While 'The Pearlfishers' is renowned for an aria between two friends, a tenor and a bass, the oft-awarded and acclaimed soprano Emma Matthews will undoubtedly shine brightly, like an orb plucked from an oyster, in OperaQ’s new production of the piece by a young Bizet.
The Helpmann Awards are the Australian stage’s equivalent of the Oscars; an artist is humbled to win just once. Emma Matthews has seven! She has excelled at rising to meet the demands of the most dastardly challenges within the repertoire of the operatic soprano; pieces like 'Lucia Di Lammermoor' and 'La Sonnambula'. While possessing a vocal technique meticulously honed over two decades, Emma is also famed for acting. She talks about how she brings life to her character, Leila, a priestess in ancient Ceylon who becomes enmeshed in a bitter love triangle between two fishermen, Zurga and Nadir.
“I sang Leila last year in the Melbourne Opera Australia season and in Western Australia so it’s nice to come back now and re-look at her with a whole new cast and give her a new energy,” Emma says. “Initially she comes across as quite weak because I am covered by a veil for pretty much the whole of act one. You don’t actually see my face until the very end of act one and gradually you see her grow within the space of an evening.”Image © Jeff Busby
Emma, a fiery and passionate performer, imbues the role with a strength that belies the audience’s initial presumptions. “You could play her as very submissive, but if you’ve got someone like me playing her, that’s not going to happen.”
“Inspiration wise, I look at strong women in my life. I go 'okay, who do I know who has been through something like this' and I remember [their] emotional state.”
While Emma can empathise with much of Leila’s struggle, sometimes the dramatic themes of opera veer away from contemporary experience. “The big fight that she has with Zurga where she’s pleading for Nadir’s life, she’s just laying everything out there and is willing to die for her love which is not necessarily something that I would do or that is a modern idea; that’s quite an operatic idea and journey.”Image © Jeff Busby
It is a work, she says, that can be readily appreciated and savoured by a young audience unaccustomed to attending the opera. “It’s not a hard work opera; you can just sit there and enjoy it. The colours; visually it’s beautiful. Robert Kemp’s done some incredible colours with red and yellow and it’s very lush.”
Indeed, there are some experiences that only opera can produce, such as the sound of a harmonious mass of voices.
“There are some fantastic chorus scenes. At one point I am standing in the middle of them and the sound is all encompassing and you feel the stage vibrating.”
Lavish operatic productions such as these, replete with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, are expensive affairs. As such, ticket prices have served as a hindrance perhaps to younger audiences. Opera Queensland, to address this, has made 2,500 tickets available for $25; a bold and laudable move.Image © Jeff Busby
When asked about her colleagues, including tenor Aldo Di Toro, baritone Grant Doyle and bass Andrew Collis, Emma says simply “it’s the best of the best doing the best”.
'The Pearlfishers' runs from 25 May-3 June at Queensland Performing Arts Centre.