Having carved out a hugely successful career with her home company, Opera Australia, soprano Emma Matthews is about to embark on a long-held ambition, namely her debut with the Royal Opera as Vixen Sharp-Ears in The Cunning Little Vixen.
Advance press had told me that she was ‘lovely’ and ‘adorable’ and so she proved to be, and in a profession that is often blighted with egos and Divas, Matthews’ down-to-earth demeanour and infectious humour came as a welcome relief.
As with many singers, a career in opera was not a path she expected to follow when she first started her studies at the Academy in Western Australia. Having been brought up in a deeply musical environment in the South Pacific, singing came as second nature, “I was surrounded by natural harmonies and children who would sing for their entertainment. We didn’t have TV so we would sing for the love of it, and put on shows so performing was always in my blood.” She cites Julie Andrews as one of her main inspirations and her love of music led her to attend a musical high school where she was a choral scholar, finding time when she wasn’t studying madrigals to perform with her three sisters as the ‘Lysons Sisters’, Lysons being her maiden name.
Although she intended to pursue a career in musical theatre, it wasn’t long before her teacher was telling her that her future really lay in opera, so at the relatively tender age of 23 Matthews made her debut with Opera Australia in Sydney. She counts herself blessed that she was really looked after by the company, starting with ‘baby’ roles and the smaller Mozart roles, “nothing was offered to me that felt outrageous, everything was a natural progression”, but when conductor Simone Young offered her the part of Lulu “I just thought she was completely insane.”
Lulu is a notoriously difficult role and as the only previous German role that Matthews had sung had been Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier it was an enormous undertaking for her, which made me wonder how she approached the role: “It was a complete nightmare as I’d had a baby eight months before we started and I was suffering from post natal depression and all that stuff and I delayed learning the role until I’d had the baby as I thought that I’d have heaps of time to study once he’d been born, but no there were lots of tears and I nearly pulled out.” She goes on to say that the first musical rehearsal was a nightmare but everyone was very supportive, especially as they realised that there was no one else in Australia who could sing it! It was only during the first night curtain calls in Melbourne that it finally dawned on Matthews “That I’ve done it”.
She would love to sing Lulu again but her wide soprano repertoire includes Lakm and many other fiendishly difficult bel canto roles including Lucia, which she has made very much her own with Opera Australia, and when I ask which she considers to be the most important of all her roles without hesitation says Lucia. “To succeed at that was a huge challenge and I just loved it, especially the Mad Scene, the easiest part of my voice is the coloratura I love it up there.” She’s also had a whale of a time performing all the four soprano roles in Les Contes d’Hoffmann a difficult undertaking but as she says: “All you need is a good conductor to bring the orchestra down for Giulietta, get to the front of the stage and it’s all tits and teeth.” We both laugh out loud a regular occurrence during our time together which isn’t surprising given Matthews’ ebullient personality, but when conversation turns to the role of Vixen Sharp-Ears she becomes even more animated.
“I first sang the role of the Vixen in the Neil Armfield production for Opera Australia, which thankfully was performed in the same translation that the Royal Opera are using, and Alexander Briger was the conductor.” Briger is Sir Charles Mackerras’ nephew, so there was an immediate connection there between Matthews and Mackerras, the world’s leading exponent of Janacek’s operas and when she and Mackerras were performing Mozart’s Requiem a few years ago, “he asked me to sing some of the Vixen to him and he said ‘I’ve been talking to Covent Garden about you'”. And so two years on, Matthews is about to make her Royal Opera debut as Vixen Sharp-Ears with Mackerras on the podium, and she is more than delighted about the prospect. She explains that the Vixen is a difficult role to sing, not only as the composer makes exacting demands on his heroine but because there’s an enormous amount of physicality that the role requires. “I feel incredibly lucky as I’ve sung the role before so I don’t need to count furiously all the time. I feel the music now, which is great.”
She feels incredibly close to the piece and says that the joy of The Vixen is that you see her character going from being a young cub, who then grows into a girl before maturing into a woman who then dies: “You see the real journey of her whole life and there aren’t many operas that you get to see that in.” In the last revival the Royal Opera cast a mezzo (Joyce DiDonato) as the Fox, but this time round Matthews will be partnered with soprano Emma Bell, so I wondered what, if any, difference that makes to the musical texture: “I think it makes sense with me as I’m a lighter soprano, both in colour and I’m higher, than Dawn Upshaw (who sang the Vixen in the last revival). Emma’s voice is amazing and my sound sits perfectly on top.”
And how does she find working at Covent Garden: “I’m still on a buzz, but I get totally lost and think ‘I can smell the canteen’, so I’m a vixen in the corridors as well on the stage. Everyone’s being really lovely and it’s such a joy to work with Sir Charles and the rest of the cast.” I ask her whether she’s planning on returning in the future. “I hope so, and if I did get invited back my dream role would be to perform Lucia here, but what soprano wouldn’t?” With her great personality, wicked sense of humour and bubbly persona, her debut as Vixen Sharp-Ears promises to be one of the highlights of the season. I for one can’t wait.
Emma Matthews sings the title role in The Cunning Little Vixen which opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 19 March. Sir Charles Mackerras conducts a top-drawer cast that includes Emma Bell and Christopher Maltman.