The country’s favourite soprano chats to Limelight’s editor about repertoire, the state of the profession and the Opera Review.

Congratulations on winning Limelight Artist of the year. Was that a surprise?

Yes! [Laughs] Honestly, I saw the people I was up against and thought, “Oh look, I’ve not really done very much this year, so I don’t really have a chance”. But I’m so thrilled, I really am. It’s lovely. Thank you so much!

Obviously, you did do something this year. You released a new album, which has been incredibly well received and topped the charts. Would that be the highlight of the year for you?

It’s definitely been the highlight. I’m very proud of it. I think the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra sound incredible, and I’m super thrilled with all that Andrea Molino brought to the recording. I’ve been so lucky with the recordings I’ve done, and this is the best one yet, I feel. Also two seasons of Pearlfishers, has been very special for me, and especially to have done it in my home town, with my first opera company, West Australian Opera, on my first stage at His Majesty’s. That was terrific.

With José Carbó in Opera Australia’s The Pearlfishers. Photo by Jeff Busby

I also saw you with Musica Viva and Victorian Opera in Voyage to the Moon. That looked great fun!

It was a hoot, and to work with Sally-Anne Russell, who’s a dear friend and wonderful artist, and the young and amazing Jeremy Kleeman, who’s off to do fabulous things, really kept me on my toes. It was a really lovely group, and working and travelling with musicians is just so special because they really want every performance to be perfect. We rehearsed before every show and polished things that didn’t work. Getting into different venues was challenging, adjusting to different acoustics and spaces. I nearly fell off the stage at Angel Place as the set up was different! That was pretty hilarious.

In terms of vocal gymnastics, that show seemed to embrace the idea that more is more.

[Laughs] Yes! It was a bit like that. By Perth, for my final aria I just came out roaring. I was so confident by the end of it. I’m a nervous sort of performer so the first few shows are always a bit hesitant and careful, but then I relax. By the end we were having so much fun. Not that it wasn’t fun at the beginning, it was just more “I must be proper and correct”.

In Victorian Opera and Musica Viva’s Voyage to the Moon. Photo by Jeff Busby

So where do you feel you are in your career right now?

I feel like I should be doing a lot more than I am. I feel I’m in my absolute prime at the moment. I don’t think I could have sung Pearlfishers better than I did in Perth. I definitely could have sung it better than I did in Melbourne and I made that step up for Perth. Listening to the recording, I think it shows that I’m in a place now where I can experiment vocally and take risks. There are some tracks on the disc that people haven’t liked at all, and there are some that people have gone “Oh my God, that sounds like you from the olden days”. That’s what I wanted when I did it. And to be able to sing like that now, after 26 years in the profession, is great. The disc isn’t only about the voice, it’s about drama – drama in my interpretation, and real theatre in the orchestral playing. I’m lucky that I still have a freshness in my sound. I’ve been through some interesting times vocally, and I’m still standing. But I feel I could be doing so much more.

One of the main criticisms of the recent Opera Review was that most of the companies have pulled back on the number of shows they’re doing for financial reasons. That has had an impact on Australian singers and the amount of work available has declined. Have you felt that?

Well, yes. I mean, if you look at my repertoire with Opera Australia in the last few years, it’s certainly been a lot less than ten years ago. I used to be able to have meetings with OA management and they would say, “What would you like to do in the next three years?” and I’d give them a list and we’d do it. That was how my career was for a long time, but now things have changed and the bel canto repertoire is supposedly not selling in this country. I don’t understand that because I’ve stood onstage and seen quite good houses. But apparently that’s what is being said and I find that very disappointing.

As Lucia in Opera Australia’s Lucia di Lammermoor

That’s odd, as I’ve never seen so much bel canto at the Met or at Covent Garden, which seem to be bringing back all kinds pieces. It seems to me there’s a current revival of less well known repertoire going on in some major houses. I’m surprised that isn’t the case here.

Well, I’ve been battling to put on Hamlet for many, many years because a role I’d love to do would be Ophelia. I’ve got very close on three different occasions and then it comes to the final decision-making and no, it’s too hard. Ugh, it’s so frustrating, because if you had an amazing Hamletsomeone like José Carbó, and me as Ophelia – surely that would sell? You sell it on the people doing it. Let’s use the singers we have and promote them as much as we can. I think Australian audiences have their favourite artists and they want to see them in new roles, so surely they’ll consider going!

The Opera Review recommended OA upped the number of shows by one or two, and that the regional companies consolidated at three. Is that enough do you think? Or is there a fundamental problem that there just isn’t enough opera in Australia?

I think that’s an important step to get a few more different operas back in the repertoire. I know that Lyndon Terracini really wants to do different repertoire, but somehow that gets stopped along the way. I will get to sing Violetta again next year. It’s a role I adore, and each time I do it, I feel I find something new. As long as there is a supportive conductor and a great cast, I’m happy. But instead of doing Traviata, why don’t we do Daughter of the Regiment? Or Die Fledermaus, or Rosenkavalier, or Hoffmann?

The Opera Review also commented on Australian singers versus international and suggested starting a conversation at 80% Australian. Do you think a quota is the answer?

I think for the sake of Australian singers, yes it is. There are young singers coming through now who aren’t really giving Australia a chance. They’re going overseas straight away. I see them all in the competitions and then they’re just disappearing into the ether and having wonderful careers in Germany and not coming home. Surely if we’re bringing in people from overseas, we should be bringing those successful Australians back too!

With José Carbó in Opera Australia’s La Traviata. Photo by Branco Gaica

Yes, you hear about Australian successes overseas, yet they don’t come back very often. Sometimes, I think, we forget them too easily.

I know in a lot of cases singers have been invited back, but their schedules may not allow it, or it may not be enough money. But for myself, living in Australia, and not being cast first in something – that’s tough. Especially when my career is wholly here. But I’m sure I’ll learn from the experience, especially if the artists booked over me, are better than I am. [laughs].

Thinking about the health of opera in the world in general. Is there a problem with declining audiences?

I don’t think there are declining audiences. I think that’s rubbish! Why do we apologise for opera? It’s amazing! I think audiences want more and they want to be challenged. Opera is incredible. It is the ultimate art form. Standards may rise and fall, but that all comes down to the technical development of singers. If young artists are given small roles to cut their teeth on, and are nurtured, then their careers will be long and healthy, and the pool of singers to choose from will be bigger.

If we treat the audience like they’re stupid, and turn the art form into something generic, like ‘an Event’, then I fear we will lose the majesty and the appreciation of the expertise needed to perform the repertoire. I’m sorry, it’s about going to the opera. It’s about going to hear the most amazing music, sung by the most amazing people, played by the most amazing musicians, with costumes and makeup created by masters in their fields, with the best set builders creating the scenery, and the best technicians running the show in incredible theatres. It’s about being transported in the moment and being blown away by the beauty of unamplified voices. It’s not an event.

As Fiorilla in The Turk in Italy with Paolo Bordogna. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

So what works do you still dream about doing?

As I said, I’d love to do Hamlet, before I drop dead. And I’d love to do Puritani as well. I’d also like to repeat some of my roles. I’d like to do Lulu again, my four Hoffmann ladies and La Fille du Régiment. And then I’d be happy and finished.

And do you feel there any boats that you’ve missed?

I’m trying some different things in the next few years. I’m stepping into the acting world a bit, as I figure I still have something to give on the stage. I’ll be crossing over into slightly risky terrain, and I’m really looking forward to that. Paul Grabowsky and Steve Vizard are writing a piece for me, which could be quite revealing and exciting. I’m also very interested in continuing my path as a mentor with the young artists of the Australian Singing Competition. It won’t be long before I hang up my character shoes, and focus on teaching – and if I’m not getting the opportunities to perform, this may happen sooner. Teaching has always been part of my plan, and I feel I have a lot of experience to pass on to the next generation of singers, but I’m not going anywhere yet – there’s still a lot of coloratura to be showed off!

Emma Matthews appears in Opera Australia’s La Traviata in Sydney from January – February. Her Agony and Ecstasy CD is out on ABC Classics.