Karita Mattila: Balancing Act

Classic Arts Features   Karita Mattila: Balancing Act
Soprano Karita Mattila is equally praised for her vocal gifts and dramatic stage presence. Both talents were on vivid display when she sang the free-spirited title character of Puccini's Manon Lescaut for the first time at the Met in January. That production continues this month, including a live HD transmission to movie theaters around the world on February 16.

The Finnish diva recently spoke with the Met's Philipp Brieler about acting in opera, the flaws in Manon's character, and the importance of looking the part.

You've said of opera that the music always comes first for you. Are you a singing actress or a singer who acts?

I'm an opera singer, and that means all of that. Opera is theater, and to be an opera singer is to be able not only to master the music but also to act and be involved with the character.

You just made your Met role debut as Manon Lescaut. And you'll be seen in the part by a hundred thousand people around the world as part of the Met's Live in HD series. For the actress and the singer in you, is this the ultimate theatrical challenge?

I find it fascinating! It's a wonderful new thing at the Met, and I totally support it. But I don't know if in practical terms it will affect the way I work. I don't think it's good to be too conscious of the camera. You do the work as you are used to and try to fulfill it as best as you can.

You studied voice at Finland's Sibelius Academy. Did they also teach acting?

Yes, I was among that lucky group. In those days, the Academy had fantastic acting teachers. Acting and interpretation were part of our schooling, also dance and ballet. I loved it, and I thought it was just part of what you had to study. Unfortunately, it's not taken to be as important today as it was then. But I think the attitude is changing again, because audiences are demanding more - which is the way it should be. That makes us work harder, but it also makes us appreciate our profession more.

Marcello Giordani, who sings Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, said he was particularly looking forward to these performances because you're such a good actress. How important is a strong partner on stage?

It's extremely inspiring to be on stage with a colleague with whom you have good interaction, good contact, and good understanding. You feel safe, and you can trust him that he will be there to react. If a colleague feels the same way and has the same kind of goal about what the performance should be, that makes it very exciting.

How would you describe the character of Manon?

I don't like to discuss a character in too much detail in advance. But I think of this girl as a young woman of her time. I think it's important that this opera is set in a particular epoch. It gives me and the audience a better understanding of what Manon's motives are, what it means to be a poor young woman at that time. I feel sympathy. Of course you acknowledge the mistakes that she makes, but they're very understandable. She wants to get out of poverty, and she uses the methods that she knows to get a rich man. She's experienced in life and in misery, and she makes some crucial mistakes in trying to avoid being a poor woman.

When you sang Salome a few years ago at the Met, you told an interviewer that you had been working out to really look the part. Is that an important consideration for you when you're singing a particular role?

I remember when I started in Finland in the '80s I would get letters: I was criticized for wearing gowns that looked too sexy. As a performer who has tried to look after herself, I have constant complexes about my looks. But I think that's healthy, as long as you have limits and don't lose your mind about it. To look the part is my aim, and I think that's a good goal. It serves the audience, it serves the part, and it's good for you. I believe that the majority of singers have this goal. It's not a coincidence: you do your job well, you sing well, you act well, you look well. We all work damn hard for it, believe me. The fitter I am, the better I sing, and I just hope that it comes across, because as a member of the audience you can see when a performer has these things in balance. I know that when I am in the audience, I appreciate it!

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