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Sydney Opera House

Emma Matthews Partenope

Emma’s Partenope as passionate & determined as she is  

Soprano Emma Matthews makes her debut in the title role of OA’s new production of Partenope this month. Allerta! chats to her about singing in a variety of musical styles, writing her own cadenzas and negotiating the brave new world of opera on film.

Allerta!:How did you find preparing for the role of Partenope?

 Emma Matthews: Because it’s sung in English, learning the text was easy – the fast coloratura passages were the challenge. 

A:Were there major musical adjustments when Christian Curnyn arrived?

EM:There are always adjustments when the conductor arrives. With Christian I find that I’m working in a slightly slower tempo from what I’m used to. I’m having to expand my lungs a little.  

A:Some conductors like to write out ornamentation, while others give singers more leeway. How did it work with Curnyn?

EM:We all got an email asking us to come up with some ideas for ornamentation and cadenzas. Christian has performed this piece a few times, however, and he had many good ideas about it. We ended up with a nice mixture of what we wanted and what he wanted. As a singer you want a conductor to contribute his ideas; Patrick Summers, Trevor Pinnock, Richard Hickox, they all did that.

A:The conductor also has to set the house style, is that right?

EM:Absolutely – you can’t have one person doing an amazing display of fireworks in their aria and the next person not doing much. And you have to ensure that nothing is repeated, because two people can write their own cadenzas and when they sing them they’d be almost identical because there are so many rules in baroque music.  In bel canto repertoire you can have a big creative burst to show off the voice; in Handel you can show off the voice but there are rules to which you have to stick – you can’t have perfect fifths or octaves, for example. You also have to be appropriate: I can’t do a top F in a cadenza because the role doesn’t go up there; it would sound silly. 

A:When you write a cadenza, what guides you?

EM:You concentrate on your strengths. And you play with words so that you’re accentuating important ones. In one of my cadenzas, for example, I sing a series of staccato notes on the word “laugh”, which creates the impression of giggling.

A:Where did you learn to write ornamentation?

EM:At the Conservatorium, and when preparing for my Handel CD, now almost a decade ago. I did a lot of work on ornamentation with Frances Greep at the time. He’d worked on Julius Caesar with Yvonne Kenny and Jennifer McGregor.

A:You and Cath Carby have frequently sung boyfriend/girlfriend roles over the past decade – it must be almost second nature by now?

EM:Yes, she’s been my boyfriend for ten years. [Laughs] There’s a deep trust between us.

A:To have a boyfriend who is a girl is an opera convention – do you still have to work at getting it right?

EM:With Cath it’s easy. Our careers have come along together; we became mums together and we’re great friends. We don’t have to get through the awkwardness of “Oh gosh we have to kiss” either – it’s like, “Here we go again. Kiss my breast.” [laughs]

A:Christopher Alden is known for his daring approach to opera productions – his Tosca production for OA was controversial. How have you found working with him?

EM:It was refreshing to work with a director who expected something new of me. Partenope is set in 1920s Paris, and her court is a salon. I almost always perform the roles of innocent young girls who fall in love and have their hearts broken. Partenope by contrast is worldly and sophisticated. She flits from man to man, she doesn’t really know how to love and she’s very powerful. Christopher pushed me down the path of using my own passion, humour and determination in singing the role, and also into being as sensual as I could possibly be. He got me to do a fiendish aria with a top hat and tails – a very Liza Minnelli-type scene – while being very sensual with a chair. After rehearsing it I’d be aching all over. I think it’s going to be a great scene.  

A:You’ve worked with all the cast members before. Does working with people you know create a kind of security blanket for an artist?

EM:Absolutely. Partenope has a great cast and we’re all great mates. There’s a lot of trust within the room, we could just throw ourselves into Christopher’s ideas.

A:You did your first dramatic role as Gilda in Rigoletto last year. Now you’re back at the other end of the vocal spectrum, doing light and flighty Handel. How did you find that transition?

EM:Going back into the Handel style was actually very difficult. It’s much lighter than Verdi, and you have to be really flexibly vocally, almost rubbery. And the recitative is very chit-chatty – not at all like Verdi’s.

A:It’s unusual for a singer to perform in the number of styles that you sing in: everything from Richard Mills and Janacek to bel canto, baroque and Verdi. Do you think you’ll choose a specialty or do you enjoy the variety?

EM:I’ve been very lucky to have been with one company, and to have been given the chance to explore everything that I can do. Had I travelled the world I would probably have specialised in bel canto and Handel, since that’s what I’m best at. I don’t have a huge sound and as far as dramatic repertoire is concerned I think Traviata, is as far as I’d go. It’s not as heavily orchestrated as Rigoletto, and Violetta is much higher than Gilda, so  the role is much kinder to my voice.

Style-wise this is a challenging year for me because I’m pretty much doing the entire range of my ability. Pearlfishers rehearsals begin while I’m still doing Partenope, and after Lakmé I’m doing Nightingale. Nothing could be further apart than that…although Nightingale does have part of the Bell Song! Between Pearlfishers and Lakmé I also sing Amina in Sonnambula, for State Opera of South Australia.

A:Lakméwill be filmed. What sort of things does opera on film demand from a singer?

EM:The camera adds ten pounds, for one thing. So I’m on a bit of a mission to get fitter and trimmer. [Laughs] But the voice remains all important for an opera singer.

A:Is there anything left on your wish list?

EM:I have twelve Mozart concert arias under my belt and I would love to record them.

A:Why not a Mozart aria recital? It would be gorgeous.

EM:Gorgeous? It would be exhausting! I’d need a few other people in that recital!