Publisher Profile

Interview with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila

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By: Lawrence Lock

Publisher’s note: Finnish soprano Karita Mattila is a leading opera singer, having debuted in 1985 with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden as Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Today, Mattila performs regularly at Vienna State Opera, Großes Festspielhaus, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Théâtre du Châtelet, Opéra Bastille and Toronto Roy Thomson Hall, to name a few.

Dagogo is proud to present this interview of Karita Mattila to its readers. Our thanks to Ms. Mattila for offering us the privilege of a glimpse into her artistic and private life, and to Lawrence Lock for conducting the thought-provoking interview.

First of all, I’d like to thank Wendy Chung of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, and Olivia Marshall of Intermusica for making this interview possible. Ms. Mattila was at her home in Florida when I spoke to her on phone.

Lawrence Lock: Is it true that your Hong Kong debut on February 16 will mark your first public collaboration with pianist Ville Matvejeff? He seems to be a very young and multi-talented composer, conductor and bass baritone as well.

Karita Mattila: Actually it will be our second time. Before the HK concert, we will have a concert together in Europe featuring the same program. Yes, and he’s Finnish, too! I discovered him last summer when we worked together on a different project. I was quite impressed by his talent. He had done some concerts with singers and was familiar with the field. So I just hired him spontaneously at the spot.

LL: You have been a regular at the MET, where I first saw you as Salome in 2004. Your colleague, Ben Heppner, was also a rising star in that house in the 1990’s, but was repeatedly denied a number of Wagnerian roles because those are roles that Plácido Domingo also coveted. Did you have a similar experience at the start of your career?

KM: I must say I cannot think of anything similar. I have done many exciting roles in new productions starting from my debut there in 1990 when I was only 29. From then on I would appear more or less regularly there, being featured in many new productions like Meistersinger, Fidelio, Salome, and Tosca. And these are productions that were more or less created for me. I am going to do Emilia Marty there this coming April. Though this is not a new production, it hasn’t been done for quite a while. I believe a lot of the original members of the production’s creative team will even come to the rehearsals.

LL: I believe the last time The Makropulos Case was staged at the MET, Jessye Norman was Emilia Marty. At the premiere, tenor Richard Versalle fell to his death on stage. It was a tragic event on all counts in the annals of the house. I’m sure it’s a night they will never forget. This time the creative team will no doubt be extra careful on the safeties for the performers. Talking about Janáček, I have a DVD of your Teatro Real Katia Kabanova, in which the director Robert Carsen transformed the opera’s Russian village setting into a nondescript, minimalistic landscape, or dreamscape if you will. What is your opinion on Regietheater productions? Do you have a preference?

KM: In general, I keep a very open mind in regards to opera productions. I would feel very limited if I had a certain preference regarding style. For me, the most crucial thing is that it has to be interesting, well-studied, convincing from the director’s point of view, and that it respects the musical aspects of the opera. As long as the new ideas complement the music, then I’m interested and will welcome them. Within that frame, I have done some very successful productions which could be considered as “modern.” For example, I was very surprised that the Jürgen Flimm Fidelio at the MET was considered too modern by the New Yorkers. But coming from Europe, I don’t consider it quite so modern myself; I had done more modern things before. Quite frankly, the old “authentic” productions are sometimes a bit too conventional for my tastes. Singers of my generation prefer a new take on old ideas. Mind you, it’s also a matter of taste. I think as artists, we should be open to all kinds of approaches. It’s up to the audience to decide whether they like it or not.

LL: That makes you a thoroughly 21st-century opera singer.

KM: Thank you. I take it as a great compliment!

LL: The last time I conducted a phone interview was in November of 2007. My subject was your compatriot Soile Isokoski, who was here to perform Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the Hong Kong Philharmonic under their music director Edo de Waart. Have you ever worked with Maestro De Waart?

KM: Not yet, but I do have an engagement in the near future to work with him at the Concertgebouw. I am very much looking forward to it.

LL: How do you divide time between operas and concerts?

KM: Every year is different. It needs good planning and balancing. In designing recital programs, I want them to be many-sided and interesting. Working on such programs is very time consuming. An operatic role takes time to learn, too, sometimes even years to prepare a new role, but then you can learn it gradually. And once you’ve mastered it, you have it under your belt and can repeat it many times. With recital programs, I always make sure that I don’t repeat the same program in the same city. For that you need to plan well ahead to learn a new program. That’s why it’s good to have freelance planning so that you get to know your schedule well in advance.

For instance, if I’m in the middle of doing a big new part, then I won’t take on a big recital tour with a new program. I try to balance things: some years I have more concerts, some years less. For example, this spring I’m going to do mainly concerts. My first opera will not take place until April when I do Makropolos at the MET. After that, I’ll concentrate on a series of concerts during the summer, and won’t be back on the operatic stage until Un ballo in maschera in the fall. Of course, I’ll be repeating The Makropulos Case at the Finnish Opera as well. This MET Ballo, by the way, will be a new production.

Having been around for quite a while, I have naturally acquired a lot of repertoire. At this stage I can mix the old with the new. The longer you’ve done this, the more flexible and easier it will be for you to accept recital offers on shorter notice.

LL: And being multi-lingual no doubt helps.

KM: Yes, it does. I speak six languages, and sing in eight or nine of them. Even if you don’t speak the languages it is still possible to do all kinds of repertoire in them. It just takes more time to prepare. For example, since I don’t speak Russian or Czech, I have to estimate and reserve enough time for the learning process.

LL: Speaking of learning, do you still take lessons from Jazz musicians in New York? I remember reading about your experience in a Jazz CD of yours on the Ondine label.

KM: Yes, I did take lessons in New York City and in London from established Jazz musicians. I also took Latino dance lessons in New York to prepare for this one-off Jazz project in my native Finland. The recording you mentioned was from this concert.

LL: Mozart featured prominently at the start of your career. Do you have plans to revisit some of these early roles?

KM: I don’t want to. I’ve done enough Mozart. I don’t mean I don’t like Mozart, though. For me, it’s just a natural process. I have since taken on a wider repertoire; and besides, my voice has grown. I am thankful to have performed in so many productions with prominent Mozart directors and conductors. I feel I need to move on. And I consider myself lucky to be able to do that.

LL: Name us a dream opera that you have yet to take on.

KM: Well, I’m still waiting for my first La fanciulla del west.

In the mean time, I’m going to do my first Wozzeck in 2013, my first Ariadne in 2014, and I look forward to them!

LL: In May of 2006 I saw you at the MET’s Volpe Gala, which was right after a run of your Lohengrin Elsa, opposite Heppner, singing Vilja-Lied. At the time I kept wondering if you would one day take on a bonbons role like this one; in other words, roles that don’t require your death at the end!

KM: [Big laugh] Right, and I get the man I love at the end too! I love it.

I love The Merry Widow. Unfortunately, I’ve only done it once in my life in 1997 in Paris; it was a lovely production starring Bo Skovhus. It was great fun and I remember I told some interviewers at the time that I quite enjoyed the role. I love to be able to laugh on stage, to look charming, to be in love, and at the end get the man I love!

LL: Your upcoming schedule in Hong Kong includes a 90-minute master class at the Academy for Performing Arts. What type of teacher are you? Are you more on technique or on coaching?

KM: Having given a master class at the Sibelius Academy, I find the teaching experience fascinating. I will probably announce at the start that within the time limit, I shall first try to observe the complete picture; then I’ll try to help the student in certain aspects that require attention. I don’t believe that in 90 minutes you can do much, especially where there are many pupils in the class. I can only say things at the general level. This kind of short master class is not for elaborating on technical issues. If I hear something that I can quickly put my finger on, I’m sure I’m going to mention it. The student comes as a whole to me.

Mattila shows student Mimi Ip how Adele flirts in “Mein Herr Marquis” from Die Fledermaus.

LL: Since Dagogo has audiophiles at its core, my next question inevitably has to do with sound reproduction. How do you listen to music at home?

KM: I have an iPod.

LL: I guess you don’t have a dedicated listening system, like with big loudspeakers and so on?

KM: Oh no! My husband bought for me some years ago for Christmas an iPod, together with what looks like a big book, with built-in speakers. You can attach your iPod to it. It has a surprisingly good quality in sound.

LL: You mean an iPod dock?

KM: Yes. And I have a microphone that can be attached to the iPod. When I’m having rehearsals with pianists or something alike, I record myself during the process. The quality is surprisingly good.

I also listen to other types of music. I don’t just limit myself to classical. I listen to lots of jazz, pop, rock, and blues. I’m open to music of all kinds, in fact. When I work out, or go for a quick walk, I want to listen to something very rhythmical, something that lets me keep up with speed.

LL: Do you have a habit of listening to your own commercial recordings?

KM: No. I don’t listen to myself.

While I’m not proud of all the recordings I’ve made, I do have a couple of things I like……

My Four Last Songs with Abbado, recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonie in 1998 is a personal favorite. To me, live recordings are always wonderful because they sound so much more alive, and somehow exude a different aura. Nowadays, whenever I am engaged to perform the Four Last Songs, and when I haven’t done it for a while, and want to brush up my memory, I always put my own recording on. Because I think it is pretty good.

The other one is Beethoven’s “Ah, perfido!”. I think I have a pretty good recording of the song myself. I love that recording because I worked with a wonderful combination of Colin Davis and Staatskapelle Dresden. It was an unforgettable time for me in 2001. I just love Colin Davis to bits! He’s one of my heroes. He’s taught me so much. Whenever I get to have the opportunity to work with someone as inspiring as Colin, it brings the best out of myself as well.

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