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Acclaimed soprano and distinguished teacher Shigemi Matsumoto relates her life story as a singer and artist.
Imagine winning a much revered singing competition at the age of a college junior, an age that's regarded green in the opera world, and then starting an international opera career. This is precisely Shigemi Matsumoto's story: Shigemi won the much coveted Metropolitan Opera Western Regional Auditions when she was 21. A year later, after winning the grand prize in the San Francisco Opera National Auditions, she received contracts with the San Francisco Opera, managed by Kurt Herbert Adler. Thus began a brilliant international career that lasted more than 22 years. The San Francisco Chronicle hailed her voice as "polished silver, shining all over the coloratura." The San Francisco Examiner lauded her "fresh, vibrant, solo recitals." She performed with more than 50 international opera companies, more than 60 symphony orchestras worldwide and also gave more than 300 solo recitals, often combining Japanese folk songs with Koto with the Western opera repertoire.
After having turned her attentions to teaching, she became a faculty member of the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California and California State University, Long Beach. Due to her teaching obligations at two of the very best music schools in Southern California, as well as her role as president of The Classical Singers Association, and invited judge at a number of singing competitions, Shigemi's life these days is almost as busy as that of a performing star.
I must admit to slight diva-fears and a huge dose of excitement before meeting someone of such unusual talent and experience. But my worries melted away in a few seconds. Shigemi was extremely approachable. She carried such warmth about her that conversations were natural and easy. I didn't feel like a stranger. Behind the façade of a precocious, dazzling competition winner, she is a singer who simply loved singing.
Elegantly and stylishly dressed in black with pearl earrings, Shigemi's eyes seem especially alive and conveyed many words. You'd understand the word "presence" instantly. Witty in her ways of giving feedback to her students in the studio class as she joked about keeping vibrating mobile phones in pockets to remind one of support (the way of using lower abdominal muscles to help breathing and sustaining even air pressure), she is loved by all her students. Shigemi is a rare professor willing to take her students on shopping tours for performance attire and who shed tears at her former students' achievements today. She listens to her students' stories, both happy and sad. To be able to help them in any way at all is one of the greatest pleasures in life, Shigemi believes.
Certainly, Shigemi understands the ways of heart. She considers herself blessed since birth; the path of singing was chosen for her rather than the reverse. Seemingly disconnected events unraveled the call of destiny.
Outside her profession, Shigemi most likes spending time with her husband Marty Stark, who joins us in the interview. Their romance first sparked while she was in college. Marty later became the vice president of Columbia Artist Management, although he isn't involved in Shigemi's contract. The two now live happily in Northridge, not too far from where everything all started…
APA: When you were young, how did your family decide to move from California to Denver, then back to California?
SM: My parents lost their two businesses and lost their home during WWII. They just felt like relocating after camp to a kinder state where the governor would accept more Japanese people. That was Denver, Colorado. They began another business, a very fine beauty salon. Some of their customers were from the wealthiest companies, like the Coors Beer Company. My aunt who worked at the beauty salon said on any day, she saw mink coats hung up. The licenses of cosmetology, they had before WWII, when they had previously opened salons in downtown LA and San Gabriel. Dad wanted to come back here -- a lot of his friends were resettled here -- and he thought it would be warmer for me. Colorado was cold.
I think they tried to have children but couldn't. I was adopted.
APA: Did you find out about that later on?
SM: Uh-huh. My mother never told me, my aunt told me and I think it hurt my mother, because she felt she was my mother. Of course she has been, and my dad is my dad. I had the most glorious Japanese parents. I've never met my real birth mother and father. They might not even be alive, you know? I was so blessed to be adopted, and come to this incredible family who gave me anything I could ever hope for. They took care of everything, my lessons… and the support and love I have next door, later in my life, after we moved back to LA.
During my ballet years I would wear a tutu, my father had a fish pond, and they would take movies of me. A lot of photographs too, and I sat for portraits. I would always have the best clothes, [though] they were not wealthy people. But mother sewed, she made clothes that my [wealthier] high school friends would covet.
APA: When did you begin your musical education?
SM: I believe I started when I was about five. Because my parents had a lot taken from them at the outbreak of World War II, my mother wanted to make sure that I could go anywhere in the world and hold my head up. She felt that I could be given the opportunity to be educated fully. She sold jewelry so I could have my lessons. At 5 I had a little ballet, at age 7 we began piano lessons. From the age 7 to 14, I was studying piano so it was my first instrument.
At probably the age of 9, mother thought it would be good for me to have tap lessons, a little bit of jazz dancing, not singing lessons, but I was working together with somebody who put together shows and recitals for her students. So I would sing these ballads without realizing how to sing but I had this natural ability to express music. I was singing ballads that were written for Judy Garland, and other American musical theater pieces. This went on for a little while. One day my mother saw me singing to the birds outside, I raised my bedroom window and I was singing out into the garden. I said, "Mother, I love singing. I'd like to take voice lessons." This is how my mother recounted this to me. I was going to a church at the time and we found a choir director who could play the piano and taught a little bit of Italian songs.
APA: You started singing lessons when you were 13, 14?
SM: I would say probably 15, and it was not until I got into college that I had any formal training. I got into the opera program probably at the age of 19.
I was going to be a history major in college. I had all this musical backgrounds but I thought "I don't want to go to music, it's too simple." I wanted to do something that's got a real degree to it or something, you know? Gosh. So I entered as a freshman as a history major or non-declared, and got into the whole social swirl of sorority, and through that, my first year I met Marty, through his fraternity.
APA: What was he studying?
Marty Stark: I was a history major as well. But I was going to go to law school. I knew that. When I met Shigemi, she had just left high school and she was homecoming queen in high school, and she was considered at the time by my fraternity brothers to be the most beautiful girl in college when she first arrived. So she met one of my fraternity brothers, and he started going out with her, and our introduction was a non-introduction. Something prompted me, 3 months later, to pick up the phone to call her and yet I could not even remember her name.
SM: It was probably one of the most blessed events aside from being adopted and meeting all the mentors I had.
MS: By accident… really by divine intervention or something.
SM: I believe in that latter one.
MS: Certainly it wasn't planned. Going into music wasn't something planned for you either; it was by accident. I was pledged in a sorority and they were going to have a favorite faculty dinner and they needed someone to entertain the favorite faculty. So I, of course, said I played piano and I could probably sing a ballad from a show tune. So I did that and the professor came to me at the end of the night at dinner and said "you know, I think they can use you in the opera department. My friend David Scott teaches there."
So I took the only aria I knew, I think I self-taught this aria: "Voi Che Sapete," an aria for mezzo-soprano, "Cherubino," in the Marriage of Figaro, even though I am a soprano. I was drawn to Mozart that early. I took the advice of the fine arts professor and went to sing and met Doctor Scott. I was a pretty green little girl in terms of naïveté. But all these things having to do with music were predestined or something. I don't know what to tell you. It just fell open. This path was...
SM: Somehow, if you believe in things like that.
MS: There was absolutely nothing in her mind about going to college and being a singer.
SM: No definitely not. I sang for Dr. Scott and he seemed to like what he heard. And he immediately put me in the singing's program the next term. My first scene was the duet of Rosina and Figaro from the Barber of Seville. I think it was in English. I was good at learning music because of my piano background. I remember being on stage, thinking, oh I really like this, singing fast notes on a stage, in a costume.
MS: Make believe. She loves make believe, she loves getting away from the reality of life and when you get on the stage and you become a different person...
SM: I did enjoy inhabiting different characters. My aunt saw me on stage. She said, "Well, finally Shigemi has found something she can do." I loved social life, but music grounded me. Suddenly my grades improved because I had a mission. I had something to work towards which I could strive. I was motivated finally. Nothing meant anything until music, and then it all meant something. There was a goal.
APA: And it just clicked...
SM: It kinda did.
Date Posted: 3/30/2007