How does one go from Zurich, Switzerland to a celebrated thirty-one year international career as an actor, singer and recording artist to portraying Mama Rose in Lyric Stage’s upcoming production of Gypsy?
Tuneful dynamo Sue Mathys shared revelations about her life path with criticalrant.com’s Alexandra Bonifield, with passion and clarity. Asked if she likes to challenge and befriend an audience, Mathys responds: “Jacques Brel described it with the perfect words:” It is like a bullfight, exactly the same. Only: It’s not about killing, but about loving. Like in the corrida, the course of action is set, you only improvise the gestures. It’s the same in a concert: you enter the stage, the audience is the bull. Instead of killing them, you want to tell them, that you love them. And you’re trying to do so with as little insinuation as possible.”
Growing up in a musical family near Zürich, where father played the lute, mother the piano and both sang “beautifully”, Mathys says she has always sung, that music “was a natural part of our family. When I was about 5 years old, I had a “solo act” in a children’s circus, singing songs in different languages – all in gibberish, of course. My sister played the ukulele to my songs, dressed as a boy – quite like Baby June and Baby Louise in Gypsy!…”
As a young teen she saw the movie version of West Side Story and a London stage production of Fiddler on the Roof. Both “delighted, moved and disturbed me deeply.” By then she was singing Gospel and moved soon into Pop, R &B and Jazz, first performing with a band at age 15. This experience “gave me the most extraordinary pleasure and happiness, because I felt I could communicate with people with my voice.” “My art is a calling,” Mathys muses, with humble reflection. Her current home base of New York “beckoned” her.
Where did your voice lead you? “When I began training my voice in New York, it quickly became clear, that I was a Broadway belter. It’s fascinating, that my voice still takes me on new journeys I am curious to explore…”
How would you describe your singing voice in one sentence? “I would like to think of it as oscillating within the entire color spectrum….” Mathys sings in English, French, German and Swiss German. Questioned if it’s hard to switch languages, she laughs, “Only, if I sing the same song in various versions of different languages, that can be tricky!”
How did your career as a solo and featured artist take off? “I had been performing professionally for twelve years. I already had played several leading roles, when I made my big breakthrough playing and singing the title role in Piaf. “Sue Mathys thrilled the audience (at Lucerne’s Stadttheater), culminating in standing ovations on the day of the premiere (as well as for the first repeat performance that we visited)…Sue Mathys proves to be not only an excellent interpreter of songs who is able to reproduce true to life Piaf’s timbre, diction and expression, but who, as an actress of high caliber, also expresses all facets of the chanteuse – above all her immense thirst for life despite all blows which fate dealt her. This expression of Piaf’s thirst for life reaches its apex in the last of 20 Piaf-chansons: “Non, je ne regrette rien”. (Neue Zürcher Zeitung)
Which composers do you love to sing, and why? “Stephen Sondheim, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, John Kander, Cy Coleman, Jule Styne, Adam Guettel, David Yazbek, to name a few. They speak to me.”
What is different for you about singing a recognizable classical repertoire versus original, contemporary works, some avant-garde? “My approach is basically the same. I’m classically trained, but I’m definitely a contemporary gal – that also applies to my acting. Participating in the process of creating new works is utterly thrilling, and you’re free of any comparisons and expectation.”
You made your American concert debut at Carnegie Hall in 2008; what songs and composers were featured? “Chansons made famous by Edith Piaf (Charles Dumont, Marguerite Monnot, Michel Emer, Louiguy), my signature songs from Sunset Boulevard (Andrew Lloyd Webber), Gypsy (Jules Styne), Cabaret (John Kander), Sweeney Todd (Stephen Sondheim), Seeräuberjenny from Threepenny Opera (Kurt Weill) in the orignal German version, classics from Irving Berlin, special material by Michael Ogborn, David Yazbek and more.”
How did the DFW region earn the honor of having you re-create the same ovation-inspiring concert at Carpenter Hall in 2009 under the auspices of Lyric Stage? “Years ago, I met founding producer of the Lyric Stage Steven Jones through Jay Dias (Music Director/Conductor of all Lyric Stage’s fully orchestrated musical performances). We’ve always wanted to work together, and the concert offered itself as a first opportunity. I am thrilled to return to the Lyric Stage for “Gypsy”!”
How did Lyric Stage’s Jay Dias become your long-time Music Director? “Jay Dias and I met sixteen years ago when he was music director and supervisor of Sunset Boulevard (directed by Trevor Nunn) in Germany, and I sang Norma Desmond. Our special rapport deepened, when he conducted the New Year’s Concert with the 60-piece Lucerne Symphony at the great concert hall of the KKL in Lucerne. We collaborated on the live recording of it. A good working relationship is give and take on eye level – honesty and complete trust in each other. It’s very rare and very precious.”
Many people don’t realize what hard physical work singing is, that professional singers train like other athletes. What do you do to stay fit and avoid illness? “Precisely what athletes do: train physically and mentally on a daily basis; sleep enough, watch my diet, tap dance, stay away from smoke and alcohol. Spend time in the countryside to rest and recover body, mind and soul.”
What is your favorite musical theatre role and why? “Always the one I’m working on: Now, it’s Mama Rose. What a great, rich character. It challenges every fiber of your being as a performer.”
Where have you played her before? “At the New Bedford Festival Theatre in New Bedford, Massachusetts last summer (directed by Michael Susko).”
What excites you about playing Mama Rose again? “That show is so well written, that I discover new facets of this character in every rehearsal and every performance. And working with a new creative team and cast is stimulating as well.”
What do you hope the audience will take away from seeing your Mama Rose? “To understand her humanity.” Mathys describes singing at Carpenter Hall with the full orchestration as “a dream come true – I love the sound of a full live orchestra!”
Talk about your recent performance successes in New York, both original works: “It’s most exciting to have material written for you. Taking The Plunge was originally created for 8 Minute Musicals at the New York Musical Theatre Festival 2010. The writer/composer team knew whom they were writing for and custom tailored this short musical. I’m thrilled for them, that this piece made the finals of the 26th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival 2011! In my One Woman Show Lila Rosen, only original material, especially written for me by one lyricist, five composers and one author, was used. It was very exciting to collaborate with the composers, lyricist, and the book-writer! I adore team work.” Two Worlds, One Voice is my current concert/cabaret act. I like to call it a concert. The first time I performed it in New York, it received an Agnes Moorehead Award for being ‘one of the ten best live performances in New York City in 2009’. It combines Edith Piaf Chansons, Brecht/Weill repertoire with my signature songs from Musical Theatre. I like to surprise an audience, give them what they do not expect. All those songs have a deep connection with me.”
Any words of advice to aspiring singers? “Study hard, with discipline, be patient with yourself. Don’t give up, believe in yourself. Learn to understand your body and your psyche as your instrument, and take good care of them. Be ready to make sacrifices, but also beware of exploitation. Know your talents – and your limits. If you do not HAVE to sing – don’t bother!”
Where do you see the future of musical performance heading? “I hope we’ll find our way back to live orchestral music – there’s nothing like it and it’s the real thing!” Consummate stage performer Sue Mathys is definitely “the real thing” and offers a unique opportunity for regional audiences to experience in Irving.
Lyric Stage’s Gypsy runs September 9-19, 2011. Performances are in the Irving Arts Center’s Carpenter Performance Hall, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd. Tickets: http://www.lyricstage.org or 972-252-2787. Performances are September 9, 10, 11, 16 & 17 @ 8:00 PM and September 12 & 18 @ 2:30 PM.
Sue Mathys’ official bio:
Mathys’ training includes earning a MFA at the Schauspiel Akademie Zürich, study at the Herbert Berghof Studio, and continuous vocal study with Arabella Hong Young in New York, as well as dance training at New York’s Steps on Broadway.
Her exquisite CD: (Sue Mathys sings Broadway And Piaf Amazon.com)
About The 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival:
About the 26th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival 2011:
A shorter version of this interview/feature appears in the September issue of Arts&Culture DFW Magazine