"The world's most sought-after soprano and a Finnish Venus"
The importance of a business or athlete can be gauged directly by the results achieved, but ranking artistes in order of merit is a more awkward task. That is what makes it so interesting as well. The major opera and concert houses as well as music festivals keep up-to-date ranking lists, and one name that is certainly on all of them is Karita Mattila. The Finnish soprano is a world-class star by any criterion.
"A singer's value is defined by where he or she performs and in what roles. I've been singing the lead roles for a long time in major houses - London, Paris, New York, Salzburg . the list could go on a lot - and my common sense tells me the pedestal it puts me on is high enough," says Karita Mattila, 41, with not a hint of false modesty. "No matter how hard I try not to think about it, the changes in my status do show in my agent's papers and my fees."
Karita Mattila has gone from triumph to triumph, but the peak moments of her career still lie ahead. "I am only now opening a chest that I have not wanted to touch earlier, even thought I could, maybe, have done so. I have been listening to trusted persons around me and perhaps understood a little myself. A voice's development makes it possible to broaden the repertoire. I already have contracts for the major Richard Strauss roles: Arabella at the Châtelat Theatre in Paris in 2002, Salome at the Bastille Theatre in Paris in 2003. Several big Verdi roles are also in the pipeline and I am still doing Wagner selectively," lists the star. "There are a few roles that I would like to say goodbye to. You always have to think it over. When I did Lohengrin, I told them that I couldn't sing it and Pamina in The Magic Flute at the same time."
Triumphs in competitions opened the way
Karita Mattila won the Lappeenranta Singing Competition in 1981 and the BBC competition in Cardiff in 1983. That was the beginning of her international career. She made her debut at the New York Metropolitan in 1990 in the role of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, thereby confirming, if there was still any need, her status in the front rank of young singers. Her road to stardom had been paved.
The great metropolises of music have been the singer's everyday world from year to year. The list of major roles that she has sung is long and there seems no end to the flow of superlatives from critics. The British, usually considered cool and reserved, provide a good example. Karita Mattila turned their heads completely when she sang the role of Queen of Spades in Tchaikovsky's opera at Covent Garden. The Sunday Times proclaimed that the former prima donna had grown into a genuine opera diva, who is the world's most sought-after soprano. The Observer was no less glowing, declaring that Karita brings tears to the eyes of grown men and is simply the world's most magnificent singing actress. Not long afterwards The Guardian fell into an equally deep rapture at a concert and declared that Karita Mattila was "a Finnish Venus", more beautiful than Greta Garbo, a better actress than Vanessa Redgrave and with a wardrobe that made Liz Hurley's look dull. The Daily Telegraph summed the star up in a headline declaring that she looks divine and sounds even better.
Karita is well-known for her colourful and brisk personality and has told the daily Helsingin Sanomat that she would be prepared to strip naked while doing Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils if the director insisted on it. "I'm not ashamed of my body." In the same interview she said that present-day opera demands singers who look credible in their roles.
Her cooperation partners to date have included the greatest of conductors: Claudio Abbado, Colin Davis,Valery Gergiyev, Bernard Haitink, James Levine, Wolfgang Sawallisch and of course the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Finnish star Esa-Pekka Salonen. She has done recordings for Philips, Sony, DG and Ondine. She hardly ever listens to her early recordings. "They were pretty terrible," she says. "Not one of them comes up to the level that I'd be satisfied with now. But I can hear from them how I've developed. The latest additions to the series were four albums cut for Erato/Warner in 2001. The tracks on them include Janacek's Jenufa as well as arias and scenes from operas by Puccini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Wagner. In the autumn of last year she also recorded a collection of works by Jean Sibelius and Edvard Grieg together with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo
In big concerts Karitas voice can handle anything from arias to pop songs. Here, Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducts the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The success that Finnish singers and conductors are enjoying at the top never fails to astonish. It would be difficult to find a parallel to this small country's contribution to world music. "It's a mystery that no one has been able to solve. Could it have something to do with our national character, our attitude to work? I'll leave it to wiser heads to figure out," laughs Karita with her full row of white teeth. "In my own case, all I can do is thank my teacher Liisa Linko-Malmio of the Sibelius Academy and the fact that opera-class teaching there focused more attention on preparing students for the stage than was paid elsewhere. Graduates in Finland were certainly better-prepared as performers. I'm also thankful that I understood early enough that I needed to go and get training and stimuli also elsewhere."
"Light music is a part of me"
The star of the opera stages does not find light music alien. The public were given a splendid example of that when Karita sang both opera and pop songs to an audience of 12,000 in Helsinki at her 40th-birthday jubilee concert in Helsinki. "A straight light-entertainment concert of singing the kind of mish-mash that I did at the jubilee concert is tough on the voice. But doing a show adds to a capacity for interpretation when a classical singer comes eyeball-to- eyeball with quite strange things. It is fascinating and also developing. Besides that, I've had popular music in my blood since childhood and I want to keep my skill in that respect as well. It's a part of me."
But opera stages are where Karita Mattila has earned her most handsome laurels. In 2001 the New York Times chose her as best singer of the year on the strength of her performance in Fidelio at the Metropolitan. With audiences and critics almost literally prostrate at the feet of the tall and shapely star soprano, might there not be a temptation to go on surfing on the crest of the wave? The answer to that question is a bright laugh that can be heard blocks away. "It's a crest you can easily topple from if all you do is surf. A prerequisite for everything is an insatiable professional ambition. My greatest gift is my voice, which lends itself to a very diverse programme. As just a lyrical soprano I was getting to be old at forty. Just think, for example, of Ileana Cotrubas and how young she gave up. As long as my health holds up, I have a lot of time left."
An artiste so much in demand is booked solid for years ahead. In 2002 Karita will perform in the Canary Islands in January, in Berlin in February, in Paris in April, in Florence in June and will spend the autumn season at opera houses in New York and San Francisco.
Let's wait for Karita's Norma
Although she had demonstrated her talent at Milan's La Scala, Maria Callas became a sensation only after she had sung Norma in Bellini's opera in Chicago at the age of 30. It is a stone on which many renowned sopranos after her have blunted their axes. Karita Mattila, when will you sing Norma? "I asked my singing teacher Vera Rozs the same question: Will I sing Norma before I die? "It's possible," she replied, "but don't do it yet." It's not something to be rushed. It was a terrible disappointment when Margaret Price, whom I greatly admired, sang Norma and wasn't at all good. I decided that was a mistake I wasn't going to make. I'll wait as long as I have to until I'm really comfortable in the role. A lot of the women I've heard singing Norma shouldn't have attempted it at all. It's a task that's so difficult to get to grips with and causes quite terrible pressures in the run up to it. With a heavier voice, Brünhilde and Isolde or even Katerina Izmailova can go to the extreme limits, the same with Fidelio. But in this high so-called lyrico spinto bracket, Norma is probably the final measure of a soprano."
Karita Mattila has already written the opera history of our era. When she sings Norma, it will be the dot on an already- handsome "i". Is the mantle of Maria Callas soon to pass to her heir?