On the launch of her new CD with “the dancing conductor”, the singer recalls the winding path to vocal glory.

To me, bel canto isn’t just a technical term. It means beautiful singing, but it’s also about maintaining the beauty of the sound and keeping the voice legato. At heart I’m a bel canto singer – I think the core of my voice is a beautiful sound – but to add drama, I have to become a bit un-bel canto, and that’s a challenge. Doing bigger things like Violetta in La Traviata requires a different way of singing.

I first came across bel canto listening to recordings of Joan Sutherland when I was studying at the Conservatorium in Perth. I went to college only knowing La Bohème and Don Giovanni, so I would sit up and listen in the library at night – opera after opera after opera – just so as I could learn the repertoire.

It was there amongst the scores and the records that I fell in love with great bel canto singers like Elly Ameling and Edita Gruberová. I listened to the younger ones too, like Sumi Jo and Cecilia Bartoli, because their coloratura was – and is – so amazing. I listened to Cecilia’s early recordings and I loved the speed and the technical agility she had. I thought, “OK, I want to sing that fast.” That was a big challenge for me and that’s how I found my tempo for Handel’s Rejoice Greatly. That’s it, I can’t do it slower. 

I got into Natalie Dessay as well, because I liked the theatre she brought to her roles, and I listened to a lot to Renée Fleming – so not only bel canto singers. I loved the fact that the bigger voices didn’t sound boring. I never want to be boring. It’s the challenge of finding the balance between singing something technically and making it feel genuinely emotional as well.

It was my second singing teacher, Megan Sutton, who helped me to achieve that bel canto quality. She really encouraged me to sing with my natural colour, my natural instrument. She did endless technical things with me. I took little steps with her one at a time, I never did the big arias. She guided me really very sensibly.

It was when I was doing the national vocal symposium in 1994 with Joan Sutherland that Richard Bonynge came to listen to one of the concerts. “This is the one I was telling you about,” Joan told him. And he said, “Mmm, yes…” They both sort of took hold of me and said, “This is the path you’ve got to go down.”

After that, Moffatt Oxenbould looked after me and gave me small roles, all the little Mozart parts, and I slowly worked my way up towards the bigger bel canto roles. He put me in The Daughter of the Regiment very early. I think that was the moment when everyone said, “We can see where she’s going to go, but she’s nowhere near ready.” I was 26 years old and I had all the notes, but it was too much fire in my belly and not enough technique yet – it was ridiculous! 

I had all the notes, but it was too much fire in my belly and not enough technique yet

I chose the repertoire for my new disc based on things I hadn’t done on my Emma Matthews in Monte Carlo CD and what I want to do now. It’s all the other pieces I love, but I’ve still got another CD left of things I haven’t recorded yet.

I’m thrilled to have put down the arias from Traviata, because it’s a challenging role for me. The second act can be heavy for my voice type but I think I’ve found a way of singing Sempre Libera, which is very exciting. I played safe on stage initially. It took me a lot of time to find the guts that Lyndon Terracini wanted. He wanted fury, pain – he wanted every emotion possible. I also sing the final aria Addio del passato – it’s nice to have contrasting moments from the show.

Working with Andrea Molino has been wonderful. We have a lovely trust. He’s not a bel canto specialist – he said that – but he also said, “You’ve made me enjoy the bel canto repertoire.” I was really thrilled. He’s known in Europe as ‘the dancing conductor’ and he makes me dance – not only physically but vocally. You can hear the smile in my voice. We really spark off each other too, and that gets the orchestra laughing.

My challenge now is to make it emotionally enjoyable for an audience, for them to go “Oh, that was beautiful – I really felt that.” You can sing technically and cleanly, but then you’ve got to add your heart and soul to it and just put everything out there. That’s what I’m really loving and I still enjoy learning how to do it.

Emma Matthews’ new CD Agony and Ecstasy is released on September 2 on ABC Classics