Australia’s most highly awarded soprano Emma Matthews has returned to her alma mater the WA Academy of Performing Arts to take up the position of head of classical voice. Her impressive list of accolades includes seven Helpmann Awards, nine Green Room Awards, the Mo Award, the Remy Martin Australian Opera Award, Limelight Award for Music Personality of the Year 2010, Best Performance in an Opera 2012 and Australian Artist of the Year 2016. She has also given the best description I’ve ever heard on the role of music in our lives. Read on for the wisdom of Perth’s busiest new celebrity.
What music gets your heart racing?
Anything with incredibly fast, high coloratura… As a singer it’s so thrilling to sing. At the moment, a piece I’m revisiting is J.Strauss’s Fruhlingstimmen, it’s fiendish yet when it all lines up, it’s exhilarating. Glitter and be Gay is quite raw at times too. I love pushing my limits emotionally and vocally!
What calms you down?
Michael Goldschlager playing the Bach Cello Suites or Jose Carbo singing his Latin songs with the Grigoryan brothers. With a nice glass of chardonnay.
What do you sing along to?
The Commitments, ABBA, Disney films… there’s no limit.
How are you preparing for your first WAAPA concert on the 29th “An Afternoon with Emma Matthews”?
It’s repertoire that is very familiar to me so it’s a matter of revisiting it and remembering my translations, and intentions. There’s also a guest appearance from a dear friend and graduate of WAAPA Paul O’Neill – we’ll sing a bit of Verdi together which I can’t wait for. We recorded Rigoletto a few years ago, together and he is an extraordinary Artist. I’m also sharing the stage with my graduate diploma students and singing duets with a couple of them, as well as the fabulous WAAPA Chorale. I’m looking forward to it very much.
What do you hope the audience will experience from your performance with the vocal students?
I hope they’ll feel the love we have of performing and will see the bond of the young singers and myself, feel the connections we share, hear the potential and be blown away by the energy and commitment.
How are you transitioning from Australia’s prima soprano to head of classical voice at WAAPA?
It’s an enormous shift… but it’s incredibly rewarding. I love my teaching and getting to know all the classical voice students. I make mistakes and forget things, as I’m used to having an agent/manager looking after me. Now it’s my turn to look after others. It’s a huge honour indeed.
The role of music is to take us away from pain. To distract us and to challenge us. And to fill our hearts and minds with other possibilities and dreams.
Emma Matthews 2018
You won Australian Artist of the Year in 2016 and your 25 year career is still flourishing – what made you think the time was right to move into teaching?
I always planned to move away from Opera as I hit my fifties. I’m a way off that yet but when the job came up at WAAPA and I was asked if I’d be interested in applying, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m still singing, in fact, I think the voice is fresher than ever as I’m demonstrating technique every day. But this opportunity was too good to ignore. I love being back at WAAPA after all these years.
What is it like returning to the institution where you first studied music and the town where you made your debut (singing Barbarina in Marriage of Figaro)?
It’s amazing… It really doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that I left. Every time I walk into His Majesty’s I am humbled. Every time I pull into a staff car spot at WAAPA, I pinch myself. This is what I wanted to do, when I left, to come back and teach. It’s an important thing to be able to give back to your artform, it’s an honour.
You have a soft spot for bel canto – what attracts you to this style of singing?
It’s not necessarily a soft spot, it’s the healthiest way to approach any role be it Wagner or Bellini. It’s beautiful singing. I want to look after the voices in my care, not have them pushed,or mishandled. Bel canto singing, is beautiful, healthy singing. That’s what the Classical voice course is about. Not straight singing, not screaming, or belting. Beautiful, healthy singing.
Composer Mark Applebaum says music should above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?
To take us away from pain. To distract us and to challenge us. And to fill our hearts and minds with other possibilities and dreams.
What essential skills for a career as an opera singer will be passing on at WAAPA? Is it all about the Marchesi Technique or is social media, business skills or healthy lifestyle just as important?
The Marchesi technique is a crucial part of the syllabus.. It enables a singer to start a note in the correct way. It is most useful with those who already have bad habits and also with those starting from scratch. Madame Marchesi knew what she was on about. Her methods are widely valued and copied.
The most important path a singer can take is to study languages, perfect their technique, learn repertoire and be protective of their instruments. It’s about learning the craft behind the career. Not focusing on social media and business skills. That’s what agents are for. Being healthy is a must though. Especially vocally.
One of your acclaimed roles at the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden was the lead role in A Cunning Little Vixen which is having its premiere in Perth this weekend. What will you be looking for when you are sitting in the audience?
I’ll be watching for things that didn’t gel at the ROH. Tricky corners. But ultimately, I’ll be enjoying the performance. I’ve sung the Vixen for Opera Australia and the ROH, it’s a precious part for me. This time Emma Pearson is singing the role and you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful voice, or more generous colleague to head a cast. Rachelle Durkin is a star, as the fox, she’ll be amazing. And listen out for the incredible Foresters song, it’s such a divine moment of acceptance, James Clayton will be heaven. (For details on WA Opera’s A Cunning Little Vixen head here)
Perth audiences know you as the voice of Philomele (Love of the Nightingale), Leila (The Pearlfishers) and Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor). What are your most memorable moments on the stage?
Lulu was an incredible highlight. Such difficult music and a physical production. But I approached the role as an actress, rather than a singer, which enabled me to focus on the text rather than the difficulty of the music. Lucia is definitely a favourite. I was blessed enough to create the role with Richard Bonynge. I adore her, and her music. Singing Violetta in the first Opera on the Harbour in Sydney: sliding down satin sheets in the rain, singing underneath the stars… it was challenging, but so rewarding. Also singing pregnant; my first Ophelie and the mad scene seven months pregnant while my son was doing everything he could to distract me, in a full Sydney Concert Hall. I’ve been very blessed. Upcoming projects including a new piece just for me will be another major milestone and highlight again.
What’s the thing you love most about your work?
When everything works, as a singer. When you sing a phrase and know it couldn’t be better… it’s heaven. And now hearing the young voices get a phrase right, capture the emotion, find their true sound and seeing the joy in their faces. And the excitement of those first steps. There’s not one thing to love – it’s the whole of everything.
What is your favourite place in Perth?
My new home. I love walking in the front door and seeing my boys and my wonderful husband. I feel so fortunate to have such a lovely home and family.
Outside wise… the beaches. Wow.
Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
My main love is my family… my boys, my husband, my sisters, my nieces and nephews, my parents… and our dog, Bella.