By: Robin Usher
May 5, 2017
Emma Matthews has won seven Helpmann awards for performances with Opera Australia and is likely the country’s most popular soprano since Dame Joan Sutherland last century.
Audiences will get a chance to hear a more intimate side of her skills when she appears in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Great Performers’ series in April accompanied by English pianist Richard Hetherington who is flying out from London especially for the concert.
The pianist has been keen to appear alongside her since they worked together during rehearsals as part of her season in London at the Royal Opera House in 2010 performing in Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen with conductor Sir Charles Mackerras.
‘’Richard provided R&R for me during the season,’’ she says. ‘’You can see his influence on the program in lighter songs towards the end like those by Victor Herbert.’’
Matthews has been a freelance performer for the past six years after a long time on contract with the national company. ‘’It is very hard being an opera singer in Australia as you get older,’’ she acknowledges, although she is still some years shy of her 50th birthday.
She enjoys the intimacy of recitals and has performed several times in Melbourne with the three-member Ensemble Liaison. ‘’I try to balance them with opera performances, which I find get harder because of the pressure I put on myself to keep getting get better as a more established singer.’’
Her April recital offers a wide range of repertoire that she hopes will give people the opportunity to cry, laugh and think. The biggest problem she faced was cutting the material down from her initial selections because there was ‘’so much to choose from’’.
But the recital centre’s director of artistic planning, Marshall McGuire, told her she had enough for three or four concerts. That explains the absence of any Handel material, but she agreed with McGuire that a selection from Mozart was a must.
As you would expect given her renown as a bel canto singer, Matthews has included material from Bellini and Donizetti that she often performed with conductor Richard Bonynge, as well as Ophelia’s mad scene from Ambroise Thomas’ opera, Hamlet.
‘’That is an opera in itself,’’ she says. ‘’Doing it makes me feel young and there might be the opportunity for some extra top notes.’’
She also insisted on a selection of Schubert songs, including Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel and Du bist die Ruh. ‘’Every young singer has to master Schubert, who is amazingly difficult to keep everything contained. Coming back to him now I know how to explore the emotion he demands without affecting the voice.’’
She is often compared to Sutherland and enjoyed a close relationship with the great singer and her husband Bonynge. They met during the national vocal symposium in Sydney in 1994 when Matthews was a delegate from Perth.
‘’Joan took me under her wing and was so generous,’’ she says. But it was at next year’s symposium that her relationship with Bonynge was established.
‘’I had gone backwards, which can happen and Richard said I should work with him. He has been my main contact to fix things ever since. I have a lot to be thankful for.’’
Matthews has been based in Sydney most of her career and enjoyed ‘’great roles and great casts’’ with Opera Australia. The exception was her 2010 season at Covent Garden at the invitation of Mackerras.
‘’The Royal Opera House was interested in my staying but when it comes to living in London or Sydney it is no real choice,’’ she says. ‘’I don’t like travelling and the year I was in London my younger son was starting primary school and I was away for four months.’’
She was also booked to perform in a new production with Opera Australia later in that year. ‘’It was a huge honour to be invited to go to London. The season was a success, although it would have been better to debut in a bel canto work.’’
She has no regrets, although she is still asked why she did not perform more overseas. ‘’I get it all the time but I just say I have been there and done that.’’
She will come to Melbourne after 11 performances in Sydney as Violetta in the third cast for Opera Australia’s production of La Traviata. ‘’I had done the production before but it was still a bit daunting to get only two weeks’ rehearsal instead of the usual five or six. I have to keep my wits about me.’’
She says her future holds more concerts than opera performances. ‘’It is very hard being an opera singer in Australia at my age.’’ Instead, she is appearing as a singer in a theatre production at the end of the year but says it is too early to announce details.
She hopes to appear in Melbourne next year in the premiere of a show being written for her by Paul Grabowsky and Steve Vizard based on her life. She is also holding a series of master classes and is working with the country’s richest competition for young singers, Australian Singing Competition.
Emma Matthews performs with Richard Hetherington in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 7.30pm on April 12 as part of the Great Performers series.