Emma Matthews is Australia’s pre-eminent soprano and she is back with a new CD, Agony and Ecstasy. We had a chance to chat to her earlier this week about the new record and all things opera.
What can audiences expect from this album?
Fabulousness! It’s a record of repertoire that I’ve mostly performed and for me it’s a recording of where I am now as an artist. I think audiences will get to see what they hear me do on stage, especially with La Traviata and La Sonnambula. I feel like for me it’s not only about singing the music it’s about the characters and I think what I’ve managed to achieve in this recording is you can hear the characters in the pieces as well. So I hope audiences will hear that too and get something different out of it to what they have with my other recordings – I feel like this one is more grown up!
How would you describe it to people who wouldn’t have necessarily heard much opera?
I think it’s a handful of particular roles, especially La Traviata where there is quite a chunk. I guess it is just a teaser of what someone would hear if they did come to an opera. It is the famous soprano bits from shows, and my favourite bits from shows. I feel like the difference between this recording and my previous recording (Emma Matthews in Monte Carlo) is that in this recording it showcases me as a woman and in Monte Carlo I’m shown as nearly there. This is me at my peak and doing what I love and hopefully doing it in such way that brings entertainment and excitement.
We have just had Steve Davislim over here in Perth doing the Mozart Requiem with WASO. He is featured on two duets on this album and is fabulous of course. What was it like working with him on this project?
It was lovely, he was terrific. He was only there for a second! We did both his bits in a short period. I had been working with him the week before in Tasmania, doing the Mozart Requiem actually, and had only asked him to be on the CD about a month before. He was very generous and said he would absolutely love to be involved. I really admire him as an artist and as a person so it was nice to have that bit of class on the CD. I think he sings beautifully on it and it’s very moving.
You said that this album is made up of a lot of roles that you have performed before, do you have any roles that you haven’t checked off your list?
Well one of them is on the CD, I’ve never done Elvira from I Puritani (Bellini) but I’ve also never done Ophelia from Hamlet. And I’ve never done Linda di Chamounix, which is also on the CD, but that aria was actually the first ever Bel Canto aria I sang so it is quite special to have that on this record. Otherwise I’m pretty happy! I’m starting to repeat things now and that’s really nice.
In terms of now returning to roles, can you take me through the process of learning a new role versus returning to old roles?
Well with a new role you are looking at everything for the first time and there is a lot of preparation to do. It is good to listen to a lot of different people singing the role and talking to people who have sung the role before. I ask a lot of questions like “what did you find tricky in the role?” or “what did you bring to the character?” and getting different ideas from different people. I think it is pretty much the same process with learning a new role and looking at an old role. I’m working on Violetta at the moment and I’m going to do some work with Cheryl Barker on that, who was a fabulous Violetta. So I’m going to pick her brain and she’s going to help me with some of the tricky bits. I think that will be really interesting to work with someone who has sung the role before and someone who I really admire.
And of course you’ll be returning to West Australian Opera soon to perform Leila in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers for the second time this year – that must be an Australian first!
Yes, I’m doing a big run of Pearl Fishers soon. The nice thing is that it is a whole different cast except for me. So I get to build totally new relationships with people and the character will be different. The character can’t be the same because the dynamic will be different. So it will be really interesting exploring that!
Perth will also see you later this month in a SwanSongs recital with David Wickham. What can audiences expect?
Well it’s funny, I planned and performed this recital earlier in Kangaroo Valley. So I jumped at the opportunity to repeat the program. But when planning the recital I managed to make it as difficult as possible. Difficult in that the music is quite complicated to learn and there are musical challenges to get it really accurate and expressive. Other than some Duparc, all the repertoire is in English – there are American songs and some Australian. For me, the challenge is having the text really clear and to be able to tell the story so people don’t have to look at the words in the program. I want them to be totally engrossed in what I’m saying. It is beautiful music and beautiful poetry and it went down really well in Kangaroo Valley so I’m excited to do it again. Especially the Calvin Bowman song cycle, it is lovely to sing his music. I think he is a really important composer for voice and I’m delighted that he is my friend and that he has agreed to let me sing the cycle that I’m doing of his. There will be some chuckles too, it is just a really nice photo.
You’ve recently delved into teaching. Can you talk a bit about why you love to teach and why it is so important to pass on your knowledge to the next generation of singers?
Well I’ve been involved a lot with the Australian Singing Competition over the last three years, and I’ve started up a mentor program. We are pairing up young artists with experienced mentors and it is really important and exciting. I think there is a gap in guidance for young singers. Once they have come through the competition stage and are going into the profession I think it is really important that they have someone who has been successful in the craft who can guide them practically and personally. They can also help them through the important personal decisions that the career requires like the age old family versus career question. It is important that a singer can be really cared for and nurtured, and if we are able to provide a good match and give a mentor who they can trust and guide them through that process then that is a success. It is also important to be honest with young singers, because many of them feel like they are going to have this amazing career and you have to say to them “maybe this isn’t your thing”. I have been known to be brutally honest with some of my singers that is very important. You don’t want people wasting their lives thinking they’re going to be an amazing star when they’re nowhere near the standard that is required. But in saying that I really enjoy the challenge of fixing problems in a singer’s technique. There are a lot of people who have misconstrued an idea of technique or having addressed crucial points of their technique and I love the challenge of fixing those things. It all takes time and patience and a lot of work. Unfortunately I think a lot of singers don’t work hard enough and they want to go and learn the repertoire straight away but without a good technical foundation it’s just not going to happen. You can be a good singer, but you’ll never be an extraordinary one. I think that is what I’m trying to teach people – you have to put in those hard yards at the beginning.
You’ve mentioned that you are playing Violetta next year for Opera Australia, what else is in store for Emma Matthews in 2017?
It is looking like a pretty fabulous year! It is all within Australia – I’m managing to fill my year up in this wonderful country which is something I’m very proud of. So I’m able to spend time with my boys and have my other life. I’m also going to be doing more teaching through the Sydney Conservatorium. I also have a couple of very exciting projects on the way and they’re a little bit different, some things that you wouldn’t expect me to be doing!
So stay tuned to Emma Matthews going into 2017 and make sure you pick up a copy of her new record, Agony and Ecstasy! Available for download on iTunes here:
Interviewed by Louis Hurley