A little boy
lives in the great bass's body
The bass Matti Salminen, 56, is a big Finnish star in the operatic sky, indeed the biggest right now in the view of many. He has been performing on the world's stages for over three decades, and for the past couple of them in the absolute front ranks of soloists. Salminen knows his worth; he can afford to choose where he performs, and with whom. Every feather that an opera singer can dream of already adorns his hat.
"There are opera houses with more cachet than others. The New York Metropolitan is a myth of a kind. The big league includes the Paris Opéra, London's Covent Garden, Milan's La Scala and Vienna's Staatsoper, which is said to have the world's best opera orchestra," is how Matti Salminen lists some of his workplaces. "The front rank, whether one is talking of singers, conductors or directors, tour places like that. When I go from New York to Vienna and from Vienna to Munich, I see three or four of the same faces that were at the last place where I performed a couple of days earlier. We know each other and each other's work. Professional ability and years of cooperation enable us to find a solution to whatever situation might crop up."
It was by chance that the young Matti Salminen rose from the ranks of the Finnish National Opera's choir to become a soloist. He had been studying on a scholarship in Rome and Düsseldorf and had just returned to Finland when the opera's principal bass fell ill. There was a performance of Verdi's Don Carlos four days later and Salminen was offered the role of Philipp. His career was under way.
"Naturally it seems quite foolish when you're 24 to try to play the King of Spain," Salminen laughs. "But when the recklessness of youth gets going, it can sometimes hit the spot. Today, I have a completely different way of doing the same role. The task itself has not changed at all, but now I have different means at my disposal. I can do almost anything with that role, as with others. Every professional has the potential for a period of crescendo (strengthening), and decrescendo (weakening) also inevitably sets in at some stage. In my case it has not yet begun." Sitting on a park bench, Salminen spits over his left shoulder three times, the Finnish equivalent of touching wood.
Life colours a voice
"A singer's voice matures as the years go by. Life adds a variety of colours and edges to it. When there is a clear dramaturgy in the music and the lyrics, just `a beautiful song' is nothing more than a line of empty pretty sounds," philosophises the singer. "The basic colour in my voice has grown darker over the years, but technique still allows me to find more melodious, lighter tones in some or other compartment of my memory. The freshness of youth does not inevitably disappear as long as the mindset remains boyish. I feel I have remained a little boy at heart - and that is positive in many ways. One of the things that helps me in this is making lighter music, because in it one has to keep a finger on the pulse of the times. Opera work is largely old classical music and listening to the beat of today is a good counterweight."
Matti Salminen is a really big singer also in his physical dimensions. The general perception is that all basses are tall, big men, whilst tenors are small and round. But: "Not all basses are so awfully big," says Salminen. "To take some Finnish examples, Kim Borg is not exceptionally tall, although Martti Talvela was enormous in size. The question is how a low voice comes into being. A double bass has long strings, if the comparison is with a violin. Bass singers should likewise have long vocal chords - which is a feature rarely found in short people. Nicolai Ghiaurov is one top bass who is of normal size. It is true that star tenors are generally short, three small spheres stacked on top of each other. There are plenty of examples: Enrico Caruso, Jussi Björling and Luciano Pavarotti. On the other hand, Placido Domingo is slender and tall, nearly of bass dimensions."
Bayreuth: springboard into the elite
Opera directors probably keep a current artistes' ranking list in their desk drawer. The threshold that must be surmounted on the way to becoming one of the crème de la crème is truly high. Only few ever manage to climb into that elite. Matti Salminen knew he had made it when he had been booked for five successive Bayreuth Festivals. "One booking is not enough, but when you appear at these festivals time and time again, others start taking notice. Big opera houses, conductors and directors send invitations. I detest the Wagner brand on my forehead, but since I've been singing in Bayreuth for 13 years, it was automatically applied to me."
The Finnish National Opera has presented Wagner's mighty Ring tetralogy, culminating in spring 1999 with the six-hour Götterdämmerung. Matti Salminen had a role in the production as of right. The entire Ring will be performed four times in spring 2000. Salminen says that a lot has been put into this and that it has been done really well. He has special praise for the conductor Leif Segerstam. "He is the person who does all those great things and one of the brightest lights in the whole world."
Branded forehead or not, Matti Salminen can talk about Richard Wagner indefinitely. The composer divided opinions sharply: you either adore or despise him.
"Wagner was a contradictory character with a lot of rough edges to his personality. His works reflect that. People who think in a certain way immediately erect a barrier: `That I don't want to accept.' I saw an example of that ten years ago, when we were doing the Ring at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The audience was watching a dress rehearsal and during the interval a scuffle broke out in the auditorium. People were grabbing each others by the neckties simply because of differences in their ways of thinking. Wagner has such a powerful effect on people.
"My first Wagner experience was in Bayreuth in 1976, when the world-famous Pierre Boulez conducted the so-called centenary Ring (the cycle was completed in 1876). Rotten eggs and tomatoes flew during and after the first performance. Five years later, the same production received one and a half hours' applause after Götterdämmerung! The audience had taken the trouble to listen and begun to grasp things that no one hears in Wagner at first hearing. I have been struggling with Wagner for thirty years and there is still a lot to dig out."
Sallinen's King Lear
Matti Salminen's next big challenge is Aulis Sallinen's new opera King Lear, which will be premiered at the Finnish National Opera in December 2000. At the time of our interview last summer, he was reading the piano notes for the first act of the opera, in which he will have the role of the king. "It's very interesting to be in at the birth of a new opera and to be able to discuss it with the composer," he says. "And it's certainly also nice for Aulis to know who he is writing the main roles for: Jorma Hynninen and me."
In summer 1999 Matti Salminen spent his first proper summer holiday since beginning his career as a soloist. It could become a habit. He has promised to perform at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, but it takes place only in August. July is free for a holiday if he wants to take one.
"I have been in a privileged position for some time," he says. "I can tell a director or a conductor that this time I'm not interested. There are plenty of good ones and life is pleasant and interesting when one has been dealing with them for a few years. It is also true that the audience's expectations are different from what they were 20 years ago. A singer can't afford a single second-rate performance. Professionalism is being able to find that unique spark within oneself evening after evening." That explains why Matti Salminen sings to packed houses all over the world.
It is an amusing detail that the star bass has one of the most common Finnish names; alone the Helsinki telephone directory lists 16 Matti Salminens. But on the opera stages of the world, there is only one.