This month, West Australian Opera presents Cav & Pag – the tried and true pairing of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, two short operas telling taut tales of adultery, simmering passions and fatal jealousy.

In something of a coup, Emma Matthews is making her role debut as Nedda in Pagliacci. In Leoncavallo’s opera, a travelling theatre troupe stage a comedy about a husband who is betrayed by his beautiful, flirtatious wife. But life imitates art when Canio (who plays the on-stage husband Pagliaccio) suspects his spouse Nedda (who plays Pagliaccio’s spouse Colombina) of infidelity, and comedy turns to tragedy.

Emma Matthews

Emma Matthews. Photograph © Carolyn Mackay Clark

Matthews, who is known for her lovely, distinctive, lyric coloratura voice, is Australia’s most awarded soprano with seven Helpmanns to her name. In 2018, she stepped back from her singing career and moved back to Perth, where she had spent time growing up, to take up the role of Senior Lecture, Classical Voice and Opera Studies at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).

She has sung in various WA Opera gala performances but this is her first opera since returning to Perth. “I was supposed to do it last year and of course it got cancelled,” she tells Limelight.

“So because of COVID, I’ve been sitting with [Nedda] for a couple of years. It’s sort of the next step I guess after Violetta” – a role which Matthews first sang for Opera Australia in 2012, when she starred in the inaugural Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of La Traviata.

“If I could do Violetta, I can sing Nedda, and lighter voices than mine have sung her. She just fits really nicely now actually. [At] our first production call, I was talking with the Assistant Director and said, ‘you know, I feel I can’t play her as a young girl, but I can play her as a woman, a young woman’. So now I can bring colours into my voice that I wasn’t able to do when I was in my twenties. So vocally it’s sitting so well, I’m just absolutely delighted,” says Matthews.

She admits it’s a challenge to take on a character like Nedda, particularly since it’s her first role for a while. “I haven’t been on the opera stage for nearly four years, so it’s sort of getting back on the horse. I’m a bit nervous but it’s exhilarating too and I’m looking forward to seeing how she grows [during rehearsals]. I’m on a mid-year break here in Perth, so timing-wise it’s worked really well. I still have a few things – meetings and administrative things to do at WAAPA – but I’m not actually teaching while I’m rehearsing so I’m able to really focus.”

Nedda is having an affair with Silvio, and is scared of her husband Canio finding out. Meanwhile, she is also fighting off the unwanted advances of Tonio, another actor in the travelling troupe.

“She’s on a kind of emotional roller-coaster, because she’s obviously frightened about what could happen. She’s sort of in love but frightened. Emotionally it’s a lot to come to grips with,” says Matthews.

“She’s in an abusive marriage situation where you worry for your life, but you’ve always been able to put the fires out and appease him, and have him see the good in you. But she lives her life on a tightrope and it’s almost like she expects to be found out at some point.”

The relationship between a possessive man and a woman struggling to deal with their jealousy feels as timely as ever.

“But then in the same piece, she’s got this horrible relationship with Tonio the hunchback, who she treats terribly, so she’s not all-wonderful at all,” says Matthews. “She’s a very conniving woman I think. I questioned whether when she goes from town to town, has she had many lovers? Is this the sort of person she is? So I think I find a sort of strength in her and a courage, and a sort of ‘I’m going to do this anyway, and that’s who I am’ attitude. She’s just an incredibly sensual, sexual being, trapped in a relationship that at one point was marvellous and exciting, but now that’s all gone.”

Paul O’Neill plays both love rat Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana and the murderous Canio in Pagliacci in Andrew Sinclair’s Visconti-inspired production first staged in 2003.

“Paul O’Neill and I are great mates. We did Rigoletto together years ago [for Opera Australia] with Alan Opie, we did the film version together for Opera Australia, and he learned from the same teacher as me, Megan Sutton here in Perth, so we’re sort of back together again and we’re just great chums. So I feel safe, because we have had conversations about all the violence and all the brutality of it,” says Matthews.

Matthews began her opera career in 1991 at West Australian Opera before she was spotted by Moffatt Oxenbould, the then Artistic Director of The Australian Opera (as it was known before changing its name to Opera Australia), who invited her to join his company’s Young Artist Program. She moved to Sydney 1993 and began a long, lustrous career with OA.

“Yes, it’s funny, throughout my career I’ve been conflicted with which company is my home company,” says Matthews. “I started here, but I was so long with Opera Australia. But it’s a really nice feeling of coming home, and some of the same people still work there. The Farmer ladies, Mandy Farmer [WAO’s Production Manager] and Karen Farmer [WAO’s stage manager] are still there and they remember stories about me when I was a young singer that I’ve completely forgotten!” she says with a laugh.

“But there’s something really nice about the theatre, and having my family here. And I’ve got a wonderful school of students here, who are all really keen to come watch the show. So there’s that – wanting to be my best so that they can see that I know what I’m talking about.”

Matthews says that she loves teaching at WAAPA. “We’ve really landed on our feet coming over here. My husband’s got a terrific position with Black Swan State Theatre Company and the boys have loved their schooling. We’re just really happy, it’s just great, the best choice we could have made.”

Despite her love of teaching, she still adores getting in front of a crowd and singing, and welcomes the opportunities to perform at events such as Opera in the Park with WA Opera.

“That’s never going to stop. I do love [performing] absolutely. My first day in the rehearsal room, I doubted myself a little bit, and then towards the end of the day I thought ‘Oh here we go, here she is!’ I found my stage legs again. I’m looking forward to the process of building up that stage personality and strength again, because I’m used to being behind the wings a bit more now. But you know, teaching every day, and teaching singers how to breath and about style and languages, I feel that the voice is really in its prime now, so it’s fabulous.”

Should another opera present itself, she says she would consider it. “But my main career now is here at WAAPA, that is now my number one passion, I have to say. I love my singing still, but this has taken over my world and my life. I still want to sing, and hopefully there will be more offers in the pipeline. WA Opera is talking to me about something for next year. So if I get to do a role or two a year, and get to do some nice concerts [that would be great]. I’d like to do some more recording, which I can do around my teaching. So there’s still more to do. It’s wonderful. I feel very fortunate.”

West Australian Opera performs Cav & Pag at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, 17–24 July


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