Tenor Shawn Mathey is on a roll. Since his graduation from the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, he has sung leading lyric tenor roles all over the world. From the foreign capitals such as the Paris Opera and London’s Covent Garden, to the major US companies, such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and Washington National Opera. This year he makes his San Francisco Opera debut and his Dallas Opera debut in the current production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Theater Jones caught up with the busy tenor by phone.
TheaterJones: Your are really busy. You must be very pleased with how your career is taking off.
Shawn Mathey: I am. It is interesting because I am not one of those signers that is booked seven years out or anything. You can think that the year ahead is not going to be so packed but then suddenly, it fills up.
You get called for a lot of cancelations, I know.
True. That has happened two times this season already. One to San Francisco for a house debut as Don Ottavio [in Mozart’s Don Giovanni] and then the day after Christmas I was called to Lisbon to sing Ferrando [in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte].
It’s like "Find me a tenor!" quick!
[laughing] It seems that I am the one that gets the call when that happens. I am grateful to be cast, even at the last minutes, but regretful for whoever had a problem. I guess that I am not always the first-thought singer, but I am a “thought of” singer, and that’s fine with me.
How did you get started as a singer?
It is kind of a long story.
Please tell it.
My father, Richard Mathey, is a wonderful tenor and choral conductor. He has a real instrument. Every night when he came home from a long day of teaching, he would announce his arrival with a wonderful tenor cadenza, up to high C and all the fireworks. No matter where I was in the house, I would come running to him and do my very best impersonation of his vocalizing. I even shook my head to get the vibrato in there.
In 1975, we took a six-week camping trip across the States. I rode in the front of the family station wagon between my mom and dad. My siblings were in the back seat. My dad had just sung Tonio [in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment ], and his high C's were always ready to go. At least three times each day, I would look up at him and say "do it, Dad.” He would proceed to sing the high C aria, all nine C's included. And I just loved it. It thrilled me. I was six years old. That sound just stuck with me. At age 12, he took me to the record store and bought me my first Fritz Wunderlich LP. Talk about good guidance and training. At age 16, I accidentally made my first operatic sound. And it went from there. I'm convinced that the early process of osmosis is the real key to my vocal training. Not many people can be so fortunate to get to tell a story like that.
Great story. Is that why you have been sticking with the lyric roles, Donizetti, Mozart and Rossini?
Not really. In school, I was singing the Verdi and Puccini repertoire but when I went to Europe, I got swallowed up in the Mozart vortex. At this stage of my career, I am sticking to lighter stuff. I am still young for a tenor and there is plenty of time for me to move back into that repertoire.
But you have done some heavier things recently.
Yes. I sang Tom in [Stravinsky’s] Rake’s Progress. My first thought was this is impossible. How I could do it and then all of a sudden, I did it. Then, in January, I sang [Mahler’s] Das Lied (von der Erde) in Frankfurt. It was revelatory. I thought. “You know buddy, you have been singing a lot of Mozart but it might be time to branch out.” I just sing these pieces my way and don’t try to sound like someone else.
What would you like to sing that you are not being offered right now?
What I would really like to sing is the French repertoire. I would love to sing Werther. The way it lines up in my voice—it feels so good. But these operas are not produced all that often. Hopefully, they are due for a comeback. It is great stuff.
What do you think of our new Winspear Opera House?
Oh, it is stunning. It is so beautiful. My first entrance was into the house, as opposed to on the stage, because the tech crew was setting up. I was immediately drawn to the walnut floors. I thought “How smart. Harwood floors. Great for sound.”
How do you like this production of Magic Flute?
I love it. I can’t help but think of the history of this production. It was premiered in 1986 and there is a mind-boggling list of distinguished list of tenors that have sung Tamino [the role he sings] holding this same flute. It feels more like a torch that has been handed to me. It has every right to be called the “magic production” of Magic Flute. It has everything in it.
What’s next for you?
As soon as this closes, I am off to Rome for [Britten’s] A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Rome Opera. Then I will be in Geneva for performance of Bruckner’s F Major Mass. First we will perform it and then stick around to record it.
Wow. Mozart then Britten then Bruckner?
You have to stay mentally flexible [laughs].
What do you do when you finally get some down time?
I try to keep the summer open. My wife and daughters, 4 and 7, usually go to Ocean City and visit the pier. We live in Bowling Green, Ohio, a small town, and we like just being there as well. My wife is also a singer and she teachs at Bowling Green University. We met singing [Puccini’s Madame] Butterfly together.
One of the greatest love duets in the repertoire. Great place to meet. Does she still sing professionally?
She stopped for a while when our daughters, Sarrah and Hannah, were born but she is starting in again now that they are older. She kept her name, Sujin Lee, when we got married. She will sing a Mimi in [Puccini’s] La Boehme with the Toledo [Ohio] Opera soon.
Do your daughters ever get to see you perform?
Not all that often because of the distances. But my wife will bring then to Dallas on the 28th to hear the performance. They love The Magic Flute.
◊ And don't forget that you can see The Magic Flute for free at the simulcast at Cowboys Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28. It's free, and parking is free. TheaterJones will be hosting a tailgating party in the parking lot before, with tons of giveaways. See more about that here.