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Acclaimed soprano and distinguished teacher Shigemi Matsumoto relates her life story as a singer and artist.
Asia Pacific Arts: What do you say to the young people who come to you for advice?
Shigemi Matsumoto: Business is different, things do change. There are many more training programs. At the time Merola was the finest of its kind but today there are young artist program at the Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Portland Opera and Seattle Opera. They are producing, I guess, more singers. The level of excellence, "the package" of doing this requires so much. You have to be a very good singer, have a beautiful voice, musicianship, you have to look great. You have to have that magic of imagination, be political. You have to have style, perseverance.
Delora Zajick said that some of the reasons people don't have big careers is that they say the wrong things to the right people. Their technique isn't good enough, they are nervous, fearful. A lot goes into singing psychologically and technically. You need someone to help you. Nobody can do this by oneself.
I can't tell you how many times Mr. Adler would recommend me for things. For the National Institute of Education, he helped me to get a grant to do some international (vocal) competitions in Europe. He also recommended me to The George London Foundation. I received two $10,000 grants by stopping off in Dallas to sing. He also sent me to sing for an Opera America Audition and one also for the Baltimore Opera. They wanted to engage me to sing L'elisir d'amore. That's how it's done, by who you know, who believes in you, who puts you forward and it's remarkable.
APA: Were you still taking singing lessons?
SM: You never stop taking lessons. You take lessons through the rest of your life. You always have somebody whose ears you trust to hear you. The ultimate professionals are still studying. At the time I met Martha Deatheridge in Europe. She had a teacher in Austin, Texas.
Marty Stark: Between her engagements, she moved in with her teacher in Austin, Texas and stayed there for two weeks, took lessons daily. Then she flew back to New York and would maybe take lessons 2 months later. This went on for years.
SM: You never stop studying or coaching. Sometime singers would fly teachers around, if they can.
APA: What was your range like?
SM: A flat to a D. I would prefer not to sing to that stratosphere in public since I was more comfortable singing around C and C sharp.
MS: Shigemi was most proficient in soubrette, things like Adina, Despina, Susanna, Zerlina.
SM: I also sang Mimi, which was the biggest I would sing, and Musetta too. Mozart was my favorite. It has everything. It's incredible. He is the greatest composer for a young voice. If you can sing Mozart, Handel and Donizetti, you can branch off from that to later things.
APA: I'm a big fan of Mozart too. What do you think is in Mozart that some of the other composers don't have?
SM: It's the sublimely simple sound and it is such truth, bearing of the soul. He can write somebody in pain and it's done with such eloquence. And it's elegant, simple, and sublime. In order to sing Mozart you have to have a line. You have to be able to arch a phrase with a stream of air that's under such good management. You stay close to the instrumental sound, because you understand the requirement. It has passion, beauty, sadness, elevation, elation. Pretty remarkable. I never got tired of rehearing Mozart. Sometimes Puccini, as glorious and as genius music as it is, doesn't wear as well as Mozart. Mozart is thrilling for me.
APA: How much did you practice?
SM: It depends. Silent practice is what sustains you: the translation of pieces, not only your own part, but everybody's; memorizing, getting it into your body as you are practicing it. I'm sure I was doing it five to six hours [a day]. Singing is about an hour forty five to two hours. The rest is silent study. Reading about a character, reading books that would allow you to understand the portrayal, the centuries.
I really enjoyed rehearsing, practicing, unlocking some of the mysteries. I don't think anyone is ever happy. I've never been really happy and I realized someone like Domingo is never happy. Domingo said in an interview after being asked of what it feels like to be perfect: "I've never been perfect, I know how it should be, I know how I'd like it to be, but I never have been able to do it right."
MS: This goes on all the time, by the way, even when she comes off the road. Maybe we would have a day or two when we would go out and have dinner and do whatever we wanted to. But we wouldn't be going to the movies because people would be coughing and you want to insulate yourself. You have to be very protective of your performances.
APA: The first time you sang with an orchestra, what did it feel like?
SM: It is a cushion, it is much broader. There is a sonority that is so much deeper and when you study piano vocal score you may not hear what you hear on the piano because it's suddenly dispersed through many people in the orchestra. The strings take a section and woodwinds another. So you really have to know your music well. The most frightening moment I've ever had was in the San Francisco debut where I had to come out in Die Walkure. I had to climb up and get into the great stage to come over the mountain and start singing. There is a massive Wagnerian orchestra. Of course we had a prompter. Thank god I could play piano. I had to memorize the scene. That was creepy, when you have this slim voice coming out with the massive sound. The brass was so loud. There you are, projecting your voice, but you have to be in that rhythm. The rhythm was the life blood to music. It was kind daunting to come out and sing that, with this big orchestra. It was in a 3,000 seat opera house.
Being on cue, being there at the right moment, is vital. It's like a big cloud, and you are riding a cloud, and you are part of the cloud, weaving to each other, sizzling, fluidly intertwining. Very exciting. Each show is different.
APA: Do you have a lot of input stage-wise?
SM: It depends on the era. You arrive with what you bring to the table. In the American opera, the more "package" you bring, the more likely that you'll be hired. Today they still look for you to bring all your goods, and like clay they mold you. And your sense of self, that's what they will work with. In professional opera they are not going to teach you how to act. You come prepared to do this.
APA: Did you need acting lessons?
SM: No. I had an internal subtext that allows me to think about what somebody was saying and bounce it back to the person.
MS: Once Shigemi got all choked up in the fourth act of La Boheme because she didn't want to die.
SM: How did you know about this? Did we talk about this?
MS: Yes we did. She was so into the music and the character.
SM: You can't just be calculating and cold, you have to feel it, understand those emotions before you give it. The more colors you have, the more interesting you make it. Janet Baker said that there were pieces of music she found un-singable for a while, but when you get through that, get over that, because you've integrated that, your audience will cry when you understand all the layers and its sincerity, and simplify it down, understand what it is. Hear it within you. But you don't have to cry anymore, you can just feel it. Be pure. Be invested in it, integrated in it; then your audience will cry. You can't cry, because you can't sing. Sometimes you can, but it's rough.
APA: Do you consider your experiences valuable in terms of teaching?
SM: My experience as a performer gives me a greater understanding of what it does to singing: to put yourself up on that stage, to do all the things that the public expects. If I had not done all this I wouldn't be able to give that dimension of teaching to my students.
There's so much that comes into singing. You have to look, taste and smell like an opera singer. You can only give that away and share that if only you've been one. You remember how you walked out on stage and how you carried yourself. Your mentality, what you have to focus on. Because you've taken those steps, then you can give the best to your ability the memories of the steps. What's expected today is even more, but it's got the same requirements. There are some people with a really beautiful voice, but sometimes they don't work very hard. Somebody with not so fabulous an instrument might work so hard that they surpass those with great gifts. An interesting, beautiful voice is definitely a necessity out there. Domingo says that, so do a lot of people who run opera companies. If you don't have a voice, who cares? You are competing with the best in the world.
APA: It's a very competitive business after all…
SM: Yes, very. I didn't feel that in the beginning, or much in my career really. I think I fell into the right niche for myself and I was creative in putting together a recital program.
APA: What was your recital program like?
SM: It was one of my dreams to sing Japanese folk songs and when I put that together it sold really well through Columbia Artists Management. I gave over 300 of these recitals in the U.S. and was even invited to sing them in South America and Canada.
MS: It was a very interesting program. The first half of the program she would come up with a pianist, in a concert gown and sing Western songs. And then during intermission she would change into a kimono and come out to sing all the Japanese songs she knew.
APA: Where did you learn your Japanese songs?
SM: My father. When I was a little girl, he had me on his lap in a car and he would sing for me Hamachidori. I love that song.
APA: On your website you quote Richard Pearlman, "Talent is having the ability to know from whom to take advice and from whom not to." Do you believe it?
SM: As a singer you'll hear so many thoughts from so many people, some of them very prominent, and you'll have to be able to stay true to thyself. Boy that's a long journey right there. It takes such steel inside of you to stay to your own belief and trust all the people you really trust. Great teachers are the hands of god, but to find that trust and to believe in something that works for you, and not to get caught up with your ego. It works for you, leave it alone, cultivate it. Your inner voice tells you it's time to do something new, to maybe take more information. I think it's one of the keys to the whole thing.
You do have to take advice from people. They have to have taste, a track record. You'll have to decide to take this advice or not. You'll have to ponder. Avoid people who use you to get to some place for themselves. You can still do business with people but you have to be careful with people who want things from you. You have to be able to access that, somehow. Even my naiveté told me that I didn't want to do show business.
APA: What are some of the best professional advice you've received from people?
SM: I remember saying to Mr. Adler: "I was asked to sing Madame Butterfly in Spokane -- reduced orchestra, small house. What do you think, Mr. Adler?" He said: "Don't do it." That was great advice. I didn't do it. I might look like Butterfly but I don't have the voice for it. It's a big full lyric part.
For a lot of people, you need a partner to do this. One of my former students said that: To have a career, you get married. You and your husband have to think of your voice as the child.
MS: One thing I've said to Shigemi, which was the foremost thing I've ever said to her, was: "Go on, and do what makes you happy and I'll be here to support you, no matter what it is." She didn't have to be a star for me. She didn't have to sing at the Metropolitan Opera for me. She didn't have to bring the money home for me. She just had to do something to make her happy. So, if something did not please her, she could simply turn it down.
SM: It's really what it is. A happy career.
MS: Do you regret your career?
SM: I probably would have done a couple of things differently, but I did it my way. That's what it was. To think of where I am today… I enjoyed doing this, I loved what I did. One of my former students also said that "Singers are totally unemployable, they can't do anything else!" (Laughs)
Date Posted: 3/30/2007