Finnish opera singer Karita Mattila is one of the world's premiere divas, having earned the title through consistent and solid work that astounds and mesmerizes audiences across the globe. Tall, athletic, and gifted with excellent vocal talent, she challenges herself both physically and intellectually with the roles she chooses. Able to sing in seven languages and to interpret a wide range of roles, Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle praised her "stylistic elusiveness." Bridget Paolucci noted in American Record Guide that "Mattila moves easily on stage, giving her performances a sense of naturalness and fluidity. As an actress, she not only understands the depth and complexity of the characters, but has the extraordinary ability to communicate what she understands."
Mattila was born into a farming family in southwest Finland. Growing up, she heard both the popular music of the day as well as the folk songs her family sang. Both of her parents were active in choirs, and she told Paolucci, "I'm very proud and grateful for my roots. Basically, I had such a good childhood. I come from a wonderful schooling system, from such a secure, steady country."
She began taking piano lessons at age nine, and eventually focused on voice. Her first coach praised her ability to sing and her parents bribed her through a couple years when her interest waned. By the time she was 16 she felt truly interested in music and went on to study at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, where she completed her studies in a quick four and a half years. She explained to Nuno Miguel Marques of Classical Voice, "More than anything else it was my first singing teacher's encouragement that led me to the world of professional music."
Having chosen to sing professionally, Mattila hit the stage with a vengeance. In 1981 she won her first major contest by singing in the Lappeenranta competition. She went on to win the first-ever BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition held in the United Kingdom two years later. A year later she began studying with the world-famous voice teacher Vera Rozsa, who has taught such talents as Kiri Te Kanawa and Ann-Sofie von Otter. Mattila toured and performed almost without ceasing through the late 1980s.
Mattila's abilities as a singer and actress continued to mature and by the 1990s she had hit an almost un-stoppable stride. In 1990 she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. By 1992 the strain of touring had taken its toll and she needed surgery on her vocal chords. She recovered quickly enough and made her San Francisco debut in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in the role of Eva.
Her reputation in the opera world continued to grow. In 1997 her performance as Elisabeth in Don Carlos at the Royal Opera House in London won her a nomination for the Laurence Olivier Award. She also received the Evening Standard Ballet, Opera and Classical Music Award for outstanding performance of the year for the same role. When the opera went to Paris and played at the Theatre du Chatelet, Mattila won the François Reichenbach Prize Orphée du Lyrique. In 1998 her Decca recording of Die Meistersinger won a Grammy Award for best opera. She closed out the decade with a debut appearance at New York City's famed Carnegie Hall.
Mattila's acclaim comes from blend of several strong impulses. She is a perfectionist who works hard to make every performance excellent. As she explained to the Helsingin Sanomat, "Look, I'm financially responsible to my audience. And I draw strength from them, the urge to dive into new roles." In addition to that is the need to draw out the complexity of the characters that she plays, she told Marques: "When I study a score, I love to discover that the composer was deeply fascinated by a woman's story, even though women did not have much power, freedom or rights in those days. I love composers who find timelessness in women and create characters which today still feel fresh and alive."
A tireless performer, Mattila entered the new millennium at full steam ahead. She made an astoundingly successful debut as Leonore in Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera. Kurt Moses of American Record Guide wrote, "[S]he proved as ideal a Leonore as one could hope for. Limber, athletic … and boyish looking, she dominated the stage as much as by her skillful theatrical talents as by her focussed and forceful singing.… hers was an unforgettable portrayal." Her performance earned a New York Times Best Singer of the Year award. She also earned another nomination for a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera for two different roles at the Royal Opera House: one for her role as Jenufa in the opera of the same name and for Lisa in Pique Dame.
Mattila is continually offered the finest roles in the world's best opera houses. In 2002 she had the lead in Janácek's Kat'a Kabanova, and told Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle, "I'm just falling in love with this part. Of course, it was very, very difficult at first, because the Czech language is so difficult to sing. But the better I've learned it, the more fascinating it has been."
In 2003 Mattila began a recital tour across continents that consistently drew rave reviews. Kosman described the sequence of her performance as she sang works that ranged from Sibelius to Rachmaninoff to Dvorák, "From an artist committed to classical elegance and balance, she becomes ever more unrestrained before ultimately getting in touch with the inner ham that lurks within every performer."
Also in 2003 she premiered Quatre Instants, a work by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, in Paris and London. Performing such contemporary works is important to Mattila, as is singing in Finnish. She explained to Marques, "For me it is as important to sing the music of my times as it is to sing in general.… I believe it is my artistic duty to make known the works of our marvelous modern composers."
For the Record …
Born on September 5, 1960, in Somero, Finland; married Tapio Kuneinen, 1992. Education: Graduated from Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, Finland.
Debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, 1990; San Francisco debut in Wagner's Die Meistersinger, as Eve, 1993; debuted at Carnegie Hall, 1999; performed lead in Kat'a Kabanova, 2001; performed the role of Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte at Salzburg Festival, performed critically acclaimed solo recital at University of California, Berkeley, premiered Quatre Instants in London and Paris, debuted in lead role of Salome at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, 2003.
Awards: Won Lappeenranta Singing Competition, 1981; won first BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Com petition, 1983; Evening Standard Ballet, Opera, and Classical Music Award for Outstanding Performance of the Year for role of Elisabeth in Don Carlos at Royal Opera House, Académie du Disque Lyrique François Reichenbach Prize Orphée du Lyrique for Don Carlos performance at the Theatre du Chatelet, Paris, 1997; Grammy Award for Best Opera for Die Meistersinger, 1998; New York Times Best Singer of the Year for role in Fidelio, 2001; French Ministry of Culture, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, 2003; Grammy Award for Best Opera recording for Janácek's Jenufa, 2004.
Addresses: Record company— Ondine, Inc., Fre drikinkatu 77 A 2, 00100 Helsinki, Finland, e-mail: [email protected], phone: +358 9 4342 210, fax: +358 9 493 956.
In September of that year she made her debut as Salome at the Opéra Bastille in Paris. Once again, she played to a stunned and admiring audience, particularly when she performed the notoriously revealing dance of the seven veils. In 2004 she won her second Best Opera Recording Grammy for Janácek: Jenufa.
With operatic seasons planned years in advance, Mattila's schedule is already booked. She will perform in the world premiere of Finnish composer Mikko Heinio's opera, and is also scheduled to make her debut as Isolde at the Royal Opera. While she keeps her work load down to around 50 performances a year, she told BusinessLINK that her chosen path has not been easy, "It has meant work, work and more work. I have been driven by an insatiable professional ambition." That ambition has paid off as she continues earn rave reviews for the range and depth of her talent.
Opera Arias, Philips, 1987.
Cosi fan tutte, Philips, 1989.
Wonderful, Ondine, 1995.
Sibelius Songs, Ondine, 1996.
Sydän Suomessa, Ondine, 1996.
Don Carlos, EMI, 1996.
From the Heart of Finland, Ondine, 1997.
Lauluia merelle, Ondine, 1997.
Karita! Ondine, 1998.
Wild Rose, Ondine, 1998.
Le nozze di Figaro, Sony, 1998.
Mozart Requiem, Deutsche Grammofon, 1999.
Karita Live! Ondine, 2000.
Arias & Scenes, Erato, 2001.
German Romantic Arias, Erato, 2002.
Gurrelieder, EMI, 2002.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Decca, 2003.
Don Giovanni, Philips, 2003.
American Record Guide, January, 2001; January–February, 2004.
Financial Times (London, England), September 25, 2003, p. 19.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 2, 2002, p. D1; March 18, 2003, p. D1.
Times (London, England), April 8, 2003, p. 17.
Toronto Star, February 22, 2003, p. H13.
"A Body-and-Soul Diva: Interview with Finnish Soprano Karita Masttila," Classical Voice, http://www.classicalvoice.org/articles/nu_mattila122003cv.htm (March 1, 2004).
"From Turku to the Opera Stages of the World," BusinessLINK, http://www.turku.chamber.fi/businesslink/2002/artikkelit/culture/karitamattila.html (March 1, 2004).
"Karita Mattila: One Very Feisty, Down-to-Earth Diva," Helsingin Sanomat, http://www.helsinki-hs.net/news.asp?id=20031209IE14 (March 1, 2004).
"Karita Mattila," Virtual Finland, http://virtual.finland.fi/finfo/english/mattila.html (March 1, 2004).
—Eve M. B. Hermann