A new staged song-cycle, by Steve Vizard and Paul Grabowsky, wrestles with the innate agism faced by many women in opera, writes Maxim Boon.
Few opera singers can boast a career as accomplished as Emma Matthews. Since making her debut with West Australian Opera in 1991, just shy of her 21st birthday, she has starred in productions with every major opera company in the country, delivering celebrated accounts of the great soprano roles, including Lucia, Violetta, Gilda, Pamina and Lakme.
And yet, despite this peerless pedigree, Matthews has found herself facing a problematic flaw of her profession, one that many of her fellow women in opera are also confronted by. “I suddenly found, now I’m in my late 40s, companies seeming to say, ‘Oh, we don’t want you to do these roles anymore’. Aside from the fact I’m at my peak at the moment vocally, it’s difficult to be told essentially, ‘We’ve seen enough of you. You’ve got nothing more to say.’ Because I do. I’ve got a hell of a lot more to say.”
Written by revered jazzman Paul Grabowsky with long-time collaborator and Fast Forward creator Steve Vizard, in partnership with Matthews, a new dramatised song cycle, The Space Between, initially set out to tackle the emotional complexities found in the more mature years of a creative life.
“I was always into the idea of exploring a narrative about being an artist as the basis for a piece,” Grabowsky says of the work’s genesis. “Not that we intended on it being biographical, and actually, this piece is far from biographical in any traditional sense. But the idea of making an operatic work, featuring a great operatic star, about being an opera singer, was an interesting point of departure for us. And it has well and truly departed from that starting point, in terms of its scope and direction.”
As Grabowsky, Vizard and Matthews began building on this original premise, a more multi-layered and surprisingly prescient narrative began to assert itself. Many female opera singers work almost perpetually in the stories of abused and broken women, dispossessed, driven mad or killed, either by their own hand or by someone close to them. Many of these characters are in their teens or 20s, limiting the roles available after a certain point in a singer’s career. The Space Between imagines a seasoned diva in her last performance of the ill-fated Luica di Lammermoor. As her coloratura pyrotechnics soar to the top note of Lucia’s famous mad scene, time is suddenly suspended. Now caught in this eternal instant, the diva is free to question the personal toll inflicted by inhabiting such tragedy, performance after performance.
“Most of the characters I play are victims – I’ve died, I don’t know how many times on stage,” Matthews says. “And it’s immensely challenging for things not to get blurred, because I’m the sort of performer that when I’m playing a role, I go there. I have to inhabit the character and really feel the love and pain of their experiences. It’s hard not to take that home with you.”
The narrative of The Space Between – directed in its premiere season by the multi-award-winning Leticia Caceres – is focused through the lens of a specific experience, but Vizard and his collaborators have not shied away from the broader political connections it shares with the Women’s March and #MeToo movements. “I think this is a story for right now,” Vizard says. “It’s driven by the most potent confrontations of the reality of being a woman today, and the sort of traditional expectations of what used to be expected of a woman, that we find recurring over and over in theatrical representations of womanhood. The great repertoires are full of what we would consider outmoded, almost affronting roles, depictions, representations of womanhood.”
But while this piece acknowledges some inherent challenges, it also shines a light on the resilience of artists, Matthews says. “It has a real low but also an incredible release. This central character comes through it all and basically says 'Stuff 'em'. It’s about saying, I am here and the music still comes through me. Part of these tragic roles, these women, will live on in me, and love and life and the music will live on. Nothing will stop that from happening."
First published 5 September 2018, for The Age.