Q & A: Carrie-Ann Matheson on Salzburg Festival, Europe & Her New Position at the Merola Opera Program

By Francisco Salazar

In August, the Merola Opera Program named Carrie-Ann Matheson the new Artistic Director succeeding Sheri Greenawald.

Her new position will provide artistic and musical leadership for all Opera Center artists and projects, including acting as the primary musical coach for its young artists, overseeing their development, collaborating on recitals, and conducting performances.

Matheson began her career at the Metropolitan Opera, where she was a tenured member of the full-time music staff as assistant conductor, prompter, pianist, and vocal coach. She later joined the staff at Opernhaus Zürich, which led to the expansion of her performing career in Europe and she started performing alongside Rolando Villazón, Jonas Kaufmann, Piotr Beczala, Benjamin Bernheim, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato.

With her new position in San Francisco, Matheson will not only help train the next generation of opera singers but also continue her recital and performing career.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with Matheson about her new position, lockdown, performing, and her wide range of experience from Zürich and New York.

OperaWire: First, how have you been during this time of COVID-19?

Carrie-Ann Matheson: Initially, the lockdown was a little bit of a blessing because it gave me time to just stop after having a really hectic season. As time passed, the gratitude that I felt for the forced pause turned into something profoundly sad as I watched our industry begin to implode. I began to reflect on what and how our industry could change for the better, and how I aspire to be a part of that change – especially in relation to helping emerging artists that have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. I was fortunate to be able to start performing again in June, but a sense of loss was never far from my mind as I watched friends and colleagues in North America and U.K. struggle to save their livelihoods. There is such a sense of community in our business that it is hard to fully enjoy performing when I know that others are suffering so deeply.

OW: What are some of the guidelines that Europe has adopted for live performances?

CAM: Guidelines vary by country and they are constantly changing. Fortunately, live performances of classical music in Europe are considered essential to both the public and most governments. Generous financial support from European governments makes it feasible for many European companies to take greater risks than their North American or British counterparts. My first performances in June were digital with no audience.

At the beginning of July, however, the Zurich Opera was able to re-open with a week-long festival of recitals, concerts, and an operetta gala. I was very pleased to be a part of this festival and performed a recital with two really talented French artists, Benjamin Bernheim and Sabine Devieilhe. The audience was reduced to accommodate social distancing, but we were able to perform a full-length recital program with an intermission. Most recitals since have been without intermission, which presents a special challenge for the singer.

For the operetta gala, Zurich Opera extended the back of the stage as far as it could go so that the reduced orchestra could be socially distanced. The timpani player was really far away from the conductor! The two singers were not standing together for their duets, but instead were on separate sides of the podium. Despite these adjustments, we were able to put on a really wonderful concert, and the gratitude from the audience was palpable.

The Salzburger Festspiele is another example of how creative thinking by the festival direction and extra effort from all involved allowed for performances to continue despite the pandemic. Upon arrival in Salzburg, I was immediately tested for COVID-19 by the festival’s doctor. All artists were placed into different groups, depending on the amount of close contact that they had with other performers. Each group was subject to a different testing protocol, and we had to keep a daily journal of symptoms and detailed date/time/location information for anyone that we came into contact with for more than a few minutes. As I didn’t have a lot of close contact with people except my recital partner, I was in the orange/medium risk group which meant that after an initial negative test result, I was not required to be tested regularly unless I had symptoms. We were not allowed inside the Festspielhaus unless we were wearing a mask and had our color-coded badge. No guests were allowed backstage, and the audience was socially distanced and required to wear masks upon entering and exiting the theatre.

Due to these strict measures, the Festival was able to happen without creating a virus cluster. I really hope that the examples set by European concert and opera presenters can give performers in other parts of the world a sense of hope and perhaps provide a blueprint or inspiration for artistic organizations who are struggling to figure out the next steps.

OW: You were recently appointed the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Opera Center. When did you first hear about the possibility of getting this position?

CAM: The first time I discussed it was at the end of 2019 with Gregory Henkel who is the Artistic Managing Director at San Francisco Opera. I first met Greg in 2006 at Los Angeles Opera, and we have kept in touch over the years. Not too long ago, Greg was in Zurich on a business trip and we met briefly for coffee. We chatted about the importance of good training for young artists, and I mentioned that I could see myself moving more fully into that territory at some point. Some months later, he contacted me and asked if I was interested in talking about a position at San Francisco Opera, as the longtime SFOC/Merola director, the wonderful Sheri Greenawald, was planning to retire. What I thought would be a quick conversation ended up being many hours long as we discussed our dreams and ideas for training.

Over the course of ensuing conversations with Matthew Shilvock, Eun Sun Kim, Jean Kellogg, and the Merola board leadership, it became clear to me that the values of the San Francisco Opera align really well with mine and I was really interested in pursuing the possibility. I am really excited to begin working with such a wonderful team.

OW: Tell me about some of the ideas you have for the San Francisco Opera Center?

CAM: What is deeply important to me is that artists are personally empowered enough to know that their own opinions and individual talents are worthy of attention. I find that not enough young people embrace and celebrate their individuality. We plan to create an individualized program where our young artists are supported both as world-class musicians and also in their personal development.

Our tailor-made, holistic program will provide support and training in physical and mental wellness, and will include intensive and ongoing training in the business side of being an artist, including how to manage finances, branding, time management, media relations, and more. Of course, the long-standing SFOC/Merola tradition of excellent musical and linguistic training will continue!

OW: How is the program going to adapt to the current situation? Is it going to be virtual?

CAM: At the moment, yes, they are working virtually and will continue to be virtual until it is deemed safe to return to work in person. I hope that by the time that my tenure begins in January we will be allowed to be in the same room again.

OW: You have worked at the Opernhaus Zürich and the Metropolitan Opera. What are some of the things that you learned that you will bring to San Francisco?

CAM: I think the last six years in Europe have made me a much better musician than I was when I arrived. Of course, I received wonderful training in the United States and learned so much from my years on the staff of the Met. But living in Europe, being surrounded by different cultures, and having the opportunity to speak multiples languages within the course of the day has certainly made an impact on me. Some of my most profound learning has come through work on early music, and I now have a different perspective on the wide-ranging possibilities of musical drama. There is a freedom in the way early music and Mozart is performed in Europe that I want to bring to San Francisco with me. More improvisational, one might say. I intend to continue to encourage that kind of music-making and encourage our young artists to take risks and push boundaries.

OW: When you went to Zürich your work as a recital pianist expanded. What did you learn from the recital work you did?

CAM: I have always had a multifaceted career, working in various capacities in the opera house and playing onstage. I played a lot of concerts while I lived in New York but the truth is that in Europe there are simply many more opportunities for recital work. There are more venues and more established concert series – it’s just nurtured more. I love touring in Europe and having the opportunity to perform a program multiple times. With repetition, it becomes easier to take big chances and play with new ideas on stage. Every night, every audience, every hall, every piano is different and it is great to explore and have fun with that. I also had the opportunity to conduct more in Europe. While every aspect of what I do informs my musicianship, conducting was one of the greatest things I could have ever done for my development.

Now I know what it is like to stand in front of an orchestra and have all that energy coming at me. It also taught me about leadership. As a conductor, you have to not only keep everyone together but also guide the ship in a way that allows the individual talents of the artists in front of you to shine. It has made me look at music and people in a different way.

OW: Does that help you explain the concept of freedom in music-making?

CAM: Yes. The work that we do in the practice room has to be systematic. We have to prepare and put the hours in. I have always been aware of what I could do to improve as a musician and as a pianist, but I feel like in the last couple of years I have unlocked a lot of secrets. Once the systematic work is done, I can find freedom in my performance.

I use the metaphor of a house: for us, the structure and foundation of the house is the notes, text, and rhythm. Those things have to be solid but everything else that goes into the house, all the decorating, comes from the imagination of the artist themselves. Once you know that your structure is solid, you can decorate your house however you want. That’s the kind of thing that I want to instill in the musicians that I work with.

I often say “Ok, I may not choose to do it that way but show me why that is the way you should do it.” I don’t want to just tell young musicians what to do. I want to help guide their learning so that they get to a place where they choose what THEY want to do and say. This sense of freedom and individuality is ultimately what is going to make audiences want to see them on stage. Nobody wants to watch someone on stage who does everything correctly but has nothing to say. If people are sure of who they are as artists and what they want to say, then they can bring us, as audience members, into their creative world.

OW: You worked as a prompter and have worked with so many artists over the years. How many texts and librettos have you learned along the way and how much knowledge does it give you when you are working with young artists?

CAM: I have never counted how many scores I have learned, but it’s a lot! As a prompter, you must basically have the text and the music memorized. When I prompted, I didn’t have to worry about playing the piano at the same time, so my focus was on making sure that the singers were comfortable and secure, and on managing situations that go awry.

It was always a challenge for me to not become too entrenched in the story playing out in front of me. Prompting is an incredible experience, and it changed my perspective on music. One of the biggest lessons that I learned was the importance of good timing!

OW: Does that give you so much more insight when working as a pianist or a vocal coach?

CAM: From my seat in that small little hole at the front of the opera stage, I saw very clearly what happens to people under the pressure of a performance. Someone may have musically or dramatically done something one way throughout the rehearsal period but in performance, when adrenaline and stress are added to the mix, they do the complete opposite! It was always a very interesting adventure. Working with some of the greatest performers in the world, and by that I mean both the singers in front of me and the Met or Zurich orchestra behind me was amazing and it was an honor to be part of it.

My experiences as a prompter also inform my coaching because I know where problems can arise in the heat of the moment, and where the tricky spots are from the perspective of both the singer and conductor.

OW: With your work at the San Francisco Opera Center/Merola Opera Program, do you plan on continuing your work as a recitalist?

CAM: Yes, I intend to find a balance between performing and my work with SFOC/Merola. It is essential that I continue to develop my own skills as a performer and artist so I can continue to pass on what I learn to my students! One informs the other, and the idea of not performing on stage is unfathomable for me.

There are many ways to approach an administrative/teaching position, but I know that I need to nurture that part of myself in order to give my best to the people that I am responsible for guiding. Fortunately, the administration of San Francisco Opera agrees!


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