The Chinese-born soprano Sharon Zhai and the Western Sydney-born tenor Matt Reardon are meeting each other for the first time. This interview and photoshoot is something of an icebreaker.
It is still several weeks before Sharon Zhai and Matt Reardon are scheduled to enter the rehearsal room to play Japanese geisha Cio-Cio San and her beloved United States American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton in a new Opera Australia touring production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Any encounter prior to acting out this most desperate of operatic love affairs can only be helpful.
Zhai was born in Henan province in Central China’s Yellow River Valley and graduated in opera performance from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
She obtained her masters in music from the Sydney Conservatorium and in 2008 gained a distinguished talent visa from the Australian Government. She then spent eight years perfecting her voice in Milan, Italy where, incidentally, Madame Butterfly was first performed, in 1904.
Reardon, raised and still living in Bankstown after completing his Masters of Opera at the Wales International Academy of Voice in Cardiff, is asked by the photographer to wrap his arms around Zhai’s midriff.
“Is your husband Italian?” asks Reardon.
“Yes,” says Zhai.
“Oh,” he jokes, “I hope he’s OK with these photos.”
Zhai laughs. “He’s the gentlest.”
Based once more in Sydney with her husband and eight-year-old son, it’s a good thing Zhai is fluent in three languages. Having assumed she would be singing the role of tragic Cio-Cio-San in Italian, Zhai only recently learned the show would be sung entirely in English for this tour, a creative decision designed to attract audiences less familiar with opera performed in European languages.
For Reardon, performing at Riverside Theatres in this John Bell-directed production of Madame Butterfly will be something of a homecoming.
As a youngster he saw many shows at Riverside and based his HSC theatre lighting study project on the theatre’s rig. Many of Reardon’s local family and friends will be packing the Riverside to see him sing the cad Pinkerton.
So, how do two performers who don’t know each other find the necessary chemistry? Does a sense of humour help build rapport?
“Oh god,” smiles Reardon.
“You answer first,” says Zhai.
“I think the stereotype of a tenor and a soprano is that they have large egos,” says Reardon.
“Yeah, all singers are a bit crazy – especially sopranos,” says Zhai. “They’re all a bit … you know, passionate.”
The pair laughs knowingly, already beginning to finish one another’s sentences.
“That is a great word,” says the tenor. “I think people misconstrue passion for diva behaviour …”
“But this is our job,” Zhai says. “We have to get on with it, and there’s no choice.”
Are they both perfectionists? “In singing, yes,” laughs Zhai. “In doing the job, yes. In life, better not!”
“And that’s a hard question to answer,” adds Reardon. “What is perfection? A requirement of this job is you must sing the correct words on the page.”
“But you can always improve,” says Zhai, “you can always learn.”
Zhai sees lovelorn Cio-Cio-San, who waits in vain for years for her lover Pinkerton to return across the seas to her, as more than simply tragic.
“She has her faith and she’s very passionate. She’s very determined and in the end, she sacrifices herself for her child. I think her spirit is something people can respect and learn from. It’s a story not only for Puccini’s time, but a story for all human beings. Even in modern days, there are similar stories.”
Zhai says she relates to Cio-Cio-San’s story in two ways: absences from her own husband while touring, and the love for the child they share.
When she first began learning the part, their son was the same age as Cio-Cio-San’s son Dolore. “I was listening to the songs with headphones. I was always in tears,” Zhai says. “He’d run over and would say, ‘Mummy, why are you crying?’”
Short absences from her son while performing opera in Italy had been painful. “At first I couldn’t stand the Madame Butterfly music. I was too heartbroken. It’s too beautiful. It lives in my heart, the passion and sacrifice. I can be her.”
Does Reardon see Pinkerton as more than a cad? Can he empathise with anything the naval officer does?
“No,” says the tenor, “I think he is very calculated in his move to Japan and to find a wife. There is an ulterior motive. I don’t think it’s really clearly spelled out, but he knows what he is doing. He thinks Cio-Cio San is naïve, and he takes full advantage of that.”
Both agree that the life of an opera singer on the road is challenging.
“How are we travelling?” Zhai asks Reardon.
“In a bus, I think,” he says.
“Oh, OK,” Zhai laughs.
The tenor and soprano express gratitude that they’ve been able to meet one another and have a laugh well ahead of the hard work of rehearsal. At the end of this meeting, they exchange phone numbers, with Zhai asking Reardon if he’d also care to connect on social media.
The ice is broken. This could be the start of something beautiful.
Written by Steve Dow and originally published on Audrey Journal. Production images by Jeff Busby. Main image by Steven Siewert.
Madame Butterfly plays at Riverside Theatres for one night only, Saturday 18 August at 7:30pm