Soprano Emma Matthews is looking forward to hitting the road with colleagues old and new for From Broadway to La Scala. Though she hadn’t been to one when she was approached, she’d heard plenty of good things about the popular concert tour, which sees stars from the opera and musical world team up to deliver favourites from both genres.

Emma MatthewsEmma Matthews. Photo supplied

“I’d heard they’re loads of fun and Teddy [Tahu Rhodes] and David [Hobson] and I have been talking about doing stuff together for years,” she says. “Because I’m so busy at WAAPA [where she is Head of Classical Voice and Opera Studies], I didn’t want to do a full program or anything like that so to be able to be in an ensemble cast, it’s going to be wonderful. I’m still singing The Bell Song which ah! Come on then let’s get the voice up there [laughs]. But no, it’s all prepared and ready to go. I’ve got some wonderful gems in the program but the pressure’s off because you’re sharing the stage with so many wonderful people. I’m just really looking forward to it.”

In addition to Rhodes and Hobson, this year’s cast includes musical theatre luminary Caroline O’Connor, tenor Alexander Lewis and rising star soprano Genevieve Kingsford. Matthews is full of praise for all three, describing O’Connor as “the absolute queen of musical theatre”. They’ll perform a duet in the concert, with Matthews also to perform the Letter Duet from The Marriage of Figaro with Kingsford, who she calls “a delightful young woman.”

“Al Lewis is of course Michael Lewis’ son,” Matthews says. “I work with Michael everyday here at WAAPA and I’ve done Rigoletto and Batavia with him, so to sing with his son, that’s just such a joy. He’s really on his way and he’s doing so well, singing all over the world and having great success. He’s really a young star himself.”

One of the reasons why Matthews jumped at the chance to participate in From Broadway to La Scala was her own longstanding interest in musical theatre, having studied it at WAAPA before switching to opera. She also admits to having what she describes a “a musical theatre personality.”

“I’ve always been a bit naughty and fun,” she laughs. “I think there are a few of us who are like that in the industry, just bursting to be a bit silly. Now it’s lovely to get to the position in my career where I can actually sing some of that repertoire and have some fun with it but still sing it as me and with my voice.”

Emma Matthews with Caroline O’Connor, David Hobson, Alexander Lewis, Genevieve Kingsford and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo supplied 

Talk soon turns to Matthews’ current position as Head of Classical Voice and Opera Studies at WAAPA, a position she took up in 2018. It’s clearly something of a match made in heaven, the soprano treasuring the opportunity to work intensely with young singers. One of her most important goals in this new capacity is to maintain and cultivate the traditional bel canto style of singing, with an emphasis on acting and stage presence as well. “It’s all part of trying to create consummate performers [who are trained] in that Italian school of singing with beautiful, healthy Italian vowels.”

When asked if she’s learnt anything about performance through teaching, Matthews laughs and says she thinks she’s finally learnt how to breathe.

“I’ve never really grasped it, I just sang and I think I’ve always had a very natural technique. Especially going to bigger repertoire, I struggled a bit with breath but actually having to teach how to breathe, I’ve gone ‘oh! That’s how you do it!’ And yes I demonstrate all the time and I think that’s very important as a teacher, to be able to say ‘this is what you’re doing’ and show them what they’re doing and then say ‘this is what you should be doing’ and then do it properly. And that’s something I just love. I don’t always get it right, I don’t think anybody does but yes, I learn so much from my students. The repertoire as well because they come in with these pieces and you go ‘ooh, I like that, can I steal that?’”

One of the most important elements of her job is ensuring her singers establish a proper technique before tackling big repertoire, she explains.

“Some of the singers in my studio come to me having done big opera arias when they were in high school and I say ‘look, that’s lovely, it’s wonderful but slow down because we’ve got to give you the foundations of technique first.’ That means coming back to the 24 Italian Songs, just simple pieces so that they really know what they’re doing because if they do stuff that’s too big for them too soon, they’re not going to last.”

“I think that often happens with young singers once they’re in the profession too, they’re pushed into the bigger repertoire too soon,” she reflects. “I was really fortunate because I had Moffatt Oxenbould looking after me at the beginning. He gave me the small Mozart roles and the smaller Handel roles and then the second Mozart roles, and I grew up with the Australian Opera and was really nurtured.  I think that needs to be done more because I think young singers are thrown into these huge roles and covering massive title roles at a very young age. And they’re not quite ready.”

“But you know what, when I was young, they probably said that about me too. [Laughs] There are some incredible young singers out there. Stacey Alleaume is doing wonderful things and she’s off to Europe and America now and I take my hat off to her. She works really hard on her technique and that’s a beautiful, beautiful voice. And Anna Dowsley is doing really well, she’s been really looked after I think so there’s some wonderful young singers coming through. Natalie Aroyan’s done very well, she’s taken her steps and she’s doing big rep but she’s taking her steps and she always comes back to the technique in between and she’s in Italy I think, singing Aida now. So there are some wonderful singers that really have good heads on their shoulders.”

Those longing for their next Matthews fix after From Broadway to La Scala won’t have too long to wait, the soprano revealing that she’ll return to the opera stage in 2020.

“I’m not going to say where or what but it’s in Australia and I’m absolutely delighted because the season works out to be in my mid-year break, so my students don’t miss out on anything,” she says. “It’s really important for me now to acknowledge the fact that this new path that I’m on is my new role and I love it. I absolutely love working with young singers. I’m obviously doing less of the performing but I’m picking and choosing, and I’ve got some nice orchestral concerts next year as well that I’m doing as well as a few different things in the pipeline. For me it’s about teaching my students now.”

From Broadway to La Scala is at Adelaide’s Festival Theatre on September 7, Perth Concert Hall on September 14, QPAC on September 17, Arts Centre Melbourne on September 26 and the Sydney Opera House, September 28