The Princess Pride
In 2004, Karita Mattila headlined the premiere of a new production Strauss’s Salome. As she prepared to return to reprise her portrayal of the opera’s title character in 2008, the captivating Finnish soprano discussed the challenges of singing—and dancing—the demanding role.
Strauss famously called Salome “a 16-year-old girl with the voice of Isolde.” It’s an extremely demanding role–musically, dramatically, and physically. How do you approach these different challenges?
I do it my way, as best as I can, with the resources that I have. That’s all I can do. And trust the magical moment and the fact that I am prepared. It gives me confidence to know that I’ve worked hard. Particularly with Salome, you can’t do it if you do not feel extra thick and in good shape, vocally and physically. To dance for nine minutes and then do the monologue–that’s a tour de force alone! The rest is just a fabulous part. It makes you humble. It’s hard but very rewarding when you succeed. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of time.
When you were first preparing for this production in 2004 you said in an interview that you’d been exercising to really look the part. Physical appearance is becoming more and more important for opera singers today.
It isn’t for me. I agree that if it becomes the most important thing then something is wrong. That’s not a question. But my approach has always been that looking good in opera is an important factor. Women should be able to show their femininity in certain roles.
Have you personally ever felt any pressure about this?
I remember when I started out in Finland in the 80s, I was criticized for wearing gowns that looked too sexy. I thought, “This is interesting. So what is opera about? Is there something wrong with opera or maybe with the people who write about it?” I still think about that. It was an atmosphere that really felt suffocating to me. As a performer who has tried to look after herself, I have constant complexes about my looks. I think that’s healthy–as long as you have limits and don’t lose your mind about it. Mind you, aging is not easy. It’s my aim to look the part and I think that’s a good goal. You do your job well, you sing well, you act well, you look well. Quite frankly I believe that the majority of singers have this goal. And we all work damn hard for it, believe me. Some are luckier than others and some have to work more, but I don’t think it’s bad to have discipline in your life. I just hope it comes across in a performance if someone has these things in balance. I certainly appreciate it when I’m in the audience. It’s good for opera. So thank God we’ve left behind those times in the 80s when I thought, “This is a fascinating world where women can’t show that they’re women.” But you know, I still have those letters somewhere. One day when I’m old enough I’m going to publish them and give a press conference.