Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
September 15, 2018

Arts Centre Melbourne’s latest commission is a showcase for Emma Matthews, whose many awards include Limelight’s 2016 Australian Artist of the Year. She is in such extraordinary voice for this contemporary song cycle that one must wonder where – and why – the soprano, formerly seen so regularly on Australian stages, has been hiding. Composed by Paul Grabowsky and with a libretto by Steve Vizard, The Space Between is a rare collaboration by three prodigious local talents that takes opera into new musical and theatrical territory.

Emma Matthews

This one-woman show reminiscent of Poulenc’s one-act La vois humaine draws on elements of Matthews’ life and career, interpreted as if in a troubled dream or series of disjointed memories conjured in an existential crisis. While it’s autobiographical, The Space Between is equally a reflection on operatic divas in general and the fragile heroines they play.

The meaning of Vizard’s abstract lyrics are often dense, but certain memories shine through, including Matthews’ childhood in Vanuatu, where her father was a harbour master, and a singing lesson with a condescending, exacting teacher, who emphasises the importance of the space between notes. While precise meaning and facts frequently elude, mood is powerfully conjured: self-doubt, defiance, self-control and, ultimately, acceptance, even a touch of pride. Vizard’s words can be engagingly poetic (“thrip and thrush”, whisky drunk “from teacup to dawn”) and occasionally boldly amusing (“windbag men”).

After opening with the climax of the mad scene aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the score is essentially Paul Grabowsky. Lucia’s top note becomes a hollowed-out electronic loop overlaid with a vinyl record’s crackling sounds; it’s an oft repeated motif through the performance. There are other subtle electronic noodlings, but the music is predominantly contemporary jazz that’s lounge meets Alban Berg and Philip Glass, played live by a small ensemble led by Grabowsky who conducts from the piano. The other prominent instrument is saxophone, played by Jamie Oehlers, who joins the composer and singer on the audience’s side of the set’s sheer black curtains for several wandering solos. The rest of the band remain seated behind this staggered partition: violin, cello, percussion, plus the digital soundscape artist.

The set is otherwise a simple collection of black slabs layered into a series of low, angular steps that form a small platform, plus a ramp and shallow pool of water. It’s designed by Esther and Rebecca Hayes, who are also responsible for Matthews’ costume: a white and flesh-toned gown whose flouncy layered ruffles are as well suited to Lucia as nine-year-old Emma.

Barefoot, Matthews energetically steps up, down and around her humble stage. She even runs around it a few times at one point then, with only a moment to recover, launches into song again. It’s a performance of extraordinary vocal stamina, as she sings almost non-stop for 70 minutes. But for a very slight strain in the top notes, a little bel canto passage more than an hour in is as luxurious as the opening minute’s operatic excerpt. Her voice is as warmly toned and refined as ever, so one hopes that Matthews is amplified only to accommodate the occasional digital effects – presumably including Lucia’s big looping note, though could that not have been pre-recorded? Ever the full operatic package, she also conveys a suite of emotions through voice, look and gesture.

Poetic and experimental, The Space Between is a daring exploration of the possibilities of performance and Matthews’ own mind. It’s a daring commission by Arts Centre Melbourne too, as something safer would likely generate bigger box office. Not to be missed by fans of this soprano still at her peak, it’s also well worth a look for anyone seeking music and theatre that’s fresh and challenging.

Arts Centre Melbourne presents The Space Between at Arts Centre Melbourne until September 23