Vocalist.org archive

From:  peggyh@i...
Date:  Fri Oct 13, 2000  12:52 pm
Subject:  NYTimes.com Article: Karita Mattila: A Soprano Takes a Dramatic Turn

This article from NYTimes.com
has been sent to you by Margaret Harrison peggyh@i...


Here is an article from today's New York Times - an interview with Finnish
soprano Karita Mattila - one of the better singer intereviews I've read. The
reason I'm sending it (via the NY Times "e-mail to a friend" service) is that
she talks a lot about how she's had to perform in way-out productions that she
disagrees with, which was a recent subject of list discussion.


Margaret Harrison, Alexandria, Virginia, USA

Margaret Harrison

/-------------------- advertisement -----------------------\

Sign up for NYTimes.com's Campaign Countdown E-mail

With the presidential election around the corner,
we are offering a daily campaign e-mail to bring you
latest developments in the race for the White House.
Our Campaign Countdown e-mail will include information
on the candidates' daily activities, the latest campaign
news, the most important poll results and more.



Karita Mattila: A Soprano Takes a Dramatic Turn

October 13, 2000


After a recent midday rehearsal for the new Metropolitan Opera
production of Beethoven's "Fidelio," which opens tonight, the
glamorous soprano Karita Mattila, dressed in casual slacks and
sneakers, came bounding into the company's press room for an
interview, beaming with the hearty, dimpled bloom of the Finnish
farm girl she once was. In her shoulder bag she carried the opera's
score along with apples, raw carrots and a bottle of spring water
to keep her going on a busy day. Even in her soprano-at- work mode
Ms. Mattila, who recently turned 40, looked stunning.

But what had happened to her long blond hair?

It was gone,
cropped short by a Met hairdresser so Ms. Mattila could portray
Beethoven's Leonore, the wife of a liberal-minded nobleman in
late-18th-century Spain who has been imprisoned for vaguely
specified reasons by a repressive local governor. To rescue her
husband, Florestan, who will be sung by the tenor Ben Heppner,
Leonore has disguised herself as a young man, Fidelio, and gone to
work at the prison where Florestan is being held in a subterranean

Excited by the production concept of Jırgen Flimm, who is making
his Met debut with "Fidelio," Ms. Mattila threw herself into the
role with her customary fervor. Hence the haircut. "They are
cutting my hair even more this afternoon, and coloring it dark,"
she said. "And they are making me completely flat-chested.

"I may not look beautiful, but I look so right. It's wonderful.
That's what we try for."

When she made her Met debut in 1990 as Donna Elvira in Mozart's
"Don Giovanni," few opera buffs would have predicted that Ms.
Mattila would someday sing Leonore, typically the province of
dramatic sopranos who live on Wagner and Strauss. At the time, it
seemed that a splendid lyric soprano with an unusually resonant
voice had arrived.

But just five years later Ms. Mattila (who pronounces her name
kah- REE-tah MATT-ee-lah) triumphed at the Salzburg Festival in the
vocally weighty role of Chrysothemis in Strauss's "Elektra." She
had been nervous about taking up the challenge, but during
rehearsals, encouraged by the conductor, Claudio Abbado, and the
director, Lev Dodin, she discovered a whole new dramatic dimension
to her voice: a gleaming, unforced sound that could slice through
Strauss's thick orchestra but retain its lyric hues and elegance.
Last season at the Met she was a vocally luminous Elsa in Wagner's

Dramatic soprano voices tend to come in big bodies. Ms. Mattila
has the figure and charisma of a movie star. And as an actress she
is willing to make all manner of physical and emotional demands on

But admirable as it is, the willingness to take dramatic risks has
gotten Ms. Mattila into situations she regrets, like the new
production by Hans Neuenfels of Mozart's "Così Fan Tutte" at the
Salzburg Festival this summer. The opera tells the story of two
cocksure young men who test the faithfulness of their fianc es.

This updated production cluttered the stage with bizarre props,
including monster-size insects, and distracted attention from the
singers with background videos, some of them erotic. When Ms.
Mattila sang Fiordiligi's fiery aria, "Come Scoglio," in which she
declares her constancy to be as unassailable as a fortress, she
arrived onstage walking two men like dogs on leashes, both scantily
clad in leather and chains, crawling on all fours. What was the
point? There was none, Ms. Mattila said.

"It was one of the worst experiences I've had for a long time,"
she said. "I didn't believe in the production. Nobody understood
what they were doing or why. I've done many crazy things, but there
is also a line one cannot cross."

That production was especially unfortunate because Ms. Mattila had
decided beforehand to retire this role, and she wanted her final
performances to be meaningful. Such is the quandary of singers
today who work hard to form interpretive ideas and then have no
choice but to comply with a director's concept, however offensive.

"I was so depressed," she said. "I felt like a beaten dog after
every performance." She was also deeply unhappy with the conductor,
Lothar Zagrosek. She said the whole experience left her
disappointed with G rard Mortier, the festival's artistic director,
who has made it a point of pride to bring radical stagings of
Mozart operas to the composer's birthplace.

Ms. Mattila was also disconcerted by the Robert Wilson "Lohengrin"
last season at the Met. When the production was first presented in
March 1998, critics and audiences were divided about the abstract
scenic designs: against backdrops of shifting blues and grays,
eerily illuminated white bars protruded from all sides of the
stage. But the glacially slow, highly stylized hand and arm
movements that Mr. Wilson devised for the singers and chorus were
roundly criticized. You had to feel for the soprano Deborah Voigt,
who sang Elsa, as she gamely tried to sing this demanding role
while struggling to remember the series of poses she was supposed
to strike.

When the production returned last season, Ms. Mattila sang Elsa.
This time Mr. Wilson was mostly absent. "I met Bob Wilson only once
during four weeks of rehearsal," she said, so the singers just
decided to "change things."

Working with Mr. Wilson's movement coordinator, they tried to
simplify the gestures. There was still a posed, severely modern
look to their portrayals, but the characters seemed more pliant and
human, especially Ms. Mattila's. Radiating through her statuesque
stances you could see Elsa's confusion, vulnerability and

Although her work was widely praised, Ms. Mattila nevertheless
found the production frustrating. She had hired a personal trainer
to help her cope with the physical demands of the staging, but she
always felt "like an unfit ballet dancer," she said. "I could not
give as much energy to the movements as a dancer could. I had to
leave strength for singing and not risk that balance."

After her first performance as Elsa, Mr. Wilson came backstage
with hugs and congratulations. He has often described his
directorial approach as simply providing a form for the performance
to fill. But his forms can be terribly fussy and constraining. If
Ms. Mattila's simplifications were so successful, then what was the
point, one could ask, of the highly stylized movements in the first

Given her recent experiences with avant-garde productions, Ms.
Mattila approached the Met's "Fidelio" with some trepidation. She
had never worked with Mr. Flimm also known for boldly modern
conceptions whose new production of Wagner's "Ring" at Bayreuth
this summer was generally praised.

Having performed Leonore twice before first in a "lousy
production" in Finland last year, she said, then in a musically
rewarding concert performance in Paris conducted by Wolfgang
Sawallisch Ms. Mattila said she felt that despite the opera's
remarkable music, the character of Leonore was dramatically flawed.

"I like playing real women," she said, "not these idealized
man-created women."

Yet from her initial meeting with Mr. Flimm, she was inspired by
his vision. "The work here started with a costume fitting," she
said. "I thought that the costumes looked too grim and ugly. Then I
worked with Jırgen for six hours. By the evening I had totally
changed. I thought: `The costumes are perfect, but my hair is all
wrong, too glamorous, too blond. What should we do?' "

The production is not exactly modern, Ms. Mattila said, but
timeless in its imagery, powerfully real and relevant. Unjust
political imprisonment still happens throughout the world, she
said. The opera takes place entirely in the prison. In this
production "fear and death hang over everyone," she said: not just
the prisoners but the prison workers who spend their days engaged
in the numbing routine of running the place.

Ms. Mattila has come to see Leonore as one of the "real women" she
is drawn to. If you bring out only Leonore's self-sacrificing
courage, she said, she becomes "virtuous, pure and fleshless."
Having worked with Mr. Flimm and with James Levine, one of her
favorite colleagues, who will conduct, she hopes to show another
side to this driven woman.

"Leonore has a very hard and cruel plan to rescue her husband,"
she explained. Marzelline, the jailer's daughter, has developed a
crush on the young "man" Fidelio. Leonore manipulates Marzelline's
feelings to gain the jailer's trust.

"She knows that she is going to crush Marzelline when it all comes
out," Ms. Mattila said. "But all is possible in love and war."
Leonore has become obsessed with rescuing her husband. "It has been
two years since he was taken," she said. "She has been at the
prison for six months. She is getting so close. There is real
desperation in her."

That Ms. Mattila has turned into such an impassioned opera singer
sometimes surprises her, she said, for she was a latecomer to the
genre who listened only to folk music and pop as a girl. She was
raised on a farm with three brothers in Pernio, a town near the
southwest coast of Finland. Soon she realized that the more she
excelled at school the more she was excused from farm chores.

Her parents, who both sang in local choruses, encouraged her
musical studies and drove her to the regional music school some 10
miles away in Salo, where she took piano and voice lessons. But she
didn't become interested in opera until after the Finnish
equivalent of high school, when she entered the Sibelius Academy in

Today Ms. Mattila and her husband, Tapio Kuneinen, a former car
salesman who now tends to her career, have a residence in London, a
good base from which to operate. But "home home," as she put it, is
Turku, a Finnish coastal town across the Gulf of Bothnia from
Stockholm. They also have a cottage on an offshore island where Ms.
Mattila could have spent her last two summers, had she not signed a
three-year contract with the Salzburg Festival.

In the summer of 1999, the first year of her commitment, she sang
Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni," another experimental production that
failed: Mozart's characters are depicted as aging from impulsive
youth to creaky senility. She has high hopes for next year's
Salzburg opera, a new production of Janacek's "Jenufa," with an
interesting choice of conductor, John Eliot Gardiner, best known
for his work in early music.

The title role, which she will sing, is another vocally weighty
challenge. Wisely, Ms. Mattila intends to return now and then to
the more lyric roles from her repertory to maintain lightness and
flexibility in her singing.

Meanwhile, additional dramatic soprano roles are in her future,
she said, including Strauss's Salome in Paris in 2003. Wagner's
Isolde has been suggested by some people she trusts, she added,
though she thinks she will resist the temptation.

"But you know," she said, "in healthy circumstances, at a good
age, maybe it will come." Her fans will have to wait and see. Ten
years ago, even Ms. Mattila would not have guessed that she would
be singing Leonore at all, let alone in a new Met production.

Finding `Fidelio'

The soprano Karita Mattila will appear in the
Metropolitan Opera's new production of Beethoven's "Fidelio"
tonight at 8; Tuesday night at 8; Oct. 21 at 8:30 p.m.; Oct. 25 at
8 p.m.; Oct. 28 at 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 2 and Dec. 22 at 8 p.m.; Dec. 27
at 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 30 and Jan. 3 at 8 p.m.; and Jan. 6 at 1:30 p.m.
Performances are at the Metropolitan Opera House. Tickets: $25 to
$250. Information: (212) 362-6000.

The New York Times on the Web


Visit NYTimes.com for complete access to the
most authoritative news coverage on the Web,
updated throughout the day.

Become a member today! It's free!



For information on advertising in e-mail newsletters
or other creative advertising opportunities with The
New York Times on the Web, please contact Alyson
Racer at alyson@n... or visit our online media
kit at http://www.nytimes.com/adinfo

For general information about NYTimes.com, write to

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company