A Year in the Life of an San Francisco Opera Chorister – An Interview with Frederick Matthews

In December 2007, joining members of my family and my Opera Warhorses colleague, Tom, I attended one of the annual Christmastide Bracebridge Dinners at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.  As it turned out,  several of the San Francisco Opera choristers were spending the latter half of December in Yosemite, as performers for the Bracebridge Dinners.

Since my regular subscription seats for the San Francisco Opera are located by the conductor’s podium, I am able to get a “conductor’s eye” view of each performance. Since San Francisco Opera employs a “permanent” chorus, a subscriber close to the front comes to recognize the faces of the individual members of the opera chorus, who, of course, appear in a wide variety of costumes.

Yet, in all of the years I had been a subscriber, I had never met nor spoken to any of the choristers.  It occurred to me that the website audience should find it interesting to find out what a opera chorister does both during the opera season and during the off-season.  I approached Frederick Matthews, one of the most recognizable of the chorus members, who agreed to the extensive interview that follows. At San Francisco Opera Matthews sings baritone in the chorus and from time to time is cast in solo operatic roles.

[Below: Frederick Matthews, baritone, San Francisco Opera chorus; photograph provided by Frederick Matthews.]

Obviously, the opera chorus is a major ingredient of a successful opera production, but I suspect that there is very little thought given by most opera-goers as to how the persons that comprise the chorus come to be there and what they do when they are not singing onstage.

Even in the smallest regional companies, one would expect most of the choristers to be persons who have an ongoing relationship with the opera company, and spend some considerable time rehearsing their parts (sung almost always in foreign languages) for upcoming performances.

But San Francisco Opera is a company with a permanent opera chorus, many of whose members (like Matthews) are “tenured” and all of whose jobs are covered by a union contract, entered into under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act.  As we will learn from this interview, in a major international repertory company such as San Francisco Opera, for most of the year, being a member of the opera chorus is very much a full time job.

Wm: I know you are performing in the opera chorus in June and early July and in September through early December.  And, also I know you perform the latter half of December in Yosemite National Park.  What do you do during the rest of the year?

FM: First of all, I am a public school teacher (kindergarten through fifth grade), with 380 students at Coleman Elementary School in San Rafael. It is a school that continues to offer music to its students, so I do get to teach music.

Wm: You teach public school, while taking part in a whole season of opera rehearsals and performances.  It seems like that would take up all of your time.

FM: Not entirely. I also take part in a classical musical group, the Capriccio Quartet, with fellow San Francisco Opera chorus members Virginia Pluth, a soprano, Sally Porter-Munro, a mezzo, and Richard Walker, a tenor.

Wm: Where and when does the Capriccio Quartet perform?

FM: We participate in  concerts that raise funds for the effort to preserve the Chapel at San Francisco’s Main Post Chapel in Presidio National Park.  We also participate in a concert series in the town of Gualala on California’s North Coast. That said, the amount of time that San Francisco Opera choristers have for other professional (or leisure) activities obviously is limited, and everything we do revolves around the opera season’s rehearsal and performance schedules.

If most of the operas in a season are new to us, that has an impact on our offseason as well.  For one thing, if I have to learn a lot of new operas, I do fewer repeat concerts during the offseason.

Wm: Explain the relationship between learning new operas and doing repeat concerts during your offseason.

FM: The main problem in preparing for a concert is that you want to choose a group of songs, most of which the audience has not heard you sing before. You may have prepared a number of songs that you would plan to sing for audiences in different places. However, if the audience has liked your performance and asks for you to return, it is their expectation that everything you sing in the next concert should be different from what they heard before.

If, as a San Francisco Opera chorus member, I find that I have a head start on the season, because I am familiar with the operas to be presented, I know I will be able to devote more time to learning new concert material.

Wm: How do you juggle being a school teacher and performing in the opera chorus?

FM: Well, I never have “down time”.  When I am in the opera house for rehearsals or in costume for performance, and there is a period of time before I need to be on stage, I am in the backstage downstairs doing lesson plans or correcting papers.

And when you are a music teacher for classes of young kids, you have to be prepared to play every song in four different keys, so that you will have an appropriate key for everyone in the class.  You have to be very prepared. You lose kids if you are not.

We get the master calendar for the opera at the beginning of the season with an updated schedule every two weeks. As soon as my time obligations to the Opera are set, I alert my school and they then schedule events during my “free” time. Around my personal computer there is an array of calendars, for the opera, for the school, for the school district and for the quartet. And, I also did vocal coaching for a student at Archbishop Riordan High School in San Francisco.

Every once in a while there will be an opera scheduled in which some of the core chorus gets the night off. In 2007, the Opera performed Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, which requires no baritone nor bass choristers, so there were several days freed up for my school activities.

Wm: When do you, as a member of the opera chorus,  start to prepare for the San Francisco Opera season?

FM: The opera rehearsals start in mid-March and continue through May.  During this period, we learn all the operas for the year (both the summer and fall seasons), working on every opera simultaneously, although we have more rehearsals during that time for the three operas of the summer.  I can tell you that the chorus prays for operas that are “repeats”.  Learning a new opera takes a lot of effort.

Wm: And obviously you also do the Bracebridge Festivities in Yosemite National Park each December.

FM: Yes, this is my fifth year performing at Bracebridge. Five of the members of Bracebridge’s Andrea Fulton Chorale, of which I am part, are tenured members of the San Francisco Opera chorus, and another is an SF Opera auxiliary chorister.

After the final performance of the SF Opera Fall Season (Sunday December 9 in 2007), I drive down to Yosemite and am immediately engaged in rehearsals of the Andrew Fulton Chorale, which not only performs roles and sings at each of the eight Bracebridge dinners (the first of which began Saturday night December 15, continuing through December 26th), but for two “Say It With Music” concerts of musical theatre selections.

Wm: At the “Say It With Music” concerts, you performed selections from Darion and Leigh’s “Man of La Mancha”, Loesser’s “Most Happy Fellow” and Ahrens and Flaherty’s “Ragtime”. In addition, you performed in several ensemble numbers.

FM: Yes. Then, on December 27th, it is back to the Bay Area for rehearsals for a February concert in Gualala.

Wm: You distinguish between San Francisco Opera’s regular and auxiliary choruses. Would you explain who gets to be in each of these categories?

FM: First, consider the “regular chorus” – the core of the opera chorus. This consists of about 38 members, who perform in almost every opera. Sometimes an opera, like Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” or Puccini’s “Butterfly” will use only part of the regular chorus, but most of the time, they will be onstage for each opera performance.

The regular chorus members are either tenured or in the process of qualifying for tenure. The tenured members have a minimum of three consecutive years in the regular chorus, and have passed a rigorous series of auditions, which, until recently, included sight reading of vocal music. There will always be members of the regular chorus who are not tenured, such as those who are accumulating the number of years required for tenure, but all of the regular chorus is hired for the season. The company knows it will need so many sopranos, basses, etc. and will hire into a chorus slot not held by a chorister with tenure.

Many operas require a much larger chorus, and the extra chorus is hired on a “per opera” basis.

Wm: At the time of this interview (December 2007), the run of each of the operas performed in 2007 has been completed.  Give me your perspective, as a veteran chorister, of the San Francisco Opera Summer of 2007.

FM: Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride” was new to me. It is written in the traditional French style with a high sound that requires a special calibration of one’s voice. In Robert Carsen’s staging, the chorus was placed in the orchestra pit. I found that I really enjoyed sitting there, giving us an  experience entirely different from being the onstage chorus.  And Carsen’s idea of having the dancers performing throughout the opera was amazing.  I found Bo Skovhus’ execution of the high tessitura required for the role Oreste memorable – that he could sustain it through each performance was incredible.

[Below: Frederick Matthews in Handel’s “Ariodante”; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph provided by San Francisco Opera.]

I really do enjoy baroque and classical opera.  Several years ago, we had Handel’s “Semele”, directed by John Copley, which I loved. [William’s note: John Copley returned in Summer 2008 and used Frederick Matthews for a mute role in Handel’s “Ariodante”.]

The other two operas of the summer were also great experiences.   Mariusz Kwiecien, the Don Giovanni, is a master craftsman.  That opera, in Director David McVicar’s concept, assigned individual choristers their own unique stage routine.  You really had to be on top of the action.

It was something else to watch Soile Isokoski  perform the role of the Marschallin in “Rosenkavalier”. I enjoyed her interplay with the Faninal, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, who plots every aspect of the roles.  He does everything so well. [William’s note: this was Schmeckenbecher’s third role in San Francisco. In each of his previous appearances, Count Dominik in Richard Strauss’ “Arabella” (1998) and Papageno in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” (2001), Matthews was cast in a comprimario role in the same opera.]

Wm: During the Fall Season, as you noted, the baritones in the chorus get off-time during “Butterfly” performances, but that still leaves six operas. Give me your thoughts on those six.

FM: The 2007 opening night was Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” in Sandra Bernhard’s staging (of the Nicolas Joel-Douglas Schmidt production), which we were performing in 2oo1 during the period around 9-11. Those were emotional evenings, lying onstage for the “Bacchanale” during a time of great national sadness. When it was reprised last Fall, the memories kept flooding back.

That said, the choral writing for “Samson” is unbelievable.  I have a special affinity for French opera, and have auditioned successfully several times for such roles as Duncaire in Bizet’s “Carmen” and Luther in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman”.

Graham Vick, who directed the new production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” was phenomenal.  He worked with the chorus and everyone else in ways that would help them understand his concepts. He was a nice guy, and I loved the show, but I hated going to the theatre on “Tannhauser” nights because the physical demands on us were incredible.

Once there, I could hardly wait for the second act with the entrance of the guests into the Wartburg Hall.  It was exhilirating. You feel like you are entering your mother’s womb. But vocally, “Tannhauser” is a killer for the chorus, especially the second act.

Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in Gerald Scarfe’s production was adorable and charming, fun to perform, and a great experience overall. I was impressed by Georg Zeppenfeld, the Sarastro, whose voice is even from its top to its bottom, the ideal that our voice teachers seek.

Glass’ “Appomattox” is a story that needs to be told, so that more people have a chance to understand its significance. It was very hard to sing without getting teary-eyed.  In addition to the choral work, I played a Freed Slave and part of a Civil Rights Quartet.  As an African-American, I found words in the libretto to be harsh, like pulling a scab off a sore, or resetting a broken arm.

[Below: Frederick Matthews as a member of the “Civil Rights Quartet”  in Glass’ “Appomattox”; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph provided by the San Francisco Opera.]

It was a living, breathing thing, and we were getting new parts up until its premiere.  I think it can use some more development and connectivity, although the second part is very riveting.

The physical production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” lived up to its curse. It was an extremely difficult production in which to work, full of pitfalls and traps through which we had to maneuver. Grips were continuously moving things. It was very difficult for the dancers.

The Macbeth, Thomas Hampson, does things with his voice that amazes me.  He is also very accessible, unlike some operatic super-stars.

Puccini’s “Rondine” was glorious from top to bottom – scenically breathtaking.  Mischa Didyk is very likable, and sings with great passion. It was a triumph for Angela Gheorghiu. There were difficulties, and Gheorghiu does make sure everything is correct for her, but the rapport between Gheorghiu and the San Francisco Opera audience was amazing. Every scene in every performance was enthusiastically applauded.

The production of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” was very imaginative and great fun. It is wonderful to see the chorus used well. And, for the first time in my life, I got to play a Southern cowboy. Like in the “Macbeth”, the conditions that the dancers experienced were adverse.  And, like “Tannhauser” it was vocally a killer for the chorus.

Wm: What were your professional experiences before becoming a member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus?

FM: I was born and raised in a disadvantaged community in North Carolina and attended the North Carolina School of Arts. I was one of many voice students influenced by a gifted teacher, Geraldine Cage.

In the early 1980s, I came to the attention of a small opera company planning to take Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” on an international tour and I was cast in the role of Jake. Our tour lasted two years and took us to a wide variety of venues, ranging from the Opera Comique in Paris to an aircraft hangar in Great Britain.

When in Europe, I was accepted to the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) for advanced studies at the Dusseldorf Opera Studio, but my father’s unexpected death and the economic impact that had on my family required me to return to the United States.  When I was able, I resumed vocal lessons with Page Shaw in Berkeley, California.

Wm: What is it like to sing all Gershwin all the time?

FM: Vocally, there is not much difference between “Porgy” and most  other opera, and for “Porgy” to work, it has to be approached from the same musical standpoint. Gershwin was an amazing man, and he put everything on the page. Some of the intervals that Bess has to sing and Porgy’s Buzzard Song are very difficult.

That said, there is a good deal of spontaneity required in the Storm Scene, which is a significant depiction of African Americans coming together and praying.

Wm: San Francisco Opera is scheduled to perform “Porgy and Bess” with John DeMain conducting in Summer of 2009. Do you plan to try out for roles beyond being a member of the chorus?

FM: Well, I’ve heard rumors of a “Porgy”, but you are the first to confirm it.  At the San Francisco Opera there are auditions for everything.  We will see.

Wm: In your career, what opera singers have you found especially memorable?

FM: I found Shirley Verrett to be so regal, reminding me of a harnessed tigress.  Additionally, I found Beverly Sills’ stagecraft to be wondrous. At Wolf Trap, I saw her Rosina in Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” and the three Queens in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”, “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux” . I loved her.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had the most beautiful voice and the most heartwarming intelligence in his singing.  Once I paid for a ticket for a Fischer-Dieskau concert that cost me two weeks’ wages, in which he sang Mahler and Schubert’s “Winterreise”.

Wm: Frederick, thank you for this illuminating interview.