Stuart Skelton is used to having several hours in an opera to present his character fully. In Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which he will sing this weekend with the Milwaukee Symphony, is it harder to convey meaning in five minutes of a song?
“No. There’s no difference at all,” he says flatly. “Mahler set every word for a reason. You’ve got five or eight minutes to get that story across. But he’s given you an instruction manual.”
Mahler’s landmark song-symphony, from the last few years of his life, sets translations of Chinese poems for tenor and alto voices, accompanied by a typically large orchestra. And the tenor part, particularly the opening song, is notoriously difficult. “It comes out of the gate quite fast,” Skelton said. “You have to try to weather that storm.” Titled “The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Grief,” it culminates in a harrowing image of an ape howling in the moonlight. “It’s demonic,” Skelton said. “The narrator is at his wits’ end, and Mahler puts you at your wits’ end vocally.”
Skelton, who sings the part frequently, says that it’s “almost instrumental in a way. It does make demands of singers.” He speculated that if Mahler had lived to hear the piece performed, he might have made revisions.
Within the sub-categories of classical singing, Skelton is a heldentenor, or heroic tenor in English – the kind of big, powerful voice that can ride over a 100-piece orchestra and make it through a four-hour Wagner opera. That voice category is usually slow to develop, and Skelton never thought seriously about a career in singing until he was in his late 20s. And of the singers his age who jumped into the repertoire earlier, “very few of them are now singing for a living.” His teachers, he said, told him, “This is what you’re going to sing, but we’ll never tell anyone that,” in order to avoid the temptation of doing it too early. “You have to have all your technical ducks well and truly in a row.”
Two years ago, Skelton made his debut as Tristan in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, usually considered the summit of the heldentenor repertoire. “This production is lucky to have Stuart Skelton, who gives an honorable and courageous performance,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times. “… (H)e sings with musical integrity and feeling. And he paced himself impressively during the long, arduous scene in Act III.”
Because voices like his are rare, it’s easy to get pigeonholed as the Wagner or Mahler guy, but Skelton said, “I’m lucky to have more than one pigeonhole.” The role of Peter Grimes in Britten’s opera of that name, for instance, is one of his favorites and is often sung by lyric tenors too. (The first half of this weekend’s concerts will also feature the Four Sea Interludes extracted from that opera.)
Singing one week with an orchestra is less of a time commitment than seven or eight weeks to rehearse and perform an opera, but Skelton pointed out that the downside is much less recovery time between performances. In Milwaukee, he’ll be powering through the piece twice in about 18 hours. Unlike some singers, he does not have a particular regimen to care for his throat – except for avoiding alcohol before singing. “That may just be a superstition,” he said, “but I’m not prepared to test it.” But, he pointed out, “Most instrumentalists put their instrument away in a velvet-lined, humidity-controlled box. We can’t. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, most of the time.” Not babying the voice, he thinks, actually makes it stronger and more resilient.
This weekend marks Skelton’s debut with the MSO, but he has worked with both conductor Asher Fisch and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who have been favorite visitors in past years. “Asher is a very engaging guy, a fabulous conductor, and a friend,” he said. “I look forward to being in Milwaukee for the first time, with an orchestra Asher has a relationship with, and making some wonderful music.”