Australia’s top coloratura sings Mozart and talks training, top notes, bel canto, bosoms and Bonynge.

It’s the morning after the night before when I roll up outside Emma Matthews wood-fronted house in the Sydney suburb of Hurstville Grove, and I can’t help wondering whether she’ll have any energy left for our interview. Less than 15 hours ago she took her curtain call to a rapturous ovation after the opening night of Opera Australia’s new production of Rossini’s The Turk in Italy and, given what she gave, I imagine she crawled home and flopped into bed, pausing only to cancel the next morning’s alarm. The welcome I receive, however, puts my mind at rest instantly: “I’m still buzzing!” she reassures me as I’m invited in, and she heads for the kitchen to make me a substantial pot of tea. While the kettle’s boiling we natter away about England (where I’m from and she was born) and Vanuatu (where I’ve just come back from holiday and she lived for two years). By the time we settle down on the sofa with a large plate of biscuits for the actual interview she’s feeling quite the old friend.

We’re here to talk about Mozart, and in particular the new album she’s just recorded for ABC Classics of opera arias and some of the less common ‘concert’ arias. In some ways, considering the purity of her voice, it seems surprising she hasn’t recorded Mozart before. “I know”, she says. “Mozart was one of the first composers I studied as a young singer. It was Handel and Mozart – but I really learnt my craft through Mozart”. Among singers, he has a reputation for being deceptively difficult to pull off. “I think if you can sing Mozart technically beautifully, then you can sing anything,” Matthews agrees. “There’s nowhere to hide in it. The line is so clean and exposed and the coloratura is fiendish. You can’t sway around in it like you can in bel canto. You have to keep it very rhythmical but at the same time sing it with emotion.”

In Handel's Partenope

The last few years have seen a string of triumphs for Emma Matthews in Donizetti and Bellini, the field in which she has made her international reputation. “It’s been really interesting coming back to some of these arias for the CD and just cleaning the voice up – not having any of that bel canto nonsense, I mean. The Queen of the Night’s got a bit of the ‘grrrrrr’ stuff in it, of course, but generally, once you’ve worked on Mozart you go: ‘Well that’s it – that’s what I’m supposed to sound like’”.

Having had her version of Der Hölle Rache on loop in the office for the last week I’m curious about that Queen of the Night. Matthews combines pinpoint coloratura with, indeed, a great deal of ‘grrrrrr’ and better diction at the top than we often get. There aren’t that many singers who have both the lyrical Pamina and her termagant of a mother in the compass of their voices (I mention Lucia Popp, Matthews mentions Diana Damrau). How did the instrument develop?
Had she always been stratospheric? 

"The top came in my early 20s,” she explains. “When I was 21 I just about had a C but I worked very hard because the colour up high was good. The voice was always going to go up there but I had to keep pushing. Every time I would go a little bit higher and a little bit higher… I was working on songs requiring top Ds so I had to be able to perform at least an E. Anyway, I persisted and it just came, and the voice has stretched up to the top and down to the bottom as I’ve used it over the years.” “Ok”, I say, “what’s your highest note now”, expecting her to say F at the most. “A-Flat, comes the nonchalant reply, “sounds higher than G-sharp,” she adds with a laugh. And does she ever use that, I enquire, mentally trying to pitch one in my mind? “I used it the first time I did the Doll in The Tales of Hoffmann,” she tells me, “but there’s not the requirement for those notes very often. I mean, if you put those into something like the Rossini everyone will just go ‘uh – show off’, you know? But E-Flat is my favourite note to sing. Top E-Flat – I love that note. It just fits, it’s like a home place.”

Talking of home, I ask her about her journey to Australia and the path to her first Mozart role with West Australian Opera in Perth, the city where Matthews went to college. Born in Manchester, England she went to Fiji at the age of six or seven and some years later moved to Vanuatu, then Cairns and finally Perth. Opera wasn’t her first choice, she was a musicals fan in the beginning. “I grew up with Julie Andrews”, she says. “I thought her diction was so clean and I used to mimic her.” 

Training at WAAPA in Western Australia on the musical theatre course was fun but eventually a turning point came after a masterclass with John Bolton Wood who was in Cats at the time. Matthews sang I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables, and received no more than a polite ‘thank you’. “I thought, oh my god, he didn’t think I was very good”, she relates. “I mean it was way too low for me, it was ridiculous, but I just loved that song.” But it was food for thought and the same day she made the decision that would change her life. “I remember going to see my singing teacher and saying ‘I think I need to change to the Con’ and she said: ‘finally!’ and we swapped over to the Conservatorium where Richard Gill was Dean at the time.”

In La Traviata on the Harbour

At Perth Modern, Matthews had sung roles like Calamity Jane and Yum Yum, but opera was very new to her. “I’d sit in the library at the Conservatorium in the evenings and listen to a different opera every night,” she says. “I fell in love with it straight away.” Her first vocal role model was Maria Callas. “I wanted to be just like that and I would copy her. It was disastrous; it was terrible.
I remember going to see Richard Gill at the end of the first year and saying, ‘I’m going to learn a couple of roles over the Christmas holidays’ and he said ‘oh, what are you going to learn?’ I said, ‘I’ll learn Despina and Tosca’. After the holidays he asked, ‘How did it go?’ ‘Tosca didn’t work’, I said, ‘but Despina’s going really well.’”

Here she bursts into that brand of infectious laughter that, along with an innate modesty (there are no photos, awards or career memorabilia proudly on display in this singer’s living room) are hallmarks of her ebullient personality. So where did her Mozart journey begin? As with so many young singers, it was the tiny role of Barbarina, the gardener’s daughter in WA Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro. “Barbarina is so important!” she exclaims. “I did that when
I was 19. It was my debut and I loved it. Just loved it.”

Fairly soon into her career it became clear that her upper range and natural agility was going to fit Emma Matthews for the bel canto soprano repertoire, but Mozart had a way of coming back to bite her as well. As an Opera Australia young artist she had been cast in The Daughter of the Regiment at the tender age of 22. “I went into Moffatt Oxenbould’s office to talk about repertoire for the next year,” she recounts “and he said ‘we’d like to do Cherubino’. I was devastated because I thought ‘I’m a prima donna – I’ve just done Daughter of the Regiment – what’s going on?’ But he was absolutely right, because there was a weak spot in the lower middle part of my voice. Three seasons of Cherubino fixed it and I absolutely loved playing that role!”

Oxenbould had recognised her potential back in Perth and two years later gave her the place on the Young Artists program that brought Matthews to Sydney. “Moffatt was very much of an influence”, she says with evident warmth. “He guided me through all the Ilias (Idomeneo) and Cherubinos and more Barbarinas – the smaller Mozart roles like Servilia (Clemenza di Tito). I learnt a great deal that way.”

That early grounding in the Mozart repertoire stood her in good stead when the ABC suggested she record a Mozart album. She presented them with a list of about 30 arias including some less well-known gems – the CD begins with the gorgeous Lieve sono al par del vento (I am as fickle as the breeze) from Il Sogno di Scipione (Scipio’s Dream) and includes several of the so-called ‘concert’ arias, written for Mozart’s favourite singers to be performed on the concert platform or in the salon. Perhaps the disc’s highlight, though, is Dove Sono, the Countess’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro. The role is obviously an Emma Matthews goal. “I’ve never sung the Countess. I’ve seen and been near so many Countesses and thought I really want to sing that one day”. She then proceeds to surprise me by singling out not an aria but a recitative as her finest moment on the album. “My favourite thing on the whole CD is the Countess’s recit – I think I’m awesome in it”, she laughs. “I love it. It’s so simple and yet ‘E Susanna non vien’ [she sings, giving me an ad hoc demonstration] – it’s that double ‘n’ – its just divine. But I think that the Countess can wait – another 10 years, if necessary. As long as the voice is still Mozart-able!” she laughs.

With Gerald Thompson in the ROH's Cunning Little Vixen

And what other roles does she have her sights on? Is there anything that she’s desperate to do? “Mozart-wise I’d really like to do Costanza [in The Escape from the Seraglio] again,” she says straight away. “And I’d like to do a Donna Anna. I’ve never done Susanna – that’s my biggest regret. I was offered it a couple of times and both times I was pregnant or you know, it just didn’t work out. I’m disappointed I’ve missed Susanna – I think I’m a little bit too mature for that now.”

Missing out on Susanna though has had its compensations in the form of two boys, now aged nine and twelve. Raising a family in Australia, for most opera singers female or male, inevitably involves those tricky choices. Overseas offers involve trips usually to Europe or the United States and once you are on the international merry-go-round you often find yourself coming home only two or three times a year. Matthews, who has had her share of opportunities, is sanguine about her career: “For me it’s not an issue. Being a mum is the most important gift that I’ve been given and I love it to bits. And singing is an absolute bonus.”

Not that she hasn’t travelled, and looks increasingly likely to do so. “I went over as a young singer to audition and it was a disaster,” she admits. “Nothing came from it at all, and so it took me a long time to get over there to audition again. It was about a year before I did the Emma Matthews in Monte Carlo CD but then it was just fantastic! I got offers everywhere from it.” Her CV includes work with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo (a notable Mahler Four under the late Yakov Kreizberg – something of a Matthews’ speciality as she reprised it in Sydney with Ashkenazy a few years back) and her Royal Opera House Covent Garden debut as the title role in Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen. Matthews lists that as one of her three career highlights to date. “I was working with Sir Charles Mackerras at the Opera House doing Mozart’s Mass in C”, she says, referencing that Mozart fellow again, “and he said ‘I’d like you to come and do the vixen.’ And I thought, ‘Oooh, I dunno, I dunno, its not a bel canto role.’ Anyway, I did it and it was a success, but it wasn’t a triumph. It wasn’t me doing what I do best. I worked really hard and I loved every second of it, but it wasn’t me I guess. But you know, the door is still open. And who knows?”

So does she think the time is right for more overseas work? “I think there’s an awareness of what I’m doing over here and I’ll consider it”, she says, “but I’m not at a point where I want to move there. I’m very much about my children’s future and what’s good for them and for my husband right now. When I was younger it was all about singing all over the world and being a big star, but for me now it’s what I sing and how I sing it. It doesn’t matter where I do it.”

Looking at Emma Matthews today, it’s hard not to see a singer in her absolute prime. The promise of the early years has come to fruition in a series of recent triumphs here in her home country (her first Lakmé, her Helpmann award winning Partenope, her recent Australian Lucia). For a singer saddled early on with the onerous mantle of ‘successor to Dame Joan Sutherland’ she must feel moderately vindicated by now, especially since Sutherland herself, and in particular, Richard Bonynge, spotted the talent almost from the start.

With mentor Richard Bonynge

Matthews is quick to pay tribute: “Richard’s been my main influence all along, him and Joan. When they first heard me they took a great interest in my voice and in me as a singer. I had to promise Richard that I wouldn’t work with anybody else and whenever he came to Sydney we’d clean the voice up. He was always after me never to sing more than 80% – ‘Look after the voice,’ he’d say. I’ve been so lucky to have had 10 years of working with him.” So is he the Svengali that legend would have him? “Not quite. We shouted at each other a lot but we had this amazing relationship and I just, I really miss him. I miss working with him.”

Perhaps the greatest test for an Australian bel canto soprano has to be the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Matthews assumption of the role in John Doyle’s production for Opera Australia in 2012 saw her in blistering form, not just conquering the vocal demands but prepared to take dramatic risks that more conservative singers of Sutherland’s generation would never have imagined. It wasn’t her first Lucia, though – in 2008 she’d had the nerve-wracking task of singing in the famous John Copley/Sutherland production under Bonynge himself. 

“That was hard”, she admits. “I had to step exactly how she stepped. And having Richard conduct it! He’d say, ‘no, no, she didn’t do it like that. She lifted her fingers and did this’. It was like painting a picture of Dame Joan as best I could – which was a skill in itself really,” she laughs. “But to learn the role with Richard and then to let rip as I did with John Doyle! The conductor Christian Badea was amazing with me. ‘No, no, not good enough,’ he’d say. I was still rewriting the mad scene before the first stage orchestral. ‘It needs something else, it needs something else – take it away,’ he’d go, and I’d go home and add another bar here and add another high note there.”

In John Doyle's Lucia di Lammermoor

Oddly, that Lucia isn’t one of the three career highs that Matthews rattles off when I ask her. There’s the aforementioned Cunning Little Vixen, Alban Berg’s Lulu under Simone Young in Melbourne and last night’s Turk in Italy. Simone Young is important influence number three for Matthews, a musical director who has always encouraged her to take artistic gambles: Lulu for one. “It’s very, very difficult music – but, the character! I just love acting something like that. I’d love to do her again, but I did promise Richard Bonynge I never would,” she laughs. “He was absolutely horrified. ‘I couldn’t believe you were doing this – disgusting’, he said. ‘I can’t look at you the same way’.

Simone Young was among the opening night Turk audience: “We had a lovely reunion – her, Simon Phillips, Conal Coad and myself,” Matthews enthuses. “It was a great thrill to have her there last night. Very important.” And what about the Rossini? It was certainly another Emma Matthews triumph, both vocally and as a comic actress. “It was pretty out-there – I had an absolute ball!” she laughs again. “To have that much fun on an opening night is very rare for me – I torture myself normally.” 

Matthews plays Fiorella, a frustrated wife with a hyper-active sex drive. “My husband doesn’t think I’m acting at all,” she cackles. “He says ‘it’s just you being you – all the daggy stuff that you do’. For me it’s so liberating to play a woman like that and Paolo Bordogna who plays the Turk is wonderful – such comic timing!” There was clearly a rapport between the two of them and Simon Phillips, the director, to judge by the hands on approach with respect to Ms Matthews’ bosom “Oh look, it was just a free for all, you know? I think Simon had everyone in the room grabbing it one day.” I remind her of a particularly bawdy scene where the Turk whips a large sausage shaped object from out of his trousers and the three singers on stage proceed to chop and eat it whilst singing a tricky Rossinian trio. “It’s real nougat,” she tells me. “We were thinking salami but then that would be Italian, so we had to find some Turkish produce that you’d have with coffee. It’s quite warm when it comes out of there… and gooey!”

With Paolo Bordogna in The Turk in Italy

Next up for Emma Matthews is Gilda in Opera Australia’s new Rigoletto in Sydney, but then what else would she like to get her teeth into? She’d like to follow up the Mozart album with something popular. And sometime, an album of bel canto would seem essential. On stage, she’s been angling for a crack at Ophelia in Thomas’ Hamlet for a very long time. “We nearly got it happening a couple of years ago but it fell through,” she laments. “The mad scene for me is the most perfect bit of writing for a voice like mine – it’s incredible. I’d really love to do I Puritani too but you need a tenor that can get up as high as me and that’s pretty rare.” Nevertheless, with Matthews it’s a ‘pint-half-full’ world right now and she’s not one to worry. “I like surprises,” she says. “It’s been an absolute surprise doing The Turk – I certainly didn’t expect it and that’s a great joy.” And in many ways that mantra may just be the story of Emma Matthews’ life – so far.