Karita Mattila In Recital At Carnegie Hall

Soprano Karita Mattila and pianist Martin Katz perform live at Carnegie Hall: December 10, 2011. (Melanie Burford for NPR)
Soprano Karita Mattila and pianist Martin Katz perform live at Carnegie Hall: December 10, 2011. (Melanie Burford for NPR)

In his memoirs, Joseph Volpe, the hard-nosed former boss of the Metropolitan Opera, who battled with many divas, called Karita Mattila "one of the two most alluring stage animals among sopranos." The other was Teresa Stratas. Considering the assortment of singers who have passed through that hallowed stage door, it is certainly high praise, but hardly news to anyone who has heard Mattila confronting the likes of Richard Strauss, Janácek and Wagner.

Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, the Finnish soprano will be found in a more introverted mode, although with this strikingly tall and blonde singer, that's a relative term. Putting aside her usual assortment of anguished operatic heroines, she will give a recital with pianist Martin Katz featuring songs by Poulenc, Debussy, Aulis Sallinen and Joseph Marx. The themes are love and regret.

"It gives you such freedom on stage with a pianist just to dig into the worlds and atmospheres of those songs," Mattila said in an interview with WQXR's Jeff Spurgeon. "The challenge is always to find the intimacy and the contact with the audience, no matter how big the hall is."

Many New York operagoers came to know Mattila in a particularly up-close-and-personal way in 2004, when she starred in Richard Strauss' Salome at the Met. Mattila performed the Dance of the Seven Veils as a striptease, concluding by removing her veils – yes, all of them. The performance set off a media firestorm (mostly in a good way) and earned her plaudits for her fearlessness. She was suddenly very recognizable among even casual classical music fans.

Since that time, Mattila has incrementally built on that reputation as a singer who holds nothing back, particularly in her appearances in the title role of Tosca at the Met (the widely drubbed Luc Bondy production) and Janacek's Katya Kabanova at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Chicago Tribute critic John von Rhein wrote in 2009 that "Mattila made us aware this Katya is emotionally unstable from the outset" and "the radiant singing that suffused her two monologues was as charismatic and multidimensional as her portrayal."

The product of a strict upbringing in rural western Finland, Mattila first came to public attention in 1983 when she was 23 and won the inaugural Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. The young graduate of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki then signed a recording contract with Philips, singing mostly Mozart and Sibelius. But along the way things cooled off and Mattila's career plateaued. Soon after surgery on her vocal cords in 1992, she re-emerged and began to build a name with a newly found technical prowess and more incisive theatricality.

Over the years, Mattila's pure-toned soprano has gained deeper, more complex coloring as she has taken on more Wagner, Strauss and Janácek. A recital heavy on French music (with some Viennese and Finnish numbers for good measure) offers a chance to catch the dramatic diva in a more stylized setting. Still, it shouldn't be lacking in drama: Mattila is known for her red-carpet-worthy dresses, which she often changes multiple times over the course of a program. (Radio and web listeners will have to rely on the play-by-play from hosts Spurgeon and Fred Child.)

Last year, Mattila turned 50, and yet she continues to tackle some demanding roles, including the title character in Katya Kabanova at the Met next spring. Unlike many other stars, she has restricted her performances to between 45 and 60 a year to preserve her voice, explaining, "I try to keep my demons in control."

Program Notes

  • Poulenc: 'Banalités'
  • Debussy: 'Cinq Poèmes De Baudelaire'
  • Aulis Sallinen: Four Dream Songs, Op. 30
  • Joseph Marx: 'Nocturne';'Waldseligkeit'; 'Selige Nacht'; 'Valse de Chopin'; 'Hat Dich die Liebe berührt'


  • Lerner/Loewe: "I Could Have Danced All Night"
  • Finnish folk song (arr. Gothoni): "Minun Kultani Kaunis" from 'Five Finnish Folksongs'
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