Shigemi Matsumoto: CSUN’s First Diva

  • Shigemi Matsumoto's decades long operatic career started at CSUN and took her around the world. Photo by Lee Choo

  • Matsumoto was one of three honorees at the 2016 CSUN Distinguished Alumni Awards. Photo by David J. Hawkins.

One of the jewels in the crown of California State University, Northridge’s Department of Music is its opera program, having produced luminaries such as Carol Vaness and Michelle DeYoung. But the program’s first star — and one of the university’s first musical luminaries — was Shigemi Matsumoto ’68 (Music).

Matsumoto, the adopted daughter of Japanese internment camp survivors, not only brought notoriety to what was then San Fernando Valley State College during her time as a student, but she achieved fame with an internationally successful opera career that lasted more than two decades. She has performed with industry greats and won numerous awards, and she was managed by one of the most influential classical music managers in the world. Since the late 1980s, Matsumoto also has been a valued educator at two Southern California universities.

On April 16, she received one of CSUN’s highest honors as a Distinguished Alumni honoree at CSUN’s 18th annual Distinguished Alumni Awards.

“I was supported here as a student like no other,” Matsumoto said of CSUN. “I felt in many ways Dr. (David) Scott devised the opera seasons around what I was able to do, so that he could give me the opportunity and it would help build his program.”

Scott joined San Fernando Valley State College in 1963 as the school’s first full-time voice teacher and began to build its opera program from the ground up. In 1965, he found the program’s building block — Matsumoto — by chance.

A Distinguished Career

Moriichi and Suki Matsumoto adopted Shigemi in Denver. The family moved west and settled in Reseda, and the Matsumotos opened a beauty salon in Tarzana. She passionately recalled how much her parents did to cultivate her through childhood.

“My parents, my mom wanted me to go anywhere in the world and hold my head up,” Shigemi said. “She made all my clothes. I had ballet, piano, acrobatic and swimming lessons.”

Matsumoto said all of those experiences helped give her confidence as a young woman. She entered San Fernando Valley State College as a history major and joined a sorority. During a faculty appreciation dinner, she was asked to sing. Matsumoto sang a Johnny Mathis song and afterward, a professor approached her and suggested she talk to Scott. She did so and soon switched majors — and was quickly cast as the lead role of Mimi in the Valley State production of La Boheme.

“Dr. Scott started talking about her,” said CSUN music professor emeritus Aurelio de la Vega on how he first heard of Matsumoto. “I went to her senior recital, and it was already outstanding. Then I knew things were going to progress.”

He taught Matsumoto in a non-voice class, but de la Vega still remembers her dedication to her craft.

“It was a very instantaneous rapport,” he said of their connection. “She was a very serious student, and she was a delight to have in class. She was very attentive.”

Her first performance of La Boheme was Dec. 3, 1965. A preview of the event appeared in campus newspaper The Sundial that day. Larry Jarvis, a Valley State music instructor who also appeared in the production, was quoted in The Sundial: “Miss Matsumoto has one of the most beautiful soprano voices I’ve ever worked with, and is also an excellent actress.”

Matsumoto sang six roles while at CSUN. At 22 and still a student, she won the grand prize in the San Francisco Opera National Auditions and earned her first professional contract.

She made her debut as Gerhilde in the San Francisco Opera’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre.

“If it weren’t for CSUN, I wouldn’t have the nerve, the stamina — or should I say the moxie — to be able to do that, because I had so much experience,” Matsumoto said. “You can’t buy that experience.”

Over the following two decades, she sang with more than 50 national and international opera companies and international symphony orchestras. She performed internationally and was managed by one of the most influential classical music managers of the 20th century, Nelly Walter of Columbia Artists Management, Inc.

She sang with each of The Three Tenors — Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras — and appeared on albums with Pavarotti and with the NBC Orchestra.

Return to the Classroom

After living for 14 years on the East Coast, Matsumoto felt a calling to return home. She and her husband, Marty Stark, whom she met while studying at CSUN, stayed with her mother and aunt. A colleague asked Matsumoto if she would tutor a young singer. She agreed, and she worked with the singer for two months.

Out of the blue, Matsumoto received a call from Michael Carson, the head of opera production at CSU Long Beach, who asked if they could meet. He offered the singer a teaching position with the university, and she accepted. Ten years later, USC also offered her a teaching position. Matsumoto has served on the faculty at the Bob Cole Conservatory at CSU Long Beach for 29 years and USC Thornton School of Music for 19 years.

“I feel like I learn so much from these students,” she said. “I feel like I should pay them instead.

“The most rewarding aspect of teaching is when someone can overcome something they really felt they couldn’t do and had a mental block about it,” she continued. “So, when you give them tools, you use illustration about life and humanity, using all the good feelings of being a human being — that can overcome lots of things. … That is rewarding.”

And she’s meant so much to so many students.

“(She gives) not only lessons in how to sing and how to vocalize, but she teaches how to be a professional artist, how to conduct oneself professionally, which you don’t usually get all in one package with one voice teacher,” said professional opera singer and former student Nathan Stark.

Stark was Matsumoto’s student at Long Beach. Prior to attending, he did an Internet search of opera instructors and came across Matsumoto. He recalled nervously emailing her, not expecting a response. Mere minutes after he sent the email, Matsumoto called him. Stark said she was a significant reason he chose Long Beach, where he studied under her as an undergraduate and graduate student. Since 2004, he has performed regularly throughout the country, including a 2015 debut with the Tulsa Opera in La Boheme.

“(Matsumoto) is probably one of the most generous people I know in the time she gives to her students,” Stark said. “She can teach, but she also goes that extra mile in making those connections with students. She understands they will fly away, but before they leave the nest, they know how to sing, how to act and how to be, and she lays out a clear path.”

In 2012, Stark debuted at New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera, and Matsumoto and her husband traveled across the country to witness it. Her presence meant so much to the performer, he said.

“That was Shigemi’s victory, too,” Stark said. “I felt we had done this together. She was instrumental in helping me achieve my main goal of singing at The Met.”

Matsumoto also teaches at her home in Porter Ranch. She plans to continue teaching at Long Beach and USC. Although she has performed since leaving the East Coast, it is a rarity — teaching is her passion now.

Several of her students have fared very well in the music profession — two became Adler Fellows at the San Francisco Opera, and one co-starred in national tours of South Pacific and Evita.

Matsumoto also founded and was the president of the Southern California-based Classical Singers Association — a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing the performance and professional singing skills of its members.

Regardless of her chosen professional focus — teaching, performing or motivating — she has given so much to so many through a powerful, influential instrument: her voice.

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