A conversation with Karita Mattila
Finnish soprano Karita Mattila is among the small number of opera singers in the world whose presence turns a performance into an event. She’s one of the art form’s most compelling actors and her name has become synonymous with many roles including Jenufa and Salome. At the age of 54 and after nearly 30 years of appearing on stages all over the world she’s still adding to her repertoire, having recently sung her first Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walkure this past spring with Houston Grand Opera to great acclaim. She’s making her long overdue debut with the San Francisco Symphony this week, singing Beethoven’s “Ah! perfido,” an extended aria that captures the emotional power of an entire opera in under fifteen minutes, a highlight of the orchestra’s Beethoven Festival. She spoke with me on the phone from her Florida home as she was preparing to head west to San Francisco.
MR: I don’t expect you to remember this, but the last time you were in town, while you were performing in The Makropolus Case, I was walking home on Post Street and I saw you coming toward me. I thought to myself “Oh my god, that’s Karita Mattila.” So I said “Hello Ms. Mattila.” You looked at me with a kind of knowing smile and said “Hello” back and kept on walking.
Karita Mattila: Oh? Well, thank God I did that because one of the few things that I learned from my mother was never talk to strangers. You must have done it in a very kind way.
MR: I tried.
Mattila: I think it came from you naturally, so it was very easy to respond. So that was in 2010. I miss San Francisco so much. I’ve always said to my husband if it weren’t so far away I would live there. I would move there in a heartbeat.
MR: I was surprised to learn you live in Florida.
Mattila: Why were you surprised? I live here. I’m a permanent resident now. I’ve got my green card now after six years of waiting.
MR: Because it’s so incredibly hot. Isn’t it oppressively hot in Florida?
Mattila: Oh yes, in the summer, but I go to Finland for my summer breaks. I’m here now because of work. You get used to the hot weather and coming from a cold place like Finland I had my share of winter climate. The only time Finland is pleasant or meant to be lived in is during the summer. I used to like winter but then something happened in my mid-to-late 30s. My husband has always been as if he were born in the wrong country– he hates the cold. I like Florida– I think it has something to do with the climate and also the privacy issue has its merits. California attracts me in a sense. Maybe when I quit singing or when I have to stop — if I ever retire — I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t matter, but because of some family ties that still exist it’s easier on the East Coast. And who knows? We are still young.
MR: You and I are about the same age.
Mattila: Really? You have a very young voice.
MR: As do you.
Mattila: Maybe it’s lying very high because I just finished practicing and because I’m still quite jet lagged because I came from Finland two days ago. The temperature was in the 40s and I was performing outside at a concert in the open air. Luckily I was under a covered stage but the poor audience — I was so touched by the fact that the audience came and they had their wool coats on, hooded coats. The cover of the auditorium barely gave them cover from the rain and it was windy and so cold. But work is work and commitment is commitment and I have such a loyal, fantastic audience there. I was there for two weeks and I just came back and now I travel to San Francisco on Sunday. So I’m working on my jet lag to be in the right time zone by the time I get to San Francisco. I’m thrilled about this opportunity to work with Michael Tilson Thomas. Can you believe this is going to be my first time with the San Francisco Symphony?
MR: And what’s taken so long?
Mattila: It’s the schedules and the repertoire. I respect Michael’s taste so much — he has a particular sense of repertoire and I think it just hasn’t worked out before this. We made a recording in the 90s of Strauss and since then we haven’t worked together. He has offered me some things along the way but it just hasn’t worked out until now. So I’m totally thrilled to come finally at the age of 54. Yet another debut– I’ve had so many debuts in the last year and a half — so this is one more and I’m just having a ball.
MR: Let’s talk about “Ah! perfido.” Of your own recordings this is one of your favorites. One of the few that you actually listen to…
Mattila: Oh you did your homework. Wonderful. Yes, to brush up my memory. I don’t usually listen to my own recordings but this one I like. It may sound stupid to say it but I really love the way I do it and of course I did it when I was much younger and these days I change the phrasing a bit. But it’s still as clear as it was to me when I recorded it, and I had such a wonderful conductor to record it with, so it’s still worth listening to. Sometimes when you are really young you have such a different voice — a much lighter voice — and then if you’re lucky enough to have as long a career as I have had — so far — you can go back to some of those pieces. You have the feeling that you can still do them and you want to hear how you did it years ago. Then there are recordings that I value for the way I did them and they were good at the time, but it wouldn’t be good for me to listen to them anymore because in my head I know I would do the pieces in a different way. But this piece is a timeless one, apart from some phrasings that I have changed slightly, even though my voice is darker and slightly heavier because of the repertoire that I have done since the recording. But it still works. I’m glad you mentioned that because you’re quite right — apart from that recording with Colin Davis I don’t listen much to my recordings.
MR: The other one I’ve read you’re fond of is your recording of “Four Last Songs” with Abbado.
Mattila: Yes, but not really. I’m just proud of that recording because it was recorded live over three concerts in a row and it was a big thing for me to have done them with one of my favorite maestros at the time, with such a loving and caring conductor. But the way I do “Four Last Songs” these days, trust me I give myself so much more space and they have opened up in much more revealing ways. But at the time I did them with Claudio [Abbado] his style of treating the voice as a part of the orchestra, in an instrumental way, it worked at the time because I had the voice for that and the tempi and everything. It’s just a wonderful thing to have been able to do with him — the whole series and I’m proud of it in that sense. But I don’t go to that recording anymore to listen to it because the way I do “Four Last Songs” is a different ball game these days and I think I’ve found something. It’s not as scary. It’s always remained a challenging piece but it’s less scary than it used to be. Maybe it’s about the confidence you get when you get older.
MR: “Ah! perfido” covers almost an entire opera’s worth of emotions during its 12 to 15 minutes and a tremendous range of emotional responses. Is that part of its appeal to you?
Mattila: Yes, I love how the vocal part is carried by the orchestra and then challenged in a wonderful dialogue from the beginning to the end. I feel totally fascinated by it. The recitative is also fascinating. The conductor has a lot to do with that, and the greater the sense of drama and opera the conductor has I think that better and more interesting the results. It’s such a dramatic piece with an equal roles f0r the voice in the orchestra –it is like in a rocking chair, the voice is carried like in a rocking chair. The orchestra gets really stormy, and I can’t help but just admire Beethoven’s sense of drama. I didn’t realize that I could with time become such a genuine Beethoven fan. I wasn’t like that when I was young. I found Beethoven’s music boring. But then I realized as I got older and I got to work with such good people, that perhaps I didn’t get to hear it performed by such good people when I was younger, meaning people who really understand Beethoven and dig into the depths with which should be performed. That’s what helped me become a fan.
MR: What bored you about the music?
Mattila: If you approach Beethoven’s music and you’re just scratching the surface, and you know how that can happen, we’ve all heard that — when you’re not digging in and getting everything you can out of performing it — not everybody bothers to do that. I remember just a year ago I went to a concert at Carnegie Hall to hear Mitsuko Uchida play the concertos, and the way she played it she just drew the entire audience in that huge hall so close to her. I’ve never heard Beethoven’s piano concertos played so quietly and so intimately, especially in such a huge hall, and I was totally moved by that and I thought “wow, I’ve become a big Beethoven fan.” When you are younger it just sounds somehow too tonal — that’s what I meant by it being boring — if it’s performed in a boring way with no depth then it becomes boring.
MR: What do you think about this four-hour long marathon concert?
Mattila: It’s a new format for me and I can’t wait to experience it. They’ve changed the order– in the first two concerts I perform in the second half, and then during the marathon I think I perform in the first half. So the answer to your question is I have never done a format like that and I look forward to it. It’s going to be exciting and since I’m in the first half maybe I’ll get to listen to the rest of the concert.
MR: “Ah! perfido” doesn’t give you a lot of time. You essentially have to hit the stage on fire. How do you prepare for that? There’s no warm-up time once you’re out there.
Mattila: No, it’s not a warm-up piece , you’re quite right. But that’s what professionals do. You’re so aware of what you’re singing about, and the text, and the story ties the phrases together and in that way it’s a little bit like an opera part.
MR: That’s a good segue: I read your Sieglinde in Houston went very well.
Mattila: It did, thank you.
MR: I assume you were satisfied with it?
Mattila: Yes, I was, and I was very surprised to find it such a successful part for me because I had been waiting so long to accept it as part of my repertoire. I thought that it’s lying low, and that I don’t want to risk anything. And then I realized that by now I know enough about how my voice works and I have such a solid, strong middle range that I found it really to be “my cup of tea” at the moment, as the British would say.
MR: So you know what my next question is, right?
Mattila: (Coyly) No… Do you mean how was it possible for me…
MR: (Cutting her off) No, no not all. My next question is what about Isolde?
Mattila: Oh… Oh… Let’s wait with that. Let’s wait.
MR: I have this fantasy that you’ll be the one to persuade Jonas Kaufmann into taking on Tristan and the two of you will make your debuts in the roles together.
Mattila: (Pauses) Wow. I have just changed management — and I have a wonderful, brilliant new manager — I went to Columbia Artists and I am very happy. So I have to mention that to my new, wonderful, young manager.
MR: Opera fans would come from all over to hear that. I know I would.
Mattila: (Laughing) Well I might consider it if Jonas would do it.
MR: I saw you in Salome and Jenufa at the Met.
Mattila: Great parts. I’m coming back to San Francisco next year to sing Kostelnicka. Are you coming to see Jenufa?
MR: Of course. It’s the highlight of next season.
Mattila: Good, because I’ve done Jenufa with so many fantastic Kostelnickas and I was very lucky to sing my last Jenufa with Deborah Polaski, who is a very adorable colleauge of mine — I consider her the sister I never had– and she was a wonderful Kostelnicka. I feel I learned a lot from her and I can’t wait to get to do that part. Especially in my favorite city, San Francisco, with my favorite conductor, Jiri Belohlavek.
MR: One Last question. What pop music are you listening to these days?
Mattila: I listen to pop music a lot. I listen to country music also, and I just read an article today — I was shocked — that this one country singer had been shot and I sent the article to my husband who is traveling in Finland at the moment. That was a shocking thing because I love country music, but I have wide taste in music. I listen to the classics: I like Bruce Springsteen and Tina Turner, and ZZ Top is one of my big favorites.
MR: ZZ Top?
MR: That’s amazing.
Mattila: Especially their song “Legs.” I love that. When I have a sweaty workout I listen to “Legs.” It helps.
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