Opera is enriching for the soul and the spiritSally Matthews
What’s your first memory of la Monnaie?
Sally Matthews (soprano): I must admit that my memory has become particularly hazy since COVID and having two children but I believe that The Rake’s Progress was my first memory. Rosie Joshua, the other Anne Truelove, was there as well, and we had a blast together. I immediately felt that la Monnaie is a very welcoming house where artists can really be themselves.
When were you last moved to tears by an opera or a concert?
Strangely enough I’m not often moved to tears by an opera. And I really do feel rather sad about that, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that, as a singer, you really know what it takes to sing that part or how much effort got into making this or doing that. So, you see through the whole process which makes it a lot harder to really cry. There is one particular piece though that always gets me moved to tears and that’s Mischa Elman playing Max Bruch's First Violin concerto. As soon as he starts playing, it doesn’t take long for me to start crying. I even cried while running to his music during lockdown. And the same goes for the piano music from Emil Gilels.
Why do you consider opera to be the finest art form?
I think opera is a wonderful art form, but it’s foolish to say it’s the finest art form. I feel incredibly lucky to be doing it as my job, but as soon as you’re in the cultural scene yourself, you immediately love many other art forms as well. I really do appreciate going to the theatre, to go and see some contemporary dance and to visit some poetry reading. All those art forms take a lot to pull off and bring joy to so many people. If I was to say one thing for opera, then it is that you not only get the drama, but you will also be moved by someone with incredible vocal abilities and that is very special. People who come to the opera might agree that these two aspects might give opera an advantage compared to other art forms.
Why should young adults come to the opera more often than they currently do?
Well, that’s really a big problem, even more so in England than it is in Belgium. It’s true that children need to have the opportunity to learn about opera in school and that’s not the case at the moment. Consequently, these children have no idea whether opera is something they like or not. Some children might see just one opera and love it straight away, but when they’re never given that opportunity they will never find out. Opera is enriching for the soul and spirit of every human being, so everybody really should get the chance to come and see for themselves and decide whether it’s their cup of tea or not.
How do you view the role of culture in today’s society?
Well that’s a rather big question. Look, there’s no doubt that culture and the arts illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional lives. On top of that, culture brings communities together. Sometimes you go and watch a dance show with some friends, sometimes you go to a concert all by yourself, but you’re never really alone. Experiencing what happens on stage, together with all those other people, changes you. And even though you can’t really express what has changed, you can only admit that it moved you in some sort of way. And that’s important. Of course, I could also give more economical arguments, because the world of culture and the arts generate a lot of jobs and money, but I’d rather focus on the less practical advantages. I think, during the pandemic, everybody realised that you really do miss something when you’re not allowed to go to a museum or a concert or the opening night of your favourite opera. We’ve all missed it and realise more than even ever that culture is important.
What makes la Monnaie so special for you?
La Monnaie has given me all my debut roles and so many opportunities. Peter de Caluwe always saw things in me before I could see them myself. Houses need someone who looks after everyone. It’s not enough for an opera house to be a beautiful place with a wonderful backstage. No, you need someone who gives everybody the feeling that they’re part of the family. And that’s exactly how I feel every time I come to la Monnaie.
Which role would you love to perform one day?
I feel like I’ve been ticking off my favourite roles over the last few years, but there’s a few left. I would like to do Giulietta from I Capuleti e i Montecchi, but I’m also very keen on the operas of Janáček and Dvořák. I’ve been lucky enough to sing Rusalka, but I would also very much like to sing Káťa Kabanová.
If you could preserve one opera for eternity, which one would it be and why?
That would have to be Jenůfa from Janáček for me. I performed that here at la Monnaie. And in Munich, together with Karita Mattila who taught me so much. The piece has the ability to feel like you’re just in a play while you’re actually singing a lot. The opera is incredibly touching and extremely difficult. When the baby is taken away in the second act, it really moves me. More so now than before because I am a mother myself now. Having all those emotions inside of me makes it all the more compelling for me and, I hope, for the audience as well.