Classical Voice: Celebrity Interview                          

A Body-and-Soul Diva: Interview with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila

By Nuno Miguel Marques
Special to Classical Voice

IT is customary to distinguish singers endowed with gorgeous voices (stimme) from those who possess the artistry (kunst). However, when one talks about Karita Mattila, this division makes no sense whatsoever, for the Finnish soprano has it all. No wonder she received a historic standing and shouting ovation when she ended her recital at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon in 2003. Such a supreme combination of vocal beauty, technique, interpretative skills and raw passion will be extremely difficult to match in the future.

Mattila´s luminous tone first sparkled during a sensual rendition of Duparc’s “L’invitation au voyage”. Hers is a voice that does not lack either beauty or power and thus could easily convey the fiery emotions in Sibelius’s “Flickam kom ifrån”. The Finnish soprano is also fearless and does not hesitate in sacrificing her lustrous timbre in pursuit of greater expression, as she did in Rachmaninov’s “Kakoye schastye”. Technical feats were not missing either, from trills in Sibelius’s “En slända” to pianissimi in “Muza” by Rachmaninov. Above all, the Portuguese audience was taken aback by the sheer intensity of everything Mattila did. It was as if her whole body and blood moved in accordance with the tiniest of phrases or the most subtle of chords. But still more surprises awaited us. In Dvorák gypsy melodies and especially in Victor Young’s “Golden Earrings”, Mattila became a consummate actress. The stage is her natural habitat and her body is as versatile as her voice. Barefoot, with a burnished and dark tone, she elegantly slid around the piano and, like a 30’s Hollywood diva, led us to frantic clapping ecstasy.

"Friendliness makes such a difference to people like me who are always travelling..."

Classical Voice: This is the second time you perform at Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Foundation. Have you got any recollections of your first Gulbenkian recital which took place in May, 2000?

Karita Mattila: Last time I came to Lisbon, I was unlucky because I had a very bad cold and it was gradually getting worse. I was on tour then and had performances scheduled in Spain afterwards which I had to cancel. Therefore, my last recital of the tour was in Lisbon. I called a doctor on the day of the recital and he, after having heard my speaking voice, wanted me to go and see him before the recital took place. I refused to go, because I didn’t want to cancel this recital. A Finnish couple, both friends of mine, would be attending it and the husband was celebrating his 50th birthday. I really had to sing and today I’m glad I did. At the time, I thought to myself: ”I have survived”. Although the audience were very receptive and happy with my performance, for me, personally, it was a question of survival. The next day, I went to the doctor who told me I had vocal chords of steel. They were not infected, but everything around them was a mess due to the flu.

I am very happy to be back in Lisbon, especially because I am now healthy. In fact, this is my third time in the Portuguese capital.

CV: The first time, you sang Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at the Recreios Coliseum, didn’t you?

KM: Exactly. And Lisbon is one of my favourite cities, because I have several detailed recollections of people being extremely friendly towards me. The first time I came, I tasted the most wonderful Port wine while eating desserts in a restaurant with my husband. Friendliness makes such a difference to people like me who are always travelling.

Karita Mattila
Photo credit: Lauri Eriksson
Courtesy Warner Classics International

CV: When and how did music enter your life?

KM: It has been in my life, since I was born, because my parents have always been interested in music. It was not their job, since they are farmers and I myself grew up in a farm, but they sang in a choir. Music was always a big hobby of ours. We sang together, alone, pop music, folk music, you name it. In my teens, like all teenagers, I was really lazy and wanted to quit my hobby, but my parents convinced me to continue through bribes and other strategies. Nowadays, I always laugh when I think about it. But it worked. I only resented it for two years. At 16, I was already becoming extremely interested in music again. I think I never clearly decided I wanted to be a professional singer. It kind of happened. More than anything else it was my first singing teacher’s encouragement that led me to the world of professional music. I was never sure of what I wanted to do. I was very good at school and loved languages. I wanted to use them in my future career and here I am doing exactly that!

"A good language coach should also have a deep understanding of the music..."

CV: Since you are talking about languages, let me point out that you sing in at least 6 languages: Finnish, German, Russian, Italian, French, Czech...

KM: And Swedish. A lot of Sibelius’s songs were set to Swedish poems. And, in fact, I sang in Swedish during the last Gulbenkian Foundation recital. I am fascinated by different musical styles and languages. Lately, the Slavic repertoire has become very close to my heart. So it feels natural to take up the challenge of getting to know new languages. I don’t speak Russian or Czech, but I have these wonderful coaches who help me prepare my parts. A good language coach should also have a deep understanding of the music, as mine do, so that they can give us an all-around guidance.

CV: And how was it to sing in Portuguese when you recorded Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras?

KM: I kind of managed. But it was extremely hard because Portuguese is very difficult. There is little connection between the written and the spoken word. And the other day, I overheard some ladies talking in a shop and it sounded like Russian.

CV: Does singing in another language pose technical challenges for you? Do you have to adjust your technique in order to sing in a different language?

KM: It is essentially a matter of style. What changes between Duparc and Rachmaninov is, above all, the style. Nonetheless, I always like to be free in my interpretations, because good composers are the ones who leave their performers a certain amount of freedom. In other words, they leave us open doors.

CV: You have stated Slavic music suits your personality. Why is that ?

KM: What fascinates me to – for example – Janácek are the contrasts and the fact that they are not resolved and remain contrasts.

As Jenufa

CV: Are you referring to musical contrasts ?

"In certain female characters from Verdi, it is very challenging to find some flesh and blood..."

KM: Yes, but to nuance contrasts and emotional contrasts as well. His music is full of abrupt and rough contrasts. It is uncensored, uncleaned, raw, surprising and organic. But he doesn’t use contrasts as a shocking effect just for the sake of it. These fascinating Slavic composers must have had a deeper understanding of human nature. They must have been curious about it and must have dared to go farther. Maybe they were awful human beings as we can read in their biographies. But who cares?  I am not too interested in knowing that Janácek was a terrible husband. I am sure he was and most of them were. What interests me is this marvellous repertoire we have inherited and which is so timeless. And it is this timelessness which is connected to the characters that speaks to me. I don’t want to generalize, but, unfortunately, in certain female characters from Verdi, it is very challenging to find some flesh and blood. They need a good stage director to discover something in them. Perhaps Verdi wasn’t very interested in the depth of these female characters. I think Slavic composers were and that is why I am attracted to them. When I study a score, I love to discover that the composer was deeply fascinated by a woman’s story, even though women did not have much power, freedom or rights in those days. I love composers who find timelessness in women and create characters which today still feel fresh and alive.

As Elsa in "Lohengrin"

CV: You have sung to universal praises a lot of strong and interesting female roles from Slavic operas.

KM: Pardon me for interrupting, but Slavic female characters are weak as well as strong. They are simultaneously weak and strong. What I admire in them is that their strengths and weaknesses can be so openly performed and conveyed and needn’t be hidden or covered by a veil of simplicity, innocence and purity. They do not act as others expect them to. Everybody is able to create decent characters which are extremely boring from a performer’s point of view. It is difficult to create true characters and what I admire in Slavic female roles is the truthfulness of their strengths and weaknesses. There are also various open endings which the audience must sort out when they return home from the opera house, such as in Jenufa. I enjoy this unfinished quality in movies and theatre plays too.

CV: It is interesting that you have played so many complex Slavic heroines (Jenufa, Katya Kabanova, Liza in The Queen of Spades), but you didn’t sing Tatiana.

KM: I did sing Tatiana in my early years in both Hamburg and Madrid’s Teatro de la Zarzuela. And I have begged people to offer me more Tatianas in good productions. I have not performed this role in major operatic houses, but I would love to do it, especially with an interesting stage director. When I have already sung a role before, I only like to repeat it if I have the chance to work with a wonderful conductor or stage director.

As Manon Lescaut

CV: You recently performed a song cycle by Kaija Saariaho which was dedicated to you. And, in 2006, you will premiere an opera by Finnish composer Mikko Heiniö. How important is it for you to interpret contemporary and Finnish music ?

KM: For me it is as important to sing the music of my times as it is to sing in general. I have long ago passed the point where just singing the notes right gave me pleasure. It does not mean anything in itself to be able to sing the notes correctly, for it is only a starting point. Merely singing the notes isn’t even art. And opera singing is – in my opinion – an art form, because – beneath the notes – there is a meaning one ought to express.

"It is my artistic duty to make known the works of our marvellous modern composers..."

Who sings today's music?  It must be sung, for the most important time is our own, the time we are living in right now. Obviously, I appreciate the classical repertoire. Nonetheless, I believe I am a very modern person and I think we live in a wonderful time, especially for me as a woman. Today, I can enjoy several things the women of previous eras could not. It is great to be a woman nowadays. Therefore, I want to perform new music. I want to integrate them in my concerts and recitals. Moreover, I believe it is my artistic duty to make known the works of our marvellous modern composers. It is a duty as well as a privilege. It saddens me how some musicians treat modern music, only performing it when it is absolutely necessary and unavoidable. To do contemporary music justice, it cannot only be played by those who have nothing else to do, or else the performance standards will be low and the work’s true potential will not be revealed.

When Théâtre du Châtelet offered me a recital, I immediately contacted Kaija and asked her to write a song cycle for me, because I wanted to perform something not only Finnish, but also modern. In this year’s recital tour, I am singing Sibelius and, in my previous recital tour, I sang works by another Finnish composer, Jouni Kaipainen. The Kaipainen piece I interpreted was “Runopolku”. He did not write it for me, but I was the first to publicly sing it in Finland. Then I took it with me to Paris and also performed it in my Carnegie Hall debut in 1999. Let me also add that I have greatly enjoyed preparing the piece Kaija wrote for me. Nonetheless, when one is as busy as I am, one always has the feeling of not having enough time to properly prepare a new work. I sometimes get a little panicky about it. Indeed it is hard to prepare new pieces, but I prefer it to repeating endlessly what I have already sung. Everyone has their own path and I never wanted an easy path for myself. I am always keen to take up new challenges, so that I feel I am doing something valuable. Furthermore, it is my duty to correctly use the influence I have on an audience, for they will not hear these modern works, unless I perform them. It is not enough to simply record them. They must be performed live. I don’t want an audience who just buys CDs. I need an audience who attends my recitals and concerts, because – above all – I want to sing and perform live.

As Merry Widow

CV: You have sung and recorded repertoire outside the world of classical music, such as: “Over the rainbow”, “I could have danced all night”, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”. How comfortable do you feel singing non-classical music?

KM: I love it, although I don’t do it a lot. It is a fabulous challenge and a wonderful way to stretch my limits, for I always learn immensely as far as interpretation and style are concerned. I sometimes want to freshen up and do something new, because, most of the time, I perform the things I studied and was trained for. By the way, despite having taken piano lessons since the age of 9, my background isn’t rooted in classical musical. I must confess that, at first, I wasn’t really interested in classical music, because it was absent from our household. Thus, my contact with classical music only took place later. As you see, my musical roots are in the light repertoire.

CV: What do you think about the cross-over phenomenon: pop artists singing classical repertoire and ...

"the better you know your voice, the more relaxed you should feel about changing styles..."

KM: I regret having to say this, but that very seldom works. I personally feel that it is impossible to perform operatic arias without the necessary trained voice. If you try to make a pop song out of an opera aria – I am sorry – but it is boring. Furthermore, I too can’t stand many opera singers who perform lighter repertoire, because I don’t enjoy hearing a pop tune sung in classical style. For me, it is essential to change the style when performing a different repertoire.

I would love to sing jazz and have been asked to do a jazz album. However, I don’t want to end up doing a CD of popular jazz melodies, sung in an operatic style. It would just be a CD full of “elevator music” – the kind of music you listen to in an elevator and which is simultaneously pleasant to the ear and dead boring – music that neither distracts nor touches you. Jazz really means a lot to me and I have great admiration for those old classic jazz performers who were also marvellous singers. As a result, I would need an immense amount of time to prepare for a jazz project and find a suitable style. A style both suited to me and my voice and to the jazz pieces I would be singing. It is always a risk taking step. That is why I think it is wise for young singers who ignore how their voice operates not to do it, because they will be radically mixing styles and, in the end, will get confused. The better you know your voice, the more relaxed you should feel about changing styles. In addition, you’ll have more knowledge and experience. You will perhaps know that sometimes it takes more time to recover, when one has decided to perform a pop tune in an unsupported voice. By the way, for me, there are only two types of music: good music and bad music. And the quality of the music depends on the way it is done.

CV: You will be singing Salome for the first time in Paris. Are you prepared for the Dance of the Seven Veils?

KM: No! Maybe I should say that in a way I am prepared, because I like to keep my mind open and to be responsive towards the stage director’s suggestions. By the way, I am doing Salome with two fabulous stage directors: Lev Dodin in Paris and Jürgen Flimm at the MET.

In rehearsal

CV: Since we are talking about Salome and the Dance of the Seven Veils, I would like to ask you how important is it for you to be physically close to the character you’re portraying ?

"being in me the physical strength to perform the heavier repertoire..."

KM: You have asked a really personal question and I am going to be as honest as I can in answering it. For me, it’s everything. If it wasn’t that important, I wouldn’t have gone to Weight Watchers in '83. I believe I always admire beauty. That doesn’t mean – however – that losing weight will necessarily make you beautiful. For my taste, thin is not even beautiful, because most models look anorexic to me. What I admire the most is proportion and I believe proportion is the essence of attractiveness. When you enjoy seeing a beautiful man or woman, you will notice that they seldom possess what is called a perfect body. Nonetheless, there is a certain proportion in their bodies which is what makes them attractive. It looks right and they seem to feel comfortable, at ease with their bodies. And it is rare to meet fat people who are truly pleased with themselves. They might pretend they are pleased.

When I was still a student and overweight, I didn’t realize that. Only when I started losing weight, did I perceive how unhappy I was. Moreover, I started talking about it. Before, I wouldn’t dare do it. In my plump days, if someone said something weight-related, I would become so upset. I hated myself and wasn’t able to look myself in the mirror naked. At 42, I do work hard to try to keep in shape and look my parts. Furthermore, being in shape makes it easier to sing and gives me the physical strength to perform the heavier repertoire I am currently singing. Above all, I don’t want to compromise and either sing or act. I want to do both, because opera is – in my opinion – a production, a story. You can philosophize about the differences between opera and theatre. Of course they are different: we sing whereas they speak. And the music has given us the rhythm as well. Nonetheless, you cannot avoid the stage. A single superstar is not able to rescue an operatic production. You cannot make an opera by yourself no matter how famous you are. Some people might not like what I am saying, but that’s the way I strongly feel.

CV: You have recorded extensively, but I was told you do not feel very pleased when listening to some of your recordings ?

KM: I am not very fond of the recordings I did under my first exclusive contract with Philips. That’s an example that one can make mistakes and they are not fatal. I was very relieved when I bought a really awful recording by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. She had made it when she was quite young. And if Schwarzkopf made a mistake, everyone is entitled to their mistakes, too. It truly consoled me to know that someone who is my idol and I admire greatly could also make a bad recording. A bad recording does not make you a bad singer, for it is but a document of a certain time and stage in your singing career. The repertoire choices I did for my first CDs, especially my first solo album, were completely wrong, even though I didn’t have much guidance at the time.

"I believe I still have [a natural coloratura ability], although I need to practice it in order not to lose it..."

CV: Why were those repertoire choices mistaken?

KM: I shouldn’t have sung “Martern aller Arten”. Nowadays, I laugh about it. I really wasn’t up to it at that time. And though my first recording is an immature one, it was also an experience I learned a lot from.

CV: How would you describe your voice and its progress from the first recordings to the present day?

KM: I wasn’t totally aware of how my voice functioned when I did my first recordings. And I had so much to learn: I was growing up mentally and broadening my life experiences. I believe I was abusing my voice at that time and that is why I was constantly tired. The crucial developments in my voice started happening in the mid 90’s. I was also greatly helped by my new repertoire who enabled me to find my true voice and my true style.

As Chrysothemis in "Elektra"

CV: The new repertoire you refer to includes the heavier parts you are now performing.

KM: Not really. The change took place when I stopped singing Mozart and moved towards the lirico spinto repertoire. I am so grateful to Mozart and it was absolutely necessary for me to sing his music, but I had to move on. Even when I was younger, because of the characteristics of my voice and physique, I always had the feeling I was destined for something other than Mozart. I needed time and today I am glad I did not rush my voice’s progress. Nowadays, I also feel freer as an interpreter and as a person.

CV: How would you describe your voice in terms of agility or extension? How high and how low do you go when vocalizing?

KM: That’s a secret, but I can tell you I do not sing the Queen of the Night any more. I can’t hit the high F any more.

CV: Did you use to hit the high F?

KM: I hit the high F when I was 20 or 21 in a student production in Finland. I sang the Queen of the Night five times then without any problems. And there is even a pirate recording of it. Fortunately, I had a smart teacher who told me I was not a coloratura soprano. I always had a natural coloratura ability and I believe I still have it, although I need to practice it in order not to lose it, especially now that my repertoire is getting heavier and heavier.

CV: Favourite recording of yours ?

KM: The one that I learned the most from is the "German Romantic Arias", conducted by Colin Davis. I always loved working with him. I confess I am very proud of this recording. On another level, I am very fond of "Karita Live" by Ondine which was done on my 40th birthday. Artistically, this is not the best recording of mine, perhaps because it was recorded live and only once. There were no patch sessions. Anything could happen. Even the record company didn’t know for sure whether or not they would be able to tape it.

CV: Favourite recordings by other artists?

KM: There are many. I love young Schwarzkopf singing Mozart as well as Lotte Lehmann’s and Kirsten Flagstad’s old recordings.

CV: May I conclude those are the singers you admire the most?

KM: Not in everything. I don’t like Schwarzkopf in anything, but her young Mozart was wonderful. Lotte Lehmann, on the other hand, was just fabulous.

CV: Roles you would like to sing but know you will never sing?

KM: Carmen and Amneris.

CV: Roles you would like to sing and will sing in the future ?

KM: I’ll keep my silence! [joking and laughing]

CV: No plans regarding Norma, Isolde or Brünhilde ?

KM: I’ll keep my silence! [joking and laughing] It’s too soon, but I have my dream roles. Perhaps, Isolde one day and Brünhilde much later, if ever. Time will tell.

Karita Mattila
Photo credit: Lauri Eriksson
Courtesy Warner Classics International

[Editor's note:  Andrew Clark of Financial Times hailed Ms. Mattila's Salome as "sensational...ecstatic torrents of sound".  For the complete review, click here.  It has also been announced that Ms. Mattila will sing her first Isolde during Royal Opera's 2007-08 season.]

Nuno Miguel Marques is a Classical Voice correspondent in Lisbon, Portugal.


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