The soprano on her “trauma” in The Love of the Nightingale.

Before meeting with Emma Matthews after a rehearsal for Richard Mills’ The Love of the Nightingale, I loiter in the cafeteria backstage at the Sydney Opera House for some time while she removes her stage makeup. It’s a normal part of any opera singer’s routine, but in this case, she explains, it can feel like something far more distressing.

“I remember during rehearsals the last time I sang Philomele, in 2007, I was in the shower for half an hour afterwards washing all the blood off myself and crying. It was horrific.”

The soprano is bright and bubbly as ever when I speak with her in Joan Sutherland’s old dressing room, but it’s clear that this challenging role in the Opera Australia production opening this week has given her a lot to get off her chest. Mills’ third opera takes as its subject the Greek tragedy of Philomele in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the princess of Athens endures rape and imprisonment at the hands of her brother-in-law Tereus, who savagely cuts out her tongue to silence her. Philomele and her sister Procne exact their terrible revenge by killing Tereus’s young son.

As a mother, Matthews is particularly shaken by the infanticide, and the psychological process she goes through in the role Mills created for her doesn’t stop when she leaves the stage. “I was driving home after rehearsal last night and had to pull over and have a bit of a weep. Then I got myself together and went home and had cuddles with the kids. Normally I’m very open with them about what I’m doing but I don’t talk to them about this.

“Yesterday we were doing the tongue-cutting scene and it went wrong. It was awful and I got very upset on stage and swallowed a lot of the blood but we had to keep going.”

Although she is no stranger to the corn syrup and red dye from the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor and other confronting roles, what Matthews finds most demanding is “all the mental abuse that comes with this as well. It’s wham! wham! wham! I don’t think a normal human being could take all that.”

Mills disagrees, arguing that the kinds of violence and abuses of power depicted in The Love of the Nightingale are “happening everyday in Rwanda, Somalia, Indonesia.” The shocking case of Josef Fritzl imprisoning his daughter for 24 years and having children with her looms large in my mind.

“The strength of serious theatre is to confront these issues, to explore them and to heal us,” he says. “To offer an image of exuberant beauty that transcends the ugliness and takes us out of ourselves and makes us whole – that’s why we make art.”

Mills explains that the image of a songbird with her tongue cut out – a particularly powerful one when embodied by a coloratura soprano known for her pristine high notes – is central to the opera’s themes. “It’s about the way speech brings equality and full human rights to people, and if you are not allowed to speak, you become something less than human. That image is about the silencing of women in the world, those dreadful old mullahs putting bags over them.”

Despite having premiered the role of Philomele in Perth and knowing what “traumatic stuff” she would face in a repeat performance, Matthews insists she was “desperate to sing this role again after the first season”.

“She’s an artist of enormous courage,” says Mills. “She really has a go for it, she’s not remotely precious.” This courage earned Matthews a Helpmann Award for Best Female Performer in an Opera in the work’s premiere season. 

Director Tama Matheson agrees that the role of Philomele is “far more dangerous and horrific than anything Emma usually does in the repertoire.

“I’m trying to bring out a really gritty realism with her. It’s quite a delicate thing to go through with someone.”

One has to wonder if all this gratuitous violence takes place in the name of shock value. With so much controversy over recent bloody theatre productions like Sydney Theatre Company’s Baal and Bell Shakespeare’s Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome, Opera Australia surely expects some walkouts.

Matthews believes there’s a double standard in film and television versus the cultural act of attending live performance. “You watch shows like Underbelly and people don’t bat an eyelid, but for some reason if you go and see it live in an opera people are more sensitive and there’s public outcry.”

“It’s much more to do with the psychological and emotional processes that lead to these acts than the acts themselves,” the director adds. “It’s never gratuitous if you approach it from that human standpoint.”

Mills’ second opera Batavia also features a graphic rape scene, but the composer has always approached these issues from a deeply sympathetic political and feminist standpoint. And despite the extremes in The Love of the Nightingale, bound to make some audiences recoil, it has enjoyed seasons with the Perth International Arts Festival, Victorian Opera, Queensland Music Festival and now with Opera Australia; undoubtedly a record number of performances in the country for a new Australian opera within four years.

For Matthews, it must be a relief that The Love of the Nightingale moves towards a final catharsis as Philomele, Procne and her murdered son Itys are transformed by the gods into birds, released at last from their suffering.

“I’m just lucky I get to sing the beautiful bird aria to lift it up at the end and that I have some joy to finish with,” says the soprano.

“When we did the aria last time, there was almost this collective sob in the audience as it finished – it was a really intense, amazing experience. To blend my voice into the sound of real birdsong at the end is beautiful.”

Opera Australia performs The Love of the Nightingale from October 21 – November 1. View event details here.