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Lyric coloratura soprano Emma Matthews is a woman on a mission:  Not only is she singing Leila in West Australian Opera’s current production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers; she is introducing her new CD Agony and Ecstasy; as well as instigating a mentoring programme for young finalists in the Australian Singing Competition.

This is her third outing as Leila, the sacred virgin who breaks her vows for love.  Earlier this year she performed the role in OA’s Melbourne production and she believes that working with different casts offers new opportunities for portraying this young woman who has been chosen (or bought) to become the High Priestess: “ It’s a great honour for Leila.  Initially she’s nervous, innocent and excited, and doesn’t quite know how to react when she is threatened with death if she does not fulfill her protective duties (and remain a virgin).”

However, Emma believes that, as a singer, she must also portray Leila as a very strong woman, and vocally trace her dramatic progress from a light lyric in Act One to a deeper, darker emotional response in Acts Two and Three when she (Leila) realises that her lover, Nadir, is going to die. She pleads with Zurga for mercy in a climactic scena that extends through to the finale when the lovers escape.  The role really shows her full vocal range and she’s very comfortable with Bizet’s music.

Technically speaking, Emma says that bel canto means beautiful singing, and that is what she brings to all her roles:  “I think the core of my voice is a beautiful sound—but to add drama, I have to be a bit un-bel canto, and that’s a challenge.”  However, she believes that with conductor Brad Cohen in the pit (conducting from his revised Peters’ Edition) she has the necessary support for the diverse vocal challenges of this role.

Speaking of diverse vocal challenges, she refers to her new CD Agony and Ecstasy, recently issued by ABC Classics.  Putting down arias from La Traviata on CD brought back memories of her performances  of Violetta in OA’s Traviata on the Harbour, a role she shared with another WA soprano Rachelle Durkin.  She recalls “I played safe on stage initially.  It took me a lot of time to find the guts that Lyndon Terracini wanted.  He wanted fury, pain—he wanted every emotion possible.”

Five years on, this is the emotional response she has brought to recording Agony and Ecstasy, conducted by Andrea Molino.  Unbelievably, it was cut in just four days; rehearse and record.  It was hard work, encompassing a wide range of dramatic intensity:  “Particularly Violetta’s angry Sempre Libera, and then [in the finale] suddenly dying, the voice hardly there.  I’m really proud of it.  It’s me grown up!”

Recalling her early days as a student at WAAPA, Emma pays special tribute to her singing teacher, Megan Sutton.  “She really encouraged me to sing with my natural colour, my natural instrument……I took little steps with her, I never did the big arias.  She guided me really very sensibly.”  Later, OA’s Moffatt Oxenbould mentored her, giving her small roles, all the small Mozart parts, before casting her in the bigger bel canto roles.

This advice and care has taken Emma into the third project mentioned above:  “Now I am running a mentoring programme, matching mentors with ASC finalists.  Many of my colleagues have stepped up, donating their time and offering both expertise and advice:  Not as a teacher, but someone who can share their professional experiences.  I was embraced by a whole troop of mentors and now it’s time to give something back.”