universal outsider. Secondly I think the nature of the three major roles – Grimes, Ellen and Balstrode – means they are just incredibly ‘singable’. So, as we’ve discussed, you can have Pears, Rolfe Johnson, Langridge, Heppner, Robert Tear, all sing this with their particular voice, and make the role their own. And you can have voices like Heather Harper, Susan Gritton, Amanda Roocroft and Elza van den Heever, who is singing Ellen for us this time. They are all incredibly different, with very different vocal strengths, but they are all compelling. It is the same for Balstrode. We’ve got Iain Paterson singing it this time, John Tomlinson has sung it, and we had Gerald Finley last time, with his elegant, beautifully cultured voice. Every vocal version of these roles is valid, and I think that’s an important thing in the way this opera works. There is an everyman quality to the roles, so that if you’ve got the notes you can make them yours. I think that is easy to look past, but I think you underestimate it at your peril, because there is something about those roles that lend themselves to almost every possible vocal colour.”

Stuart moves on to consider the music itself. “I think it is hauntingly beautiful. A lot of people have the impression of Britten as being quite modern – it depends on your definition of modern I guess – but it wasn’t even modern for 1945, not when you consider Wozzeck and Lulu. Britten was an intensely theatrical composer, and I think Grimes just works, it is terrific music theatre and absolutely flawless!” Are there any other roles in Britten to which he might be drawn? “I would really love at some point – not quite yet – to have a go at ‘Starry Vere’ – Captain Vere in Billy Budd. But I think there is a level at which it is probably easier – to my mind at least – to be the Vere of the ‘Epilogue’ in real life, and appear younger for the rest of the opera, than it is to be the young Vere and age. I think there is a maturity to the role, as played by Robert Tear or Philip Langridge, which made the ‘starry’ quality of him when he’s on board the ship to be much more compelling. When a young singer has to appear older to play the ‘I’m now content’ Vere – which we all know is nonsense, because if he wasn’t content he wouldn’t be going through the story in the first place!’ – that version of Vere needs some gravitas. I really want to put that off until it is part of the equation physically for me. Also the part of the Male Chorus, from The Rape of Lucretia, I would love to sing that. It’s just a genuinely interesting vocal challenge, and a really great piece. I want to do each thing in its time, though – there will come a season, I hope, and I will grab that bull by both horns, I promise!”

Stuart is very conscious of finding the right time in his career and voice development to take on a new role. “It is very important that you tick all of the boxes when it comes to taking on those roles, be they by Britten or by other composers, that mean something to people, for whatever reason, and there are three or four of them – genuinely iconic roles. You want to be really careful that when you do say yes to those for the first time, that every possible condition you want met is being met, in terms of rehearsal period, colleagues, conductor and production. You really want to make sure that when you do them for the first time, you leave the audience wanting nothing. As those things come up in future seasons, should they come up, a lot of deep soul-searching should be done so that everything is ideal at that particular moment.”

Working with Edward Gardner is a condition Skelton will always agree to, it seems – talking as we were just a matter of hours before the announcement of Gardner’s stepping down as ENO’s Music Director at the end of the 2014-15 season. “It is an absolute joy to work with Ed. He is the complete musician and colleague and friend in equal measure, and there is almost nothing I would not do for him. I trust his musical instincts 100-percent, and he in turn trusts me to really do the work that is required. I cannot praise Ed highly enough; I do not have the vocabulary for it! We have a terrific working relationship.”

As Stuart talks it is clear the singers new to the Grimes production are getting a sense of those qualities. “We’ve been lucky. Iain Paterson, who is singing Balstrode, sang that role when we did it at the Proms. He was a young artist in development here, and we all know each other, we’re all great friends ‘outside of school’. Elza, who is playing Ellen Orford, has come in, and she said, ‘It’s so amazing to watch you guys rehearse, because you have been here, and you know things in shorthand, without knowing you’re doing it!’ She has come so incredibly prepared. There is nothing she can’t do with her voice, it is absolutely magnificent! She really has walked in, opened her mouth on the first day, and jaws hit the floor.”

Skelton’s enthusiasm is just as strong as it was five years ago – perhaps even more so. “It is so lucky for us to have this revival, which means so much to us, and to have Elza making a wonderful debut – it really is the complete business. It very special at the time, something of a watershed for all of us; there was alchemy going on that we didn’t really know until we opened. But that alchemy hasn’t deserted us and I rather suspect we are going to recapture it in spades. We are all very excited to get this thing on its feet and get that curtain up!”.

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