Exclusive Interview with Shawn Mathey
Posted: Sunday, January 13th
Press Contact: Brandon Stanley
On the occasion of Opera Carolina's run of Mozart's The Magic Flute opening on January 19, 2013 in Charlotte, NC (also playing on January 24 and 27), we continue to interview cast members. This time, we talked to tenor Shawn Mathey, who will be playing the role of Tamino…
Questions were by Opera Lively journalist Luiz Gazzola. This is a very interesting interview, with some compelling answers from Mr. Mathey.
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Shawn Mathey
OL – Let’s talk about Tamino. You’ve done this role several times in Europe.
SM – Yes, I have. That’s one that I gave a lot of attention to, over Europe, and now I’m fortunately getting to do quite a bit in the States, too.
OL – How difficult is it to sing Tamino? That first “portrait” aria is considered to be very hard because of the musical line that requires lots of breath control, and it also needs to convey a sense of beauty, and the singer is exposed since it comes so early. What are the vocal challenges of this role?
SM – Well, it is a vocal challenge because I think it takes several levels of vocality. You come out at the very beginning and it is rather heroic, when he is being chased by the serpent. So there is a kind of heroic nature to the character at that point, but then you get to that aria, and [laughs] that’s not a time to be heroic, like you said it has to be beautiful. I always find it easier to sing as the opera goes on because the voice tends to warm up more and more, and that’s early enough in the opera that it also makes it all the more challenging, because the voice is kind of warm but is not as warm as it is going to get later on in the opera.
OL – Is it the most challenging moment for you, or are there other hurdles later on?
SM – Yes, I think because of where it falls in the opera right at the beginning, and because it is so exposed, I have to think that it is the most difficult part. Because there is a second arietta if you will in the first act itself, but he is sharing the stage there with some of the animals, some of the creatures that he is calming with his flute, so I think that always takes a little bit of the pressure off too, when there are other people on the stage that you can play off of.
OL – Hm, hm. So, it’s sort of a relief when you get done with the “portrait” aria and you have an easier time until the end.
SM – I think so too, and with singing you can say, “Oh well, yes, because I’m not quite as warmed up right there” but I think also what goes into play for any singer is their nerves that come into factor. Once you finish the “portrait” aria, especially if you’ve done a good job, then you think “Oh yeah, I’m going to have a good evening!” [laughs] You want it to be in the moment, you wanted to be completely involved in the aria itself, but I think the tenor can’t ever forget that they are actually singing that aria at a difficult time, so it’s a delicate balance.
OL – And what about the psychology of Tamino? How do you portray him, and how do you see the nuances in his character?
SM – Well, he is a young man. He is inexperienced, but he has been raised in the line of nobility. So you get this guy that knows how to stand up straight, knows how to carry himself as a noble, royal person, and yet I think he’s got a really nice inside. He’s got a nice personality. I think that for him it’s about love, and trying to figure out just what that is. It’s an exploration. You can’t play him too noble, too rigid, because then, bouncing that off of Papageno, Tamino can become rather unlikeable in a way. So, he has to be real, while being noble. Again, I think he is naïve in many ways, he is impetuous, he goes off the handle, he has a temper, and he reacts, but that’s what makes his character so interesting as well.
OL – Of all the Magic Flutes you’ve done in Europe, and now in the United States, are there particular productions that you kept very good memories of and you might want to share with us?
SM – Wow. I have to think about that for just a second. [pauses] I’ve had really tremendous moments in all of the productions I’ve done. Some of the ones in Europe – I’m thinking out loud right now – get very concept-oriented. So you’re trying to make the connection to what the stage director has in mind for it. Obviously they have studied it more and have a deeper understanding of the history of it and everything.
I’ve enjoyed all of them, I can’t say one that is absolutely my favorite but I think if I need to mention one it’s the one that I just did at the English National Opera – but only because it’s the last one that I’ve done. If you had asked me this before this one at the ENO, then I’d have said, “Well, the one I just did in Dallas.” But the one at the ENO I found to be enjoyable because of the emphasis they place on theater. They don’t just accept what I want to describe as stock opera, gestures, emotions, or facial expressions. They are literally working in conjunction with some of the people from the National Theatre in London. It’s tough sometimes, because you wonder if you are being yourself or not, or if you are just submitting to what other people want. But I think in the end what it comes down to is, if you work hard on the role and the production, you learn something, and that’s what the rewarding experience is. If you are just there and kind of phony it in, not only you will not have such a memorable experience, but the audience is smart enough that they are going to know it too. [laughs] They are very smart that way.
There was one production at the Paris Opera that literally took place on gigantic air mattresses that were about four feet off the ground. During the D Major male chorus in the second act they literally had me inside of the air mattress. If you can think of a camping air mattress that is about four feet thick, I crawled through a hole of it and was literally in between the two layers of the bottom and the top while they were singing that chorus. [laughs] To this day I don’t know what I was doing in there, but I get that it looked pretty cool.
This production that we are doing here will absolutely be fantastic, because of the artistic element that is going on behind us on the stage. I love doing this role and I love doing this opera; I love working with different stage directors and different colleagues so each production in its own way is as memorable as the other.
OL – I see. Well, in Europe, like you said, there is more concept-driven and director-driven productions, and over here they tend to be more conventional. This one is visually very striking, but is it also concept-laden regarding the characters and the story, or is it more traditionalistic outside of the visual elements?
SM – I think that character-wise, because of how active it is in the background, we really have to be precise and involved in giving these characters or else we are going to just pale in comparison to the visual imagery that is going on behind us. So, I would say this is kind of a hybrid, conceptually. It’s definitely not just totally conservative and conventional by any means, particularly in the portrayal of Papageno of which Kyle will speak later. He is so fantastic! He brings a very new, fresh way to Papageno. I think that this is very fresh. It’s not just a stale, stock production of the Magic Flute. Yet, there is integrity to the story and to the music, so that someone is not going to walk away thinking “Oh gosh, that was weird, I just couldn’t get my head wrapped around that.” No, they will be able to get this one, I think it will really brighten up their perspective of things as far as this opera goes.
OL – At the English National Opera you must have done it in English.
SM – Right.
OL - But most of the time in other houses you did it in German, I suppose.
SM – Other than at the ENO, I’ve only did it in German, including at Dallas Opera. The English National Opera was the first time that I ever sang it in English. The ENO always has their own translations. They don’t go for the Schirmer score that is the conventional English translation. They work very hard in line with their productions and they do their own libretti, basically.
OL – Wow!
SM – It’s actually harder in a way, because first of all, the original language is easier to sing because of all the vowels and the consonants and how they work together – and with Mozart it’s masterfully done, to the benefit of the singer. Putting English into your mouth and negotiating intervals and pitches and tones, at first is very hard. What is really hard is when you’ve done one English translation, and then you come into another English translation that is entirely different. The old one is constantly battling the new one. It’s hard to remove the old one from your mind. Eventually the brain figures out a way to make it work, and eventually too, I liked the translation that we are doing here. It is the Schirmer score, but Maestro Meena kind of delved into that and made some changes that he felt were more in line with the original German. So it’s really excellent, I like singing it, and it works for the voice.
OL – Right. Maestro Meena is such a brilliant musician! I’m always impressed with him, because, first, he has this capacity to memorize the scores, and second, he delves into the languages. He did Eugene Onegin and he learned the Russian text to do it. It’s quite surprising that in a regional opera company you get someone of his level, who does this much for the company; do you agree?
SM – Oh, I totally agree. I have a very special place in my heart for him, because when he was in Toledo which is very close to where I live – this is many years ago, back in 1996 or 97 – at that time I was not pursuing a singing career, and he found out about me that I could sing, and he wrote me a letter, and said “Why don’t you just come and just sing for me once? I’d like to hear you.” So I went, and he said, “Well, I really like your voice, I think you should go to this really special school in Philadelphia, would you like me to set that up for you?” I said, “Oh, OK.” As a result of that I moved to Philadelphia, met my wife there at the school, and now we have two beautiful young children. Had he not written that letter, you and I wouldn’t be talking right now, I think.
OL – Wow. He is sort of your godfather, huh?
SM – Yeah, I mean, really!! And yet he is so modest about it. When I recount this story to other people he just kind of smiles. I say, literally, it is not an exaggeration, that he had a huge, huge impact on my life.
OL – Incredible! And what were you doing before? You weren’t into a singing career, but were you into classical music at the time?
SM – Well, I was singing. I was pursuing a degree in Finances, actually. From the time I was sixteen I could always sing operatically, just in a natural way. I sang with my father who is a wonderful tenor, we would sing in public a lot, together. I would sing in some Italian restaurants, about once a week, I was just kind of doing it for fun. But it was not what I was going to do. I think because I could sing and it wasn’t such a challenge for me, that drive to pursue it as a career just wasn’t there in me. But that all changed once I was put in contact with all the people that I was with in Philadelphia.
OL – You’ve worked more in Europe than here, right? You’ve been coming back to the United States now, but you’ve done a lot of work in Europe. Is that correct?
SM – Oh, that’s absolutely correct. Right out of school I went and took a fixed position with Frankfurt Opera.
OL – So, you spent a full year there doing all the diverse repertoire, right?
SM – Right, right. It was a very interesting time. I got to sing my first opera there, it was an opera by Schubert; I had never even known that Schubert wrote operas, but he wrote eighteen operas, and the one that we did there was his most successful. So, I got some great experiences in Frankfurt. My first daughter was born in Frankfurt. And then, I took a contract in Zurich, Switzerland.
OL – Which is also this kind of house, with their own hired staff of singers.
SM – Yes, these are really big functioning houses. So that gave me great experience, with great conductors, we did some great productions, and my second daughter was born in Switzerland. But when it came time for my daughter to go to school, and they sent a notice to the residents of Zurich saying “Now your daughter is this age and she has to register for school,” my wife and I were more in line with the idea of coming back to the States for that, because it was something that we were more comfortable with. So we moved back. Once you move back to the States, obviously it is not as easy for a company over there to hire you anymore because they have to bring you over the ocean, and it is easier to just hire people who are in Europe. Fortunately not working so much in Europe has been replaced by getting hired here in the States, and I feel very, very lucky for that.
OL – How do you compare the two experiences, of singing in Europe and in the United States?
SM – Well, I think that the common trait always is the music. Because when you go to the first orchestra rehearsal of The Magic Flute in Charlotte, North Carolina, or you go in Zurich, Switzerland, and the Maestro gives the downbeat, you get the same chord. You are going to hear the playing, and you are going to get people that want to make beautiful music. So, the music, it’s there. The difference is that from the fact that they have more State assistance in Europe, they are able to take more chances, conceptually. Because if the production bombs, if people absolutely hate it and they have to scrap it after just one run and they can’t revive it, it doesn’t make the company go bankrupt, like it would financially happen in the United States. So there is a little more responsibility here to more conventional measures, and to find things that they know the audiences will most likely enjoy because they have to sell tickets, and this is all privately sponsored, here. That really makes a big difference in the way that opera is approached.
When I was in Europe sometimes I did some strange, provocative productions. As you know, over there they are quite comfortable with the human form. [laughs] So I did a Rake’s Progress in Zurich, co-produced with the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, that was banned to people under the age of eighteen because there was an orgy scene. They don’t really think anything of it! It’s just kind of crazy! I was not really a participant in that, I was more of an observer in that scene, but that’s the biggest difference. But you know what, the music is the same, it really is.
OL – You seem to like the concept-driven productions, if I’m not reading you wrongly. Do you prefer those, to the more traditional ones?
SM – I think that what I prefer is when I have a period of time in the production where we have enough time that the director can take a look at me, can assess my physical status. Because I think they figure that out very quickly – how you move, who you are – and they are able to really cultivate that and get you to spend the time to basically get to be the actor that you can be. I think that is probably one of the reasons that I like not necessarily just the concept-driven, but the fact that usually in these productions there is a little bit of a longer rehearsal period.
I hear myself talking, and I think “What am I talking about, that I like longer rehearsal periods that keep me away from my family?” [laughs] But I just like periods where you are forced to become something that you otherwise think you could not be. I think I walk into every production like it’s the first day at school. Every production is like that. We are all nervous, we are all thinking “Oh gosh, am I going to be good, am I going to be OK?” So I like the productions that get you out of your shell and get you going, that’s what is interesting about opera for me as opposed to just singing concerts.
OL – Yes. How is the chemistry between the cast members for this Opera Carolina production? How is that shaping up? I know that you had a singer who withdrew for health reasons and you are getting a new Sarastro. Is that putting some sort of hurdle on the rehearsals, or are you guys managing well?
SM – Well, we have a couple of scenes that we still have to tend to, but what is most important is the first part of your question about the chemistry between the cast, and Maestro Meena, and the stage director, and the music staff. It is really, really fantastic, you don’t go into rehearsals and walk into the space saying “Oh my gosh, here I go, another three hours.” No, it’s really, really enjoyable. Everybody is polite and kind. I know that when Sarastro is put into place and installed, he is going to fit right in and wrap everything up even more tightly. I’m convinced of it. We’ve got a really good thing going on.
OL – Good. How do you see your career in the future, in the mid-term? You started in some fantastic opera houses in Europe, then you got to the regional opera companies here and some very prestigious ones as well, and you've done a lot of Mozart. How do you see it evolving in the next few years?
SM – I’ve been very fortunate to sing Mozart for the last ten years. It’s been very good to me. But at a certain point a singer has a responsibility to take stock of their resources and say “OK, I understand that opera houses are booking two or three years in advance, and I understand that my voice is going to change over that period of time, I need to start thinking of other parts of the repertoire in addition to Mozart.” I’m not abandoning Mozart, because Mozart is so good for the voice. What seems to be the next step for me, having done some coachings and some lessons, is singing the French romantic repertoire. The Faust, and the Roméo et Juliette, Werther, things like that. I think my voice lines up well for the French language, and it does something really good for my voice. I hope that that will take shape. I’m taking steps right now to make it happen, realizing that certain Mozart roles get retired, because from a characterization standpoint, after you reach a certain age nobody really wants to watch you running around singing Ferrando on the stage if you really can’t portray a young man like he is.
So, I got some plans, the voice is healthy, the voice has not been damaged, has not been pushed into bad areas, so I’m thankful for that. I think the voice is ready to try on some new clothes and walk down the runway.
OL – Great. I wish we had more time, but we don’t because I need to talk to Kyle as well. You seem to be a fabulous artist, and I look forward to opening night. I’ll be there. Thank you for your time and your very interesting answers. Good luck. I think it will be a fabulous show; it seems to be shaping up as something extraordinary.
SM – Oh, absolutely. And thank you for your really, truly outstanding questions. You really ask great questions, and I really mean that, for real.
OL – Thank you so much.
SM – And good luck talking with Kyle, he is super-wonderful.
By Opera Lively
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