Making a Murderer
Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, one of opera’s great singing actors, has delivered riveting portrayals of many important roles at the Met, as varied as Amfortas in Wagner’s Parsifal and the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In December 2019, he added another chapter to his Met legacy with his role debut as the title character of Berg’s Wozzeck, in a new production by South African artist William Kentridge. Wozzeck, whose chilling descent into madness and murderous rage demands the utmost commitment and intensity—not to mention musicianship—from the singer, is just the kind of challenge Mattei relishes. By Jay Goodwin
“I want to do a proper job.” That’s how Peter Mattei describes his approach to rehearsal and performance in advance of his role debut as Wozzeck. For anyone who has seen the way his commanding voice and consummate acting have come together to create some of the most compelling performances in recent Met memory, it seems like a bit of an understatement. But as he explains more about how he readies himself to take the stage, it becomes clear that, for him, “proper” is a very high standard.
The process begins with curiosity. “You go to a new country because you haven’t been there,” as Mattei puts it. So, when the Met approached him about adding Wozzeck to his repertoire, his first step was to dive into Berg’s harrowing psychological thriller and decide if it was a place he’d like to visit.
Mattei says that choice was easily made once he started to wrap his mind around the opera’s “extraordinary and fantastic combination of music, text, and character”—and the challenges and questions that they raise for the performer. For example, when he began studying the emotionally and psychologically damaged soldier, who is abused and belittled by everyone around him and is ultimately driven by madness and jealousy to kill the mother of his child, Mattei found himself grappling with even the most fundamental aspects of the character. “I had a problem understanding why Wozzeck would speak at all,” he says. “Most people, if they’ve been treated like that, don’t even open their mouths.” Mattei can come up with several explanations, but the final answers would come later, as the rehearsal process continued and he worked with director William Kentridge, Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, soprano Elza van den Heever, who co-stars as Marie, and the rest of his colleagues to arrive at a unified vision for the opera. “It’s no use to build an interpretation of my character before I know the terrain,” he says. “Should I pick a Jeep or a limousine? It depends on the road.”
Once he’s mapped his course, however, Mattei knows what is required to give a convincing portrayal onstage. Mostly, the elements are obvious: emotionally expressive singing, carefully considered body language that reveals the character’s thoughts even when silent, and realistic reactions to the surrounding action. But none of this is possible until the singer’s first priority—the music—has been mastered. “At first, 95 percent of your effort is to get the music right, and you only have five percent for the acting,” Mattei says. “But over time, slowly, the music comes easier and easier, and you can let the acting in. Once you really know the music, you can think around it, against it—you can act, juggle, do a lot of things, and the music will just float out without thinking.”
In the case of Wozzeck, mastering Berg’s brilliant but thorny music is a particularly tall task. But it is precisely the opera’s difficult, sometimes disorienting nature that makes it great. “If this were a sunny story, and Wozzeck were having fun, this music would not be so good,” Mattei says. “But it is a horrible story, and very realistic, and the music is absolutely spot on. If you hear just one bar of it, you know what the opera is about.” But he emphasizes how important the details are, and how precisely everything must be executed for it to work. “Every little strange, horrible sound is full of nuance and expression. When you sing it right, and you and the orchestra are exactly in tempo, it’s like a precision watch—but it’s very hard.”
Mattei mentions the particular challenge of the relationship between the singers and the orchestra. “The themes themselves can be very melodic, but the orchestra is always a half-tone down or a half-tone up, and there’s always a dissonance in the chords” he says. “There’s a tension that reflects the pain and suffering of the characters.”
Ultimately, that tension, that pain and suffering, are the point. Wozzeck is based on a true story of a 19th-century German soldier who, in a fit of jealousy, stabbed the woman with whom he was living to death. The episode drew breathless coverage in newspapers of the time and became an early “true crime” sensation. “At the time, they were very interested in his psyche, and what happens when you end up in this kind of mental state,” Mattei says.
“But the opera itself is not a judgmental piece. It doesn’t judge Wozzeck or Marie. It just shows a realistic, tough thing.” And he is committed to using everything in his singing and acting arsenal to help fully realize the opera’s thought-provoking—and disturbing—potential. “If it works, you will feel uncomfortable, and I think that’s the meaning of the piece.”
Jay Goodwin is the Met’s Editorial Director.