Q & A: Matilda Sterby on Mozart, Swedish Opera & Teaching During the Pandemic

By Francisco Salazar

In 2019, Matilda Sterby graduated from the University College of Opera in Stockholm ready to begin her professional career. But 2020 was hit with a pandemic and Sterby’s operatic engagements were canceled including house and role debuts.

As a result, the soprano was forced to take a job as a teacher and shift her career path in order to make money. Once theaters opened, the soprano was re-engaged and last month she was finally able to make her company debut in Klagenfurt.

Sterby spoke with OperaWire about the pandemic, teaching, returning to the stage, and performing Swedish opera.

You recently graduated and had to experience a pandemic before being able to commence your professional career. Tell me about that experience and what excites you to be back on stage?

Matilda Sterby: It’s been a really special period of time and a very hard one. I graduated in 2019 and I didn’t really have the chance to really start my working career. So it was weird to graduate and then have all these plans and then everything was canceled. And I had to wait it out.

Now that I am back on stage there are a lot of mixed feelings because during this pandemic I needed to do something to earn money. So I worked as a kindergarten teacher and I was trying to practice and keep my voice in shape. So all of a sudden to be on stage again feels unreal and exciting. I was nervous to get back on stage because it’s been a long time.

OW: Tell me about teaching and what that felt like?

MS: It is a totally different thing and I am thankful that I had the chance to do that because it taught me about myself and it gave me perspective of the identity of being a singer and then suddenly not being one. Getting back to that identity of being a singer is hard because you have to convince people. Now, I also have to convince myself that I have this job and this is what I do. It’s odd.

OW: Now you are performing La Contessa in “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Tell me about performing this role?

MS: I am looking forward to doing this role because it is an amazing role and it has amazing music. I had done it once before but it was in Swedish and now it is in Italian, its original language. So I am very excited to get the chance to do it for real and I am very excited to meet people from different places and to come together to do this piece. There are a lot of emotions. The Klagenfurt house is small and I am looking forward to doing it first in a smaller house and then doing it in a bigger house. I will get to know the role and get to know the music and the entire theatrical work. It will be intimate and that is great to get close to the audience especially after this pandemic. And then to move to a bigger house and a bigger stage is something I am looking forward to.

OW: What are the biggest challenges of singing Contessa?

MS: The challenges are that she is completely different from the rest of the roles on stage and she is real. She has so much depth and is so tragic. She is so alone and outside the community of everyone else. And that is really hard and that is also attractive. With her being so lonely, it gives her the opportunity of going so deep with every emotion and that it gives me a chance to talk to the audience and to express a message.  My favorite part is her entrance Aria because it is a great entrance and it is a simple aria but it is not easy to sing. The expression is so simple but it has so many layers. It is hard but it is beautiful. I also love the ensembles of the opera. There are small parts that are so great.

OW: How does Contessa differ from Donna Anna, which you have sung before?

MS: This part is more down to earth and it’s more real. Donna Anna is higher in the register and it’s in the passagio. Contessa is lower musically and in the middle range. She does these beautiful things in her musical line and that gives something to the character. Donna Anna is always on the edge but Contessa is refined in her musical expression. She works as a mezzo in the ensembles with Susanna and she has long lines and not much coloratura.

OW: Do you find Mozart fits your voice and do you think you’ll be singing his music for a long time?

MS: I think Mozart’s music fits my voice well because it allows you to come down in the in register and allows you to use different parts of your voice. You’re not always using your high notes. You get to explore your whole voice and it’s very simple in the expression. That is very attractive. The long lines are so attractive and I hope I get to sing Fiordilgli in the future as well as Donna Elvira.

OW: What would you like to show in your Contessa?

MS: I want to show her vulnerability as we as her loneliness and the honest person that she is. She is the only one stage who shows these parts in the opera. I also want to show her strength and if you are able to show both sides of the character, then it gives you a great opportunity to reach deeper into the expression.

OW: In this work, Mozart has two sopranos who often sing together. What is it like to sing in a duet with another soprano?

MS: It is an interesting thing to sing with another soprano even though their tessitura is different. He writes music very differently for both of them and you can tell in the vocal writing. It has a specific characteristic. He also shows the difference between their class and status. Susanna is in the group while the Contessa is left out. Susanna also has an affecting way with the Contessa and I think it is lovely to be able to sing alongside another soprano for a change. It is also not about a tenor and a soprano being in love. It’s an opera where everyone is the lead role and that is much more fun to watch.

OW: When you’re studying a character like Contessa, who begins very differently in “The Barber of Seville,” do you go back to that play and look at where she comes from?

MS: Yes of course because it says a lot about where she ends up. She is forced to become someone else that she is not necessarily comfortable portraying. That is not where she comes from and that is interesting as well. She is locked up and suffering and in the Rossini she is free-spirited. She is not from a high class and that makes her free. She doesn’t know how to be a Contess and she is not comfortable and she is trying so hard to play that role that she doesn’t remember or know where she comes from or who she is. That is part of her loneliness. It is almost like she lost her identity. Also when she sees Susanna, she feels that she is closest to a friend but she is not a friend because she is a servant.

OW: You will be performing “Tintomara” in the summer. Tell me about this work and what can audiences expect?

MS: It was written in the 1970s and the plot revolves around the events of the murder of the king that is portrayed in “Un Ballo in Maschera.” These are events that happen around the murder and I am playing one of the sisters who happens to be at the ball and there is this “Tintomara” figure that is not a woman or a man and she seduces people from everywhere. I would say that the plot is very similar to the setup of “Cosi fan tutte.” There are two men and two sisters who don’t know each other but they dream about each other. It’s set in the 18th century.

OW: Tell me about singing in the Swedish language and what are some of the challenges of singing in your native tongue?

MS: It’s contemporary. When you first hear it, you might think it’s very random but then you get to hear it and you find that it is very well written, and it’s both harder and easier to sing in Swedish because you become very thorough in the way of pronouncing words. If I sing in Italian or German, then I would adjust the vowels to make the vowels sound better. In Swedish, I know that it is not as easy to adjust because unconsciously I try to make it sound the right way. The vowels are very clear like German and even Italian. You want to make it perfectly right because you can and you know what it is supposed to sound like. As a result, it makes you eager to make it right. This production will be outdoor for a local audience so there will be no subtitles. So you want to make sure that everyone knows what you are singing especially since it is contemporary opera.

One of the other things that is great about singing in my native tongue is that I don’t have to translate. When I’m singing in Italian, I have to translate to understand and get it into my body.

OW: Is there an expectation from the Swedish audiences when they watch an opera in their language?

MS: I would say their expectations are lower because in Sweden it is not common to perform native works. And I would say that the audience is more used to watching Italian or German works. The hard thing is not the language but the way music is composed. This is one of the most famous contemporary operas and it was actually set for 2020 and was postponed to 2021 but then again postponed due to restrictions. So let’s hope it will happen this summer. I’ll cross my fingers.

OW: Now that you are finally on stage performing, what are some of your dreams as you begin your career?

IMS: I would love to do some Puccini, Strauss, and I dream of one day doing the Marschallin or Salome. I would also love to do all the Mozart parts. I also want to freelance and learn about the business so that I can also grow as an artist.


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