Award winning soprano Emma Matthews on the future of opera in Australia: It is an eternal art form, as long as it's treated with respect... it will always be there
Emma Matthews is an opera singer who has been performing for nearly thirty years. Emma is a soprano with incredible acting skills who made her debut in 1991 and has never looked back. As a young artist the legendary Dame Joan Sutherland declared Emma Matthews one of Australia's best opera singers, and today that is nothing short of the truth. Emma has received more Helpmann Awards than any one else, nine Green Room Awards, a Mo Award and the Remy Martin Australian Opera Award.
Emma was born in England, but grew up in Vanuatu and Fiji, before her family eventually settled in Perth. It was here that Emma would attend a performing arts high school, and end up studying at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). Emma's first major performance was with the Western Australian Opera in 1991, and she eventually joined Opera Australia. To date, Emma has performed in over thirty operas all over Australia and now works as a freelance performer.
The critically acclaimed and highly decorated soprano's latest endeavour is the starring role in Bizet's classic opera The Pearlfishers with Opera Queensland. Shows commenced this week and run until 3 June, and by all accounts, Emma is stronger and more striking than ever.
Emma is married to Stephen Matthews, an opera technician with Opera Australia, and recently told the Sydney Morning Herald, ""I met Stephen in the green room of the Sydney Opera House in 1995. I thought, "Gee, you're cute." We got on really well, then he stood up and he had tight purple jeans on.... I thought, "Oh, I'd like some of that!""
A vibrant, passionate, and extraordinarily gifted and trained musician, Emma took some time out of her busy rehearsal schedule to speak with Music Love about all the preparation that goes into an opera, a life on the road, some advice for aspiring opera singers, and her thoughts on the future of opera in Australia.
What does music mean to you?
Music always makes me feel better when I'm stressed or upset. I play my favourite albums when I travel, to remind me of family and to relax. Often music is work, but hearing music sung well live and discovering new styles can be incredibly inspiring, too.
What has your musical pathway been like so far?
My pathway has been a most fortunate one. I was awarded a scholarship to music high school Perth Modern, studied at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), then joined Opera Australia, and now I’m a freelance performer. I've met fascinating people along the way, and it may have been tough at times, but I’m constantly challenged and never bored. I've loved it!
Emma Matthews performs in Opera Queensland's The Pearfishers. Images by Jeff Busby via QPAC
How much preparation goes into an opera?
Heaps! There’s the translating of the script, listening, all the technical work, the memorising, and then the rehearsals and character work. When you perform a new production of an opera, you have to find new approaches, and I’m constantly working technically to improve on the time before - it's a big and glorious task.
How many languages do you know?
I can speak French, and I sing in Italian and German. I always know what I'm singing, but can't converse - this is my biggest regret. I wish I'd studied more Italian and German as a young singer.
You were born in the UK, raised in Fiji - what was it like arriving in Australia?
I lived in the South Pacific - Fiji and Vanuatu - for 8 years of my childhood, and have lived in Australia since I was 13 years old. It was incredible coming to Australia after such a sheltered upbringing. I loved it, but I was completely overwhelmed for the first year.
What is your favourite place in Australia?
My favorite place is Perth - I'm calm there, and we’re hoping to move back there in the next few years. My Mum, Dad and two sisters are in Perth - the beaches are heaven and the sky seems bluer, it's paradise to me!
Tell us about The Pearlfishers...
The Pearlfishers is a beautiful French romantic opera set in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). I’m performing the role of Leila, a woman chosen to be the 'priestess'. Two men - Nadir and Zurga - both fall in love with me when they hear me sing, but promise each other that a woman will never come between their friendship.
Nadir breaks his promise, and we both proclaim our affections, and in doing so Leila breaks her vow to the Brahma (God) and the village, and Zurga wants us both dead. I (Leila) plead for Nadir's life, and Zurga tells me of his jealousy and love for me. Then, in realising that I'd once saved his life as a child, Zurga decides to save Nadir and me by setting fire to the village, and enabling us to escape. It's a very intense, dramatic and crazy story of love and betrayal.
Some people would be intimidated to attend the opera, what advice would you give them?
Come and give it a go! It's incredible music sung by a fabulous cast, it's visually beautiful and the chorus and orchestra is sublime. What a fabulous way to show someone how much you love them with tickets to the opera!
Is it true Dame Joan Sutherland was a friend and mentor?
She was! I was very fortunate to work with her as a young singer and to have maintained a fabulous relationship with her husband, Richard Bonynge, throughout my career.
What was your most memorable performance?
Probably my role as Violetta in La Traviata at Sydney Harbour. It was huge, terrifying and exhilarating, singing under a canopy of stars with the rain blending with my tears - it was a formidable experience.
What has been your worst experience about being an opera singer?
Being away from my husband and boys, I miss them terribly.
How do you look after your voice?
I rest the day of a show, I’ve never smoked. I make sure I'm technically prepared when I learn a role. I stay away from sick people, make sure I have my flu jab each year and I do solid warm-ups.
What genres of music do you listen to for fun?
I love listening to my friend José Carbó sing his Latin songs. I also love Barbra Streisand, Michael Bublé, Billie Holiday, Katie Noonan, or I'll put on Mahler Symphony or some Strauss. Symphonic repertoire, it depends. I certainly don't put on an opera, as I'll immediately start analysing and comparing.
What is some advice for aspiring opera singers?
Put in the hard work. When you're in your conservatorium years, work on technique, coloratura, breath control, languages and be comfortable in your lessons. Question when something doesn't feel right, listen to the advice of those who've done it all before, and know yourself and what your dream is.
Also, go and hear as much as you can live - it's very different to hearing a recording. I expect every student of singing to experience all they can - standing room tickets aren't expensive. Opera Queensland also have fantastic $25 tickets going for The Pearlfishers. If you want to sing you should listen and learn too. No excuses!
What is the future of opera in Australia?
The future is what we make it, as artists and as creative leaders. I think opera is an eternal art form, as long as it's treated with respect, and the audiences are given opportunities to hear the best singers and musicians in a wide range of opera repertoire. It will always be there.
Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
I admire all of my colleagues, and a lot are great friends. I want to focus on the Australian singers who are mothers and do it all - my friends Jane Ede, Jacqui Dark, Eva Kong, Milijana Nikolic, Natalie Christie Peluso, Cath Carby, Katie Noonan, Fiona Campbell, Sian Pendry and Amelia Farrugia to name a few. To balance motherhood, performing and travel is hard, indeed at times unbearable, but I'm inspired by these women and encouraged by their commitment to it all.
The Pearlfishers is playing at the Lyric Theatre, Brisbane and runs until 3 June. Tickets here
Follow Emma Matthews on Facebook.