Interview with Karita Mattila

Soprano Karita Mattila on Surviving Earthquakes and Shaking Up Opera

Soprano Karita Mattila has been busy. It’s 6:15pm in Helsinki, and she’s been preparing for a new production to open the Finnish National Opera’s fall season: Covid fan tutte.

“It’s been a long day,” she sighs as she searches for a pair of bejeweled glasses. The show pairs a modern libretto with the original music of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, and Mattila is set to sing the part of Despina, a character now navigating life under the coronavirus pandemic.

It will be another big debut ahead for a performer considered a legend in her field. For decades, Mattila has ruled the stage, dominating star vehicles like Salome and Jenůfa. Critics have called her “one of the finest explorers of the female psyche” in opera.

And yet, at the end of a packed day, Mattila just wants to kick back and relax with a vodka martini. But even her evening is packed: She says she has a dinner scheduled at 6:30. 

“My calendar is fairly full for the next two years or so,” she says, bright eyes flashing. By then, she’ll have clocked nearly four decades in the industry. “Im turning 60 this year, so I might just like to slow down and start doing something else.”

What that career-change might be, she teases, could lead her back to San Francisco. “I’ve always loved California,” she says. “And you have wonderful universities in San Francisco.”

She feels she has something to give back now — guidance, experience, skills — and it’s something she herself craved early in her career. Mattila was raised on a farm near the southern Finnish town of Perniö. She remembers feeling like she had to forge her own path as an artist.

“I didn’t have much guidance, because my teachers at university didn’t have much experience in Finland, at least for an international career. So you’re basically left to make your own mistakes,” she says.

But those mistakes, she believes, were vital. They allowed her to develop a reputation for being fearless, tackling roles in operas she’s never seen before. Just last year, she added four new characters to her repertoire: the Foreign Princess in Rusalka, the First Prioress in The Dialogues of the Carmelites, Kabanicha in Katya Kabanova, and Ortrud in Lohengrin.

And on Twitter, she credited the “awakening” she had in San Francisco Opera’s 2018 Die Walküre for inspiring her to add another title to her line-up: In 2021, she is set to make a long-awaited debut in Wagner’s notoriously difficult Tristan und Isolde.

“I just basically like to challenge myself. It’s my motto for living. Otherwise life gets boring — the same old routines,” Mattila says. “You need constantly to challenge yourself, to try your limits. It should last as long as you plan to continue as an artist. You might as well stop if you lose that urge to reach for new goals.”

Mattila was in her late 20s when she first arrived at San Francisco Opera to perform the Trojan princess Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo. But an unexpected tragedy befell the city before the fourth night of the show.

It was October 17, 1989. That afternoon, around 5pm, the Loma Prieta Earthquake rippled across the region, collapsing highways and buildings and killing 63 people. Mattila suddenly found that the elevator in her building didn’t work. She didn’t know what to do. So she walked to the War Memorial Opera House.

“Everybody was standing outside. And I remember [then-general director] Lotfi Mansouri standing there, and he said, ‘Oh, Karita. We are not going to have a performance tonight,’” she recalls. “He hugged me, and I started crying like I never have.”

Mansouri asked if it had been her first earthquake. She shook her head yes. But it would not be her last. Mattila says she was in Japan for the 1994 Sanriku earthquake — but even that didn’t compare with the violence of the Loma Prieta quake.

She was touched by how quickly San Francisco residents came together in the aftermath, the communality she observed. There was “this amazing sense of belonging together,” she remembers. “Everybody was helping each other. It was very moving.”

Her co-stars Nancy Gustafson and Hans Peter Blochwitz were staying at the nearby Opera Plaza apartment complex, and Mattila recalls them inviting their colleagues to regroup in the courtyard outside. 

“Everybody was bringing their wines from their cellars outside. They said, If we need to go, we might as well go with style,” Mattila says. “How can I ever forget that?”

And five days later, they were all back on stage again — albeit in a different venue. With the War Memorial Opera House badly damaged, curtains rose on Idomeneo at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, with the performers singing concert-style in costume and make-up.

Mattila would return to San Francisco in the next three decades, tackling works like Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Kát'a Kabanová, and Lohengrin. But her mighty vocal chops weren’t the only draw when she performed on the San Francisco stage.

Mattila famously delivered pointed-toe splits in Manon Lescaut with a gymnast’s ease, and critics remarked on her “otherworldly erotic pull” in 2010’s The Makropulos Case. The physicality she brings to roles is so well known that it has earned her a nickname: the Finnish Venus. She’s proud of it, too.

“Theres nothing mystical about me being a good actor or a fox on stage or a stage animal, however you call me,” she laughs. It was simply part of her training as an opera singer, and it took hard work and study.

“It has been with me, that awareness that to be an opera singer you also need to be able to act. Because opera is theater. So as a singer, you have to respect that fact. Its not good enough that you go on stage and you sing a part perfectly,” she says.

As her voice changed, though, she’s started to embrace more mature characters. In 2016, after years as the lead in Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa, she made the switch from ingenue to stepmother, presenting her first fully staged Kostelnička to San Francisco audiences.

“I had done my share of Jenůfas. As Jenůfa, I had, of course, worked with many wonderful Kostelničkas. I always knew that that would be a role that I would like to tackle at some point later in my career,” Mattila says. 

Compared to the innocence of Jenůfa, Kostelnička felt like “flesh and blood,” she says. The character ultimately drowns the grandchild Jenůfa bears out of wedlock. “Her style of singing and the music was totally different. It felt like a totally different part. But it wasnt a problem. It wasnt a problem to switch from one part to another.”

As the conversation nears its close, and dinnertime ticking ever closer, Mattila dishes about another trademark role — the 300-year-old Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case — that she first played on our stage.

For Mattila, the moral of Marty’s story is that “it’s not worth it just to live for the sake of it. Everything is about the quality of life.” And that’s the philosophy that governs her own life, off-stage. Her Twitter bio prominently declares: “Sense of humor rules.”

And with a final “nice to talk to you” and a “kippis” or “cheers” to her fans on social media, Mattila is gone, off to savor her next adventure for the evening.

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