"Excuse me," the stranger said. (Picture Cary Grant.) "Are you Karita Mattila?"
As the lithe, long-stemmed platinum blonde tells the story, the scene starts unrolling in the Bijou of the mind as it might have been filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. "I was in Saks Fifth Avenue, shopping for pantyhose. A very well-dressed man started following me. He didn't go away. He came to me at the cashier's."
Warily, the Finnish soprano answered his query in the affirmative. At which point, suspense gave way to something more agreeable. "My wife and I are coming to see you in Lohengrin -- twice," her admirer told her.
"It's a strange show," the diva replied, by the way of subtle evasion. Robert Wilson's production -- his Metropolitan Opera debut -- had been unveiled to wails of protest the season before. Deborah Voigt had been Elsa then. Now, in the beginning phase of rehearsals for the revival, at a loss to connect with Wilson's approach, Mattila already had let the administration of the Metropolitan Opera know that she might have to withdraw.
"The first week is hard," she was told sympathetically. "Just stick with it and see. It's a shock to everyone at the beginning."
That, at any rate, was true. Another newcomer to the cast grumbled, "I'm not going to cancel. I have a contract. This is crap, but I'm going to do it." And Mattila thought to herself, "So do I have a contract. Let's be professional about this."
Still, she was feeling far from confident.
Now this Cary Grant of the lingerie counter was offering reassurance. "We already saw the show last season," he told her. "We don't care about that. We're going to see you."
This struck her conscience. "Karita, I said to myself, for whom are you doing this? I love my audience, and they love me back. The first problem arises, and I'm ready to quit."
Filled with fresh resolve, she reached out to Wilson's movement coordinator, Giuseppe Frigeni. "I find this very static," she told him. "How flexible can we be?" Quite flexible, as it proved. "He worked so hard with me. I had an apartment with mirrors from floor to ceiling. It was fate! At first, the work was awful. You need to be a ballet dancer! You have to be so strong to give energy to those movements. But to sing, you have to conserve energy. I hired a physical trainer, and we worked three times a week. And I had two massages a week. No, I didn't charge them back to the Met. It was like being in training. But I've always worked out -- swimming, playing volleyball, even when I was younger and quite overweight."
The result was an Elsa whose hurt and need and ecstasy shivered like white heat off the surface of her glacial, glamorous art-moderne poses, making the case that the most rigorous control can give rise to the greatest intensity of expression. And the singing! From the most fragile shimmer to the most lustrous blaze, from innocent rapture to guilty hysterics, Mattila's cool, pure yet ardent soprano, with its frisson of vibrato, brought every note of the score thrillingly to life.
"I thought she was exceptional in realizing my direction," Wilson wrote from Singapore in reply to a recent query about her performance. "What I do as a director is not important. I simply provide a form or frame. It is how one fills in the form that is most important. I give an artist complete freedom within the formal structure. Her beauty for me was how she found her way into that structure. She knows how to walk onstage, because she understands stillness. There is always movement even in stillness, so when one walks, the line of movement only continues. She also has a great power when she is not singing, because she knows how to listen. There is always sound/music, so that when she began to sing the musical line simply continued. She gave the production a focus and power, because she was intelligent and sang not to everyone but to a single person. Thus allowing the public to come to her. I also like very much that at certain moments she sang only for herself. This brought the audience even closer to her. She was able to find herself within my direction in such a way that I could see her as a unique personality as well as the character of Elsa. She has a careful balance between an interior and exterior awareness." (After Lohengrin, Wilson offered Mattila Aida, but she has decided that his methods, in the end, are not hers.)
In October, after what feels like much too long an absence, Mattila (forty this month) returns to the Met as Leonore in Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, a notoriously taxing role she has tried out in Helsinki and in Paris, where she won raves.
Of her new roles, she has said, "They all frighten me. That's why I want to do them. I always want to feel as if I just started.... My self-therapy is to be honest always with myself. The risk of failure makes that easy. And when success comes, if it does, the risk makes that thrilling."
So she told Stagebill on the occasion of her Carnegie Hall recital in February 1999. The program, an unorthodox tour of decidedly out-of-the-way repertoire, demonstrated exactly what Mattila means by honesty and risk. Nothing about it was surefire. The evening began with the seldom heard "Vedi quanto t'adoro" of Schubert, based on Metastasio's text Didone Abbandonata, and proceeded to rare Mahler, a wild new song cycle from Finland (with performance-art touches), Berg's Seven Early Songs and a brief Richard Strauss sampler that went well beyond the handful of usual chestnuts. Her first encore, Strauss's rapturous "Zueignung," which is a chestnut and is usually delivered in grand operatic style, came off this time as the most intimate, most personal of utterances. In parting, she floated a farewell from West Side Story: "Dream of me ... tonight," she sang, gliding offstage with the poise of a runway model and a warm, disarming wave. Only a very daring, very secure artist could have pulled the evening off, and Mattila did.
Strange to relate, given Mattila's prominence on international concert stages, the recital marked her first Carnegie Hall appearance ever. Why had she never sung there before? "I made a big point," she answers. "I felt it was crucial to be invited to sing in the big hall -- not to appear in the small recital hall -- and to get the fee. I would have sung there with an orchestra, but you have to be invited, and as it happened, I had not been. I wanted to go there in a normal way or not at all. I didn't want to do a charity performance. It was the same with the Met. As a very young singer, I decided, I'll never sing an audition. If I'm not good enough, I won't sing there. My ex-agent was very pushy and tried to tell me -- when I was singing with the Washington Opera years ago -- that I must go to New York to audition for the Met. I would not do it. People who misunderstand will hate me, but this is just me. I'm not saying anything against people who did things differently. It's a kind of pride."
We are talking in the apartment she keeps twenty steps from the train station of the Baltic port of Turku. Officially, she and her husband, Tapio Kuneinen, a former car salesman she met while shopping for a Mitsubishi Sigma, make their home in London. Turku, across the Gulf of Bothnia from Stockholm, is near Mattila's roots in the Finnish countryside, where she grew up on a farm with three brothers and parents she describes as very conservative, with very strict rules about how to raise girls and how to raise boys. "There were certain games I could never win, because I was a girl," Mattila recalls, making it clear she tried. "With four kids you always compete."
Musically and emotionally, the soprano relates more to the world to the east than to the Scandinavian countries to Finland's west. "The Finns were under Swedish rule so long," she says. "We were their slaves. They took us for their armies. Our folksongs have their roots in Slavic style more than in the style of Sweden, Denmark or Norway."
From the street, Mattila's apartment building looks almost commercial rather than residential, but the penthouse duplex, with its cathedral ceilings, is spacious and flooded with midsummer light. It turns out that the frilly decor -- a white-leather living-room suite, pink scalloped valances -- came with the apartment.
But it is to Mattila's liking. The white piano was a fifth-anniversary present from her husband. Her first piece of furniture for her London apartment in her single days was a pink piano, which she saw from a taxi riding past a shop next to Wigmore Hall. She stopped the car, struck one or two chords and said, "I'll take it." Back in Turku, Kuneinen's taste is represented, too, in the collection of teddy bears in the bedroom and in the series of framed magazine covers emblazoned with images of his wife that hang in the office.
"Thank God you don't take milk in your tea," Mattila says. "I'm hopeless in the kitchen."
Mattila's home outfit consists of snug, flattering green-patterned denims with a pale cardigan and matching top. A tiny bolt of golden lightning bridges the almond-shaped lenses of her gold-rimmed glasses, which give her a studious air. It seems impossible that she was ever heavy, but she was -- sufficiently so that she did not like herself onstage: "I was not believable." The young Callas, it will be remembered, took a look in the mirror and drew the same conclusion, with historic consequences.
On her own initiative, Mattila went to Weight Watchers. Steer the conversation to fitness, and she can tell you the relative importance, to a singer, of back muscles and abdominals. For the last ten years, an exercise bike has accompanied her wherever she goes. At the Olympic stadium in Helsinki, she caused a sensation when she sang the Finnish national anthem, threw off her dress and high heels and revealed her form in what some recall as a bikini, though it was actually a one-piece 1930s-style swimsuit, chosen to harmonize with the architecture.
Her operatic life revolves around London, Paris, New York and Salzburg, but every so often, she returns to Finland, notably to test-drive new roles at Tampere Hall, the congress and concert center in the handsome city of that name, where she has carte blanche. Lisa, in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, a character she subsequently performed to great acclaim in New York and Paris, was one of her Tampere experiments. Puccini's Manon Lescaut last year was another.
The latter was an assignment she was anticipating with the greatest excitement, and it afforded her a personal triumph. The broad emotional compass of the part suited her, and she laid into the music with Latin abandon. "A sufficient number of reliable people have told me, 'You sounded round, not Nordic, not cool.' I was happy. No other role of mine has so many high Cs. There are six, I think. But it's a big challenge for me to sing in this style. It needs a lot of middle range, which is an adventure."
What disappointed her was the production, which laid a thin veneer of contemporary anachronism over a staging that was otherwise conventional and underimagined. (The bright lights of Vegas twinkled over the desert where the heroine expired in a red sequined party dress.) To make matters worse, the director had been her choice. Still, Mattila managed to transcend the circumstances, creating a character who for all her lack of moral compass was never shallow in her emotions. In particular, she gave a pair of red shoes a symbolic point as sharp as that of the red shoes of Proust's duchess.
Thus one more living, breathing portrait entered Mattila's eclectic gallery: to roles already mentioned, add Mozart's Fiordiligi and Donna Anna (revisited at the Salzburg Festival 1999 in a new production by Luca Ronconi, who required the singers to "age" from adolescence to decrepitude); Verdi's Élisabeth de Valois in the original French version of Don Carlos and his Amelia in Simon Boccanegra; Janácek's Jenufa; Lehár's Merry Widow; Wagner's Eva in Die Meistersinger; Richard Strauss's Chrysothemis. Impresarios and various critics are clamoring for Isolde, a role Leonie Rysanek predicted Mattila would perform "fantastically" ten years hence -- but Mattila is in no rush to anticipate that horizon.
Are we missing some figure in the carpet here? Maybe not. "I look for fascinating, different women at different times," Mattila says. "I want to play them as much as I want to sing them. I wouldn't want to be just an actor. Music comes first, I quite agree. But for me, opera is theater. The most satisfying way to fulfill the search for a character in drama is through music."
Partly it is a matter of training: "At the opera studio at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, we really worked with actors, exploring the ideas of Stanislavsky, of Peter Brook. We'd try all kinds of things in rehearsal that had nothing to do with our singing lessons. The more time passes, the more grateful I am. That's why it is as easy for me to put on those old shoes and awful clothes I wore as Elsa in Paris as it is to dress up for The Merry Widow. If the director is convincing in the concept, it doesn't matter what I wear. Human relationships are what count. I try to serve the part. I like nice clothes, but I'm not onstage to show off."
More profoundly, though, Mattila's sense of the marriage of meaning and music seems to be a matter of instinct. Liisa Linko-Malmio -- once a diva in her own right, now a legend at the Sibelius Academy, Finland's leading conservatory -- remembers well the young girl from the country who came to her for instruction two decades ago.
"She was eighteen years old, a great big girl -- very living," Linko-Malmio recalls. "She said, 'I want you absolutely.' I told her there were many other teachers. She looked at me very angrily. I couldn't say no. She was always interested in everything around her. She went to concerts -- orchestral concerts, too. She had a very good voice, as a young girl can have, but not a lot of personality. But behind the voice there was something. She was very thinking.
"Difficulties? I can't remember any. She was so clear in her head, so positive. And with time, she showed more personality, more warmth. When she was twenty, she sang Desdemona in a Finnish competition, and it was just amazing. The voice had a feeling of death. She was so young! I was amazed."
Perhaps at home the young Mattila showed more of her potential than was instantly evident as she began her international career. Who could have imagined from the very correct Donna Elvira of her Washington debut, in a Don Giovanni of the mid-'80s, what a scintillating creature she would become? Indulging a British penchant for glib shorthand, Martin Hoyle of Time Out (London) recently described her former persona as that of a "cool, stodgy Scandi-soprano" -- an ungracious but not altogether off-target overstatement for which he made instant amends by calling her now "the star of stars." "The voice is bigger though still as beautiful," he wrote, "with an added thrust and a feeling for drama."
Mattila before and after. A probe of the recorded evidence, including video, tells a good deal of the story. On Philips, a Freischütz under Colin Davis, a Don Giovanni (with Mattila as Donna Elvira) and Così Fan Tutte under Neville Marriner; on Sony Classical, a Nozze di Figaro under Zubin Mehta (with Mattila as the Countess): these recordings from 1995 and before captured a timbre that does and does not match what we hear today. The core of the sound was there, and much of the gleam, but at the bottom the voice catches a hint of the sob. In the upper registers, there was a certain languor in attack, a drooping quality suggesting that the singer was below pitch when she was not.
Her Eva in Solti's Meistersinger on London/Decca -- recorded in 1995, immediately before her radiant return to the Met production, under the baton of James Levine -- sounds curiously distressed and blue. Mattila does not mind explaining why. The Chicago concerts from which the recording is taken were not, for her or several other members of the cast, at all a happy experience. Whatever its theoretical justification, Solti's avowed aim of conversational lightness and transparency weighed on them like a leaden hand, sapping their energy and joy. (The lesson she learned from the Wilson Lohengrin -- that in the right circumstances constraint can increase focus -- was yet to come.) The soprano remembers arriving in New York for the Met run reluctant to revisit the role, but the rapport with Levine quickly changed her mind. "The music started, and I thought, 'Oh, they're letting me sing this wonderful part again.' Jimmy gives you freedom within discipline -- which is the way I work best. With him, I feel I sing better than I think I can."
From all this, turn to the live five-act French Don Carlos of 1996, under Antonio Pappano, from the Châtelet in Paris (CD on EMI, video on Kultur). It's all there: the incandescence in the voice, the urgency of the message, the absolute unveiling of the soul in word, song and gesture. This is the artist we know from the Met's The Queen of Spades and Lohengrin. Her recent Deutsche Grammophon live recording, with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, of orchestral songs of Strauss (including the celebrated Four Last Songs), is of the same caliber. It reveals a lustrous Strauss soprano in the great tradition, yet absolutely of our time, temperamentally unlike any other.
Was the change incremental, or -- as it seemed from my not quite panoramic vantage point -- a quantum leap? Mattila can pinpoint the moment exactly.
"It was when I first sang Chrysothemis, in Salzburg, in 1995. I was afraid it was too soon. I'd only done Mozart and Weber. People must have had doubts. But Claudio Abbado said, 'Don't worry. I'll make you audible.' I went to my teacher, Vera Rosza, wanting her to tell me I'd be all right, and she said, 'Darling, you're in excellent form.' So I went ahead.
"Elektra was Deborah Polaski, a fantastic, generous colleague. The director was new to me -- Lev Dodin, also making his Salzburg debut. I loved working with him. He showed us so much about the relationship of the two sisters. So the preparation had been wonderful. And then, in the dress rehearsal, at the very end of the opera, it happened. I sang my heart out. No one asked me to sing softer. It was completely wild -- an erotic experience. I'll thank Abbado and Dodin to the end of my life. With them, I really found something.
"For me, the most crucial impact was the feeling. It felt so good! I love my parents dearly, but my upbringing was such that if it feels good, it must be bad. I have to feel guilty. I realized that I'd been my own worst enemy. I've always had this material."
One thing has not changed. Mattila still has no time for predictable or easy conquests. "As a person, a woman, a human being, my love for the theater comes from curiosity, a continuing force that drives me. Something has broken free. After Elektra, I went to Paris for Don Carlos with Luc Bondy -- and after Dodin, it was so easy to forget all the distractions, just to be there for him. I had worked with Bondy in 1990 in Don Giovanni, and it was great, but I didn't really get what he was doing yet. You meet meaningful people in your life, but timing is everything. To work for a genius -- it's heaven."