On the eve of his first appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic, singing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, we spoke to the heldentenor Stuart Skelton about singing some of the biggest roles in operatic repertoire.
You’re a heldentenor – can you tell us exactly what that means?
The translation is ‘heroic tenor’ and it was a term that was pretty much coined to cover the Wagnerian repertoire. This sort of singing didn’t exist before Wagner and what with the German propensity to give everything a classification of some description, they gave it a classification. So it’s the Wagnerian repertoire in its entirety, some of the Strauss repertoire and then some of the Slavic repertoire like Dvořák and Janáček and then also the big orchestral works of Mahler where there’s a tenor soloist involved.
What’s the difference between the tenor voice and the heldentenor voice?
I guess to a certain extent it’s a vocal stamina thing – because heldentenors sing much longer operas than most, with big orchestral forces. The most demanding thing about heldentenor repertoire is being able to produce a nice sound over a long period of time over a big orchestra. But there are heldentenors that have every different possible kind of sound and there have been through history, so it’s difficult to pin down what a heldentenor sounds like.
This December you’re performing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s a piece you’ve performed many times now – tell us why you keep going back to it.
It’s a piece that is purpose-written for my voice type and it’s just wonderful music – fun to sing and the poetry is pretty spectacular. Part of the reason I keep coming back to it is that people ask me to sing it – when people are looking to programme [Das Lied von der Erde] there’s probably a short-list of people that have have a reputation for singing it and I guess I’m on that short-list somewhere. Every time I sing it it’s revelatory and it’s like a vocal homecoming.
Can you remember the first time you performed it?
Yes, it was in 2004 with the Radio Symphony in Frankfurt with Daniel Harding conducting. I was jumping in last minute for Kim Begley who had been ill and had to cancel. I was living and working at the opera house in Frankfurt at the time and they needed somebody. It probably would have been scary had I had more lead time but the performance was on the Friday and I started rehearsals on Wednesday – I just didn’t have a chance to be frightened.
And now you’re singing it with the Berlin Phil – is that nerve-wracking?
It’s really exciting. It’s the Berlin Phil – you could make an extremely good case that they are probably the best Symphony orchestra on the planet right now. It’s pretty exciting to do this work with an orchestra that held this sort of canon under Karajan and Claudio Abbado and all of these illustrious predecessors of Sir Simon Rattle’s – Furtwängler, for Goodness’s sake.
Stuart Skelton will be singing Mahler's 'Das Lied von der Erde' on 14, 16 & 17 December with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Interview by Elizabeth Davis