After singing Leïla in Melbourne and Perth last year, 2016 Limelight Australian Artist of the Year Emma Matthews is looking forward to the upcoming production of Bizet’s The Pearlfishers for Opera Queensland. “I sang The Pearlfishers about six years ago,” Matthews says. “I wasn’t ready, because I didn’t have the vocal skills to give it all the power that I should have. It was a bit daunting, my first experience. I know the piece back to front now – this is my fourth go at it.”

The Pearlfishers is set on the island of Ceylon where the friendship of two men, pearl fishermen Zurga and Nadir, is almost destroyed by their love for a priestess, whom they had both agreed to renounce when they first saw her years before in the city of Kandy. When the priestess, Leïla, comes to bless the fishermen, Nadir and Leïla recognise each other while Zurga at first remains oblivious. Léïla is torn between her love for Nadir and her vows of chastity, Nadir is torn between his love for Léïla and his loyalty to Zurga, while Zurga is consumed by his passion for Leïla and his jealousy of Nadir.

Emma Matthews in The PearlfishersEmma Matthews in Opera Australia’s The Pearlfishers. Photo © Jeff Busby

Underrated and sometimes dismissed for having a foolish plot, the opera seems to live perpetually in the shadow of the more famous Carmen. “I think there are issues with the ending,” Matthews says. “Bizet and his librettist just couldn’t come up with a proper ending, so there are a few different versions.”

For Matthews, the ending chosen by director Michael Gow is the most effective. “The relationship between Zurga and Nadir is a very intense one, but not an erotic one, which it has been in other productions. This way the production is stronger, because the love triangle is really interesting. I think musically this is the best ending we have.”

A big change in Gow’s interpretation is that Zurga and Nadir are Europeans who came and settled in the British colony. “It’s basically set in colonial Ceylon, there are references to Brahma, but it’s not traditionally Indian. So there’s a sort of white supremacy thing happening, which adds to the tension,” Matthews explains. This modern angle creates a sense that the two friends have a rather simplistic view of something that is quite complex and that they underestimate Leïla and the culture she comes from.

Matthews sang the part in Melbourne and Perth last year, the only constant in a changing ensemble. “I’ve fallen in love with Leïla,” she says. “I think she is just such an amazing character, there is so much I can do with her.” Her favourite moment is the scene with Zurga, “because it’s theatrically well written and the journey emotionally through the music is fabulous.”

Singing with different Zurgas requires flexibility. “I get really fired up as Leïla, it helps in the scene, certainly when I did it with José Carbó [in Melbourne]. We’re such a great team, we really fired off each other. It was fabulous.”

In Perth, she performed with Sam Roberts-Smith which, according to the soprano, was a totally different experience. “I had a fabulous energy with Sam and loved singing with him. He is such a committed performer, and hard worker, but he is so tall that no matter how hard I tried to be furious, it still looked like I was being dominated.”

Grant Doyle will sing the role in Brisbane, and that will change the relationship on stage again. “The personality of the performer is so important – you really want someone who is going to push you,” she says. “Grant is the nicest baritone I’ve ever met. His voice and interpretation of the role of Zurga is absolutely believable, and profound. He acts his frustration in such a way that you feel his pain deeply as a listener… Our scene is heartbreaking. I love it!”

Matthews describes the other key relationship – that between Leila and Nadir – as “incredibly moving”. It’s less combatative and more romantic perhaps. “Their eyes have met, they’ve perhaps brushed past each other and spoken briefly,” she says, “but in the time frame of the opera, they meet, declare their love and nearly die. The beautiful duet in Act 2 is like vocal ‘love making’. The lines interweave passionately. To sing this duet, this time with Aldo di Toro is a great joy. We both had the same teacher (Megan Sutton) as students and our voices blend perfectly. We spin the lines in the same way.”

Singing with different conductors requires a thick skin. When she sang her entry aria at the first rehearsal in Melbourne with Guillaume Tourniaire, he told her that every single note was wrong. “It took me the whole rehearsal period to get it right,” Matthews laughs. “It’s very interesting tonality for me, there’s clashes of semi-tones and the intervals are really Oriental in that first aria. It’s actually really hard, but it’s beautiful!”

Audiences can look forward to more than just that duet – the friendship duet Au fond du temple saint (known simply as The Pearlfishers’ Duet) – possibly the best-known duet in Western opera. “The song I sing when I’ve been left alone, Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre, is a lovely ballad,” Matthews says. “There are just some lovely pockets of moments. The chorus music is fabulous, too. It’s a wonderful vehicle for the chorus, there’s lots of interaction for them, vocally and dramatically.”

Gow adjusts each show to the cast he has. “It was a really different show in Perth to what we did in Melbourne. I think it’ll change again a lot [in Brisbane],” says Matthews.

Emmanuel Joel-Hornak who was scheduled to conduct in Brisbane has had to be replaced by Graham Abbott due to ill health. Matthew feels sad for Joel-Hornak, but is happy to be working with Abbott. “I did my first Barbarina in Marriage of Figaro with him many, many years ago in Perth,” she says. “We’ve done a few oratorios and other things in the earlier part of my career, but to work with him now as a ‘grown-up’, I’m really looking forward to that.”

In the midst of rehearsing for Opera Queensland, Matthews is busy with a project of a different kind. Arts Centre Melbourne are producing a new show that is being written for her. It is a collaboration between composers Paul Grabowski, Steve Vizard, director Leticia Cáceres, and jazz saxophonist Jamie Oehlers. “We’ve come up with this incredibly different style where jazz and classical come together,” Matthews says. “But I’m not trying to be jazzy. I am singing in a way that I have never sung before. It’s been incredibly rewarding.”

Emma Matthews sings Leïla Opera Queensland’s production of Bizet’s The Pearlfishers at QPAC, Brisbane May 25 – June 3