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Acclaimed soprano and distinguished teacher Shigemi Matsumoto relates her life story as a singer and artist.
Asia Pacific Arts: What is it about singing that attracts you so?
Shigemi Matsumoto: It's the music. The music is so incredible. The stories are unfolding through all these great compositions by Mozart or Puccini or Verdi. It's in my experience unparalleled by any other experience I've had in terms of communicating to somebody. And communicating with an audience, and being on stage, singing that music, portraying a character, I could express everything I felt.
I was a very shy person during those days. I didn't feel very positive about my abilities to talk to people. But when I went on stage, everything came out. I wasn't being held by any social morale. I was able to be a courtesan in Paris, or Mimi in France, dying, or Abagail, being really nasty to people or conniving. That was fun.
APA: Did you feel like you were more real or honest in a way?
SM: Definitely. I could be honest through somebody else's vision and nobody could tell me that I was wrong. The most enjoyable characters were the ones where I outsmarted other people or I was manipulative or yelling and got all that attention. That was fun. Performing really played in with who I am internally, I think. I was so blessed to be in that environment at that school at the time, where Dr. Scott was putting together an opera program.
Marty Stark: Every semester there was a new opera, the opera starred Shigemi. At the time it was … to the point where the LA Times would come and review it every time.
SM: After only a few months of vocal studies with David, he wanted me to sing the role of Mimi. He was a very good vocal technician and it all made sense. I had all these operatic vehicles to further illustrate what singing really is. I'm not going to say that I recommend that to the young singers today because there is a hierarchy of how to develop the voice, strengthen the muscles, and understand all the components that go along with singing. Traditionally you don't start out doing opera four months into the study but that's the way it worked out and I continued my work with him over the next four years and it was truly the beginning of my career. When I left the university I had eight major roles in my repertoire.
MS: I took notes. I was there literally night and day. I would cut all my classes and sit in the audience and I would take notes and then I would discuss them with her. I grew up in New York hearing opera, so I actually had the background in my head even before Shigemi started. Once she started I was all part of it. I was there to support her.
APA: Did you enter the competitions with the expectations to win?
SM: I think Dr. Scott was really a career builder. He thought it would be good for me to enter the Metropolitan Opera auditions. So I entered just for the experience and I was the winner of the Western region.
APA: When you were 21?
MS: That's right.
Marty: That was really the second audition that she'd ever done in her life and she just swept the whole area…
SM: I did something else with the Young Musicians Foundation sometime after that. During one of the last years of school, I entered the San Francisco Opera auditions and won the national finals. I received my first contract then.
APA: When you were 22?
SM: That's right, with Kurt Herbert Adler.
APA: How did it feel?
SM: It was a pretty amazing association at the time. It was one of the greatest opera companies in the world and Mr. Adler was probably in his 20th year or so running that company. He was a great impresario. Quite honestly, because I had so much stage experience at Cal State, being the star of this opera and that opera, it didn't feel that different except it was on a much bigger scale, with a lot more famous people, much bigger orchestras, much larger theater, and a different protocol. But it was just on a bigger scale. I felt really comfortable, because I had done so much at Cal State Northridge. I had that experience, so it didn't feel overwhelming.
However, it was at times pretty overwhelming to be around so many great singers, or going into a coaching session right after Leontyne Price, somebody who you really revere and hear on recordings. There she is, coaching with Otto Guth. You know, that's a thrill. I'll never forget it. Somebody you worship that much and you recognize their voice through the door. Pretty amazing. So the program was phenomenal, I got to sing Pamina there. Between David Scott and Kurt Adler, there was the impetus for the whole career. They gave me so much.
APA: Was Adler a mentor who took good care of you?
SM: He really did. There were Western Opera Theater, Merola Opera Program, Spring Opera. After the Merola program (I was the winner there), I was asked to be in the fall season, I made my debut as Gerhilde in Die Walkure. That's a Wagner opera and I was one of the holding spirits. It was incredible to sing with Jon Vickers or Regine Crespin, world famous people who were opera icons. They were singing on stage. I didn't think that I did not deserve this. The creepy part is when somebody feels like they don't belong there. But if you feel you belong there, then your confidence gets bigger, and it builds from that.
I didn't value friends then. I'm grateful to have friends today. But that's how you get in this business. You succeed because people want you to. That's what I tell all my students.
APA: When did you audition for a manager?
MS: She didn't. Nelly Walter, who's managed careers of Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballé, Elizabeth Schwartkopf, came up to Shigemi during her performance in San Francisco and said "I want to manage your career." Shigemi never had to go to New York to audition for a manager like everyone else does. A manager came to her and Shigemi said no because she didn't want to move to New York.
You don't say that to the most powerful manager in the world! But Shigemi was that way. She does another recital a year later and another manager comes to her and says "I'd like to manage your career." After knowing what happened earlier, he said to Shigemi two weeks later, "We'll co-manage you. You'll have two vice presidents, you can live here. Nelly will take care of all your east coast bookings and I'll take care of all the western bookings. Don't worry about it."
SM: It came like an open path, it was remarkable really. So many young singers plan everything out and hope they can do this.
MS: I just came out of law school at the time. I looked over the contract and thought my wife wasn't going to sign it. I wouldn't let her. It was a standard contract and it was all built for their benefit and not the benefit of the singer. So I told the gentleman, no, we are not going to sign this. He asked why and I told him. He said "change what you'd like to change." So I took the first paragraph and changed it and said "these are the changes I want on the first paragraph." He called a week later and said they have it approved and will you sign it? I said "No, let's do the second paragraph." This went on for 13 weeks. Finally they signed my contract. They had a big champagne party for Shigemi in Hollywood. Two weeks later they asked me whether I'd come and work for them because they'd never had anybody put them through what I put them through. This was the company that was 40 something old, the largest management company for conductors, composers, symphony orchestra, ballet companies. The largest in the world! That's how I started.
Shigemi and I got into a three-month fight because she didn't want me to join Columbia. I said Shigemi, I can't advise you about your career if I don't know what's going on. Even if I got out of the law school I still don't know the business. So after three month we agreed that we'd go to Columbia for a year and at the end of the year, I would gather all the information in my head and quit and go on with the rest of my career. At the end of the year I was ready to quit and she said "no you are not going to quit, I need you in the business." So I stayed in the business. I stayed for 12 years. She was with Columbia for 22 years. She became the most educated singer on the roster because I told her all about the business side of singing. Therefore Shigemi was able to direct her career and say "I want to do this recital." It became the best seller for that. This was a solo recital before 3000 people, which is more than in opera, more than anything. The whole audience is on you, you are on the audience one on one. It's not like sex and costumes, horses and elephants and other singers, it's you. She got to do 300 of those.
Date Posted: 3/30/2007