Although Sally Matthews is a familiar figure on the European classical scene, performing regularly with the Royal Opera, Berlin Philharmonic and Dutch National Opera, she is far less known in the United States. The British soprano has taken part in one production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, performed at the Mostly Mozart Festival and appeared in a few other places around the country, but she has never ventured, for example, to Chicago.
That will change Nov. 21-24, when she makes her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performing three concerts in Orchestra Hall and a fourth as part of the ensemble’s annual series at Wheaton College. Matthews will serve as a soloist in two scenes from Samuel Barber’s rarely performed opera, Antony and Cleopatra. “I’m very much looking forward to coming to Chicago and performing there and meeting the audiences,” she said. Her invitation came in part through guest conductor Juanjo Mena, with whom she has worked in Europe. “He’s incredible,” she said. “He’s a very easy man, a very warm conductor — great with singers.”
Matthews, 44, grew up in a family of amateur musicians, including a grandmother who was a “very keen pianist” and a grandfather who could pick up nearly any instrument and play it by ear. “It was very much a performing family,” she said. “We all had to take a turn and do something when there was a family gathering.”
Displaying an early flair for singing, the soprano began lessons in her native Southhampton when she was just 10 years old with Cynthia Jolly, a multifaceted linguist and musician who died at 94 three years ago. Jolly was part of composer Zoltán Kodály’s circle in Budapest and enjoyed a successful singing career that took her to Wigmore Hall on multiple occasions. “She was deeply rooted in the operatic world, so there was no other route for me,” she said. “That was kind of the way I was going to go.” The young singer almost immediately became involved in competitions, soon besting significantly older student performers.
Matthews never really made a decision to make singing her career. It just naturally happened. “I’ve probably always known it’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t think there was any other option, really, which is sort of strange. I never thought I was pressured to do it, but it always seemed like it was a natural progression. That’s what I would do: sing. And to be honest, I wasn’t brilliant at much else. I was fine at school, but nothing really rocked my boat.”
In 1999, Matthews won the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award, setting her career on a firm, upward trajectory. She usually does only two opera productions a year, because she doesn’t want to be separated from her family for extended periods, and such engagements can stretch up to two months between rehearsals and performances. “I knew very early on that if I stayed away for too long and didn’t see them enough, it would make me very unhappy, and in turn, make my singing not very satisfying to me or anyone else,” she said.
She divides the rest of her schedule between recitals and orchestral concerts, and is a particularly big fan of the former. “That’s a great chance to have control of the reins and choose the program,” she said. “You get told to do so much in all the other areas. With opera, you get told to hang upside down, and you don’t really have a lot of choice in the matter. And even on the [orchestral] concert stage, there are certain rules you have to abide by. With recitals, there is a certain control that is quite nice.”
On Feb. 4, she will make her second appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, performing a Scandinavian-German program with pianist Simon Lepper that the two have previously presented in Manchester and London. The event will be in Carnegie’s intimate Weill Recital Hall, which she visited on a previous trip. “I can imagine it’s a wonderful space to do a recital,” she said. “I happened to catch a recital when I was there, so I could get a sense of the space and actually feel what it is like.”
As for Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, she and Mena first presented these excerpts in 2018 as part of the Proms, a popular summer music festival in London, with the BBC Philharmonic. At Symphony Center, she and the CSO will be joined by the women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. (Also on the program are Holst’s The Planets and Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula by James Lee III.)
Barber wrote Antony and Cleopatra, his third opera, for the opening of New York’s new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. The opera caved under high expectations, drawing negative reviews from every direction. “Almost everything about the evening, artistically speaking, failed in total impact,” wrote music critic Harold Schonberg in the New York Times. He criticized Barber’s score as a something of a hybrid: “neither full traditional nor fully modern; skillfully put together but lacking ardor and eloquence; big in sound but stingy with arresting melodic ideas.”
Matthews has high praise for Barber’s writing in the two featured scenes. “He doesn’t hold back,” she said. “It’s so dramatic in the best possible sense of the word and so visual. It’s really fun piece to do with the orchestra. It’s a really good blend. I never feel like I’m overshadowed by them or competing with them.” Like Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, she said, which immediately establishes its Southern setting, the music in these two excerpts quickly thrusts listeners into classical antiquity and the tempestuous relationship between the two rulers.
“I don’t know the whole of the opera,” she said. “I don’t know why it’s not done.” In fact, when she and Mena last worked on the two scenes, they discussed the possibility of presenting Antony and Cleopatra in its entirety. “It was the first thing we talked about: ‘We’ve got to look at this. We’ve got to do this — the whole thing in concert. If the rest of it is like these two scenes, it’s going to be a winner.’ ”