Karita Mattila is one of today’s most radiant sopranos. Her unique voice and charismatic interpretations dazzle audiences time after time on opera and concert stages around the world. Total Karita in Finnish National Opera and Ballet is a tribute to her long career. Mattila was recently interviewed by reporter Raila Kinnunen.
Karita Mattila will fill the main auditorium of the Finnish National Opera six times over this May and early June with her performance Total Karita. The two-part performance is divided into two parts: first we hear Poulenc’s opera monologue La voix humaine, and after the interval the mood lightens, shifting towards entertainment and glamour.
Karita answers my email from her Florida home, in the early evening after a long day of rehearsals. I get one message, then another. Karita’s way of writing resembles chatting. It stands out with its lack of inhibition and rich, bubbling use of the Finnish language.
– These days I love coming back to Finland to work, and the upcoming project at the Finnish National Opera is particularly inspiring to me! But of course I’m also nervous, as being in charge of the entire programme is a colossal responsibility. It’s ever so demanding. My back is already bright red from all the self-flagellation! On the other hand, nothing excites me more than being able to challenge myself and go all in like this. So, it’s wonderful and electrifying!
Karita says the evening’s programme took shape in intimate meetings with Artistic Director of the Opera Lilli Paasikivi and Director Jussi Nikkilä. She has cherished working together with both of them in the past, too.
– The initial list of my favourite tunes was long. I listened to Jussi’s ideas so we got the dramatic arc of the set right.
“Being myself also applies to my photos: I often tweet my selfies, from ones in which I’m fully dolled up on stage to sweaty gym pics – as that’s who I genuinely am!”
On Finland and patriotism
Speaking to Karita after a long break, there’s so much to ask, so many things on which I want to hear her thoughts.
The pandemic shut down the world in 2020: country borders were closed, flights were cancelled, jetting between continents became impossible. It completely stopped someone whose work and plans depended on travelling. In eleven long months, Karita couldn’t get back home to Florida.
– I ended up ‘in refuge’ in Europe for nearly a year, and I lived more than half of that year in Helsinki. I fell in love with Finland again, and Helsinki in particular – it was just like in my student days.
Karita is a keen Twitter user. Her account shows how she keeps up with global events in multiple languages and follows what goes on in Finland. It also manifests the strength of her love for her homeland.
– I’ve always been patriotic, I’m very conscious of my roots and their significance. I’ve been open about this in public, too. These days you can find a lot of old information on social media. Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the war have of course made me follow the global situation more closely and pay more attention to authentic facts.
– I’m impressed with how many officers and other representatives of the Finnish Defence Forces follow me on Twitter! And I can follow them back. What an honour that is! See, living outside Finland doesn’t make you any less patriotic. In my case, I think it’s been the opposite. Definitely. Thanks to the Ukraine situation, I keep an even closer eye on what these officers have to say, to satisfy my hunger for information.
The officers also tweet unique photos of Finland to Karita, showcasing the scenery, tranquillity, space, and seasons. These images leave an imprint on the soul of Karita’s thousands of foreign followers.
“To me, age is a state of mind and a state of physical fitness. This attitude applies very acutely to my current situation in life, because I’m single woman who feels like life is blossoming, again!”
A pioneer’s conscience
In April 2014, the conductor of Karita’s concert with the Munich Philharmonic got sick at the last minute, and Russian Valery Gergiev was suggested as his replacement. Gergiev had just announced his firm support for his friend, President Vladimir Putin, for the occupation of Crimea at the start of the Ukrainian conflict.
Karita refused to work with Gergiev. Vocal protestors outside Carnegie Hall demanded Gergiev, Putin’s lap dog, to be banned from performing. Eventually, the Italian conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Fabio Luisi, was called in at a moment’s notice. Though the concert was a resounding success that had both the audience and the critics on their knees, Carnegie Hall cancelled the follow-up concert with Karita. She found a new venue in the equally large auditorium of the Lincoln Center.
At the time, Karita said she had listened to her conscience and taken a stand, and she had no regrets. However, she was subject to serious threats and ended up taking a Finnish Putin supporter to court – the man was put on probation for slander and making criminal threats. Some supported her, praising and thanking her for her courage.
– When it comes to my refusal to work with Gergiev, I certainly did the right thing. I didn’t hesitate for a moment, I was following my conscience. I was a pioneer then, though – there was very little support for me, at least in public. On the other hand, I wasn’t on social media yet, I only joined just over three years ago. Today I’ve got huge amounts of support, and that’s been heart-warming.
All Valery Gergiev’s work in Finland and elsewhere in the West has now been cancelled.
“Comedy and a sense of humour are my towers of strength anyway, particularly when the going gets tough. I think being funny and having a sense of humour are the two most charming attributes anyone can have.”
A very human idol
Countless women from youngsters to colleagues have looked up to Finland most successful, most loved, most charismatic and most strong-willed soprano, who has also enjoyed the most extensive career – even before her impressive Twitter presence. She is a feminist who has fearlessly chosen her own path, taken her own decisions, defended the equality of women and abortion rights, and supported women in poverty, also financially.
– Being someone’s idol is a great honour and yet somehow unbelievable to me, because I feel myself decidedly unlike an idol, Karita writes, her words followed by multiple laughter emojis.
– Of course I’m grateful and happy about my long and illustrious career, and I no longer make the mistake of putting myself down like I often did when I was young. But as a human, I am full of weaknesses, as I believe most of us are.
She then highlights that being conscious of her own limitations can have made her more forgiving to herself – and this has come from experience.
– I’ve never been ashamed of talking about my setbacks in public, though I try not to whine about them either. I’m especially thankful for my ability to laugh at myself! That’s something I get to do a lot. Comedy and a sense of humour are my towers of strength anyway, particularly when the going gets tough. I think being funny and having a sense of humour are the two most charming attributes anyone can have.
– On Twitter I’ve been really touched by how many female followers I have. Women of all ages, from all walks of life, wonderful, fascinating women. That’s stuns and wows me. The fact that I can converse with them, get to know them, and discuss with them at length gives me great joy. It’s a privilege to me that they follow me and I can follow them back.
“I’m grateful and happy about my long and illustrious career, and I no longer make the mistake of putting myself down like I often did when I was young. But as a human, I am full of weaknesses, as I believe most of us are.”
Life is blossoming, again!
Karita’s selfies in social media have emphasised her no-nonsense look at life, appearance, sexuality, and age: photos at the gym, in the pool, scantily clad, sweaty or with no makeup in stark contrast with glamorous pictures of the international diva and opera star. Karita has an incredible, daring attitude and a sense of humour – and she is enviably fit, too!
– When it comes to age, mentioning it or talking about it has never bothered me. Then again, I don’t think I ever consider age first, unlike the media. Journalists always make sure to add my age after my name, at least if I’ve opened up about my personal life. Is that something about being a woman? I’m not sure.
– To me, age is a state of mind and a state of physical fitness. This attitude applies very acutely to my current situation in life, because I’m single woman who feels like life is blossoming, again!
After another line of laughter emojis, Karita turns more serious again.
– In the midst of all the COVID-19 restrictions, social media has had quite a mind-blowing effect on me: I’ve made a huge amount of virtual friends on Twitter! I’ve become infatuated with many profiles with their handsome photos (laughter) and that’s added some lovely spice to my life! Twitter is definitely an important social media to me, as you can see from my feed. And yes, I tweet about everything that interests me, that makes me want to speak out. I’ve decided to always be myself there, that’s my motto. There’s so much more to my life than just singing and music.
– Being myself also applies to my photos: I often tweet my selfies, from ones in which I’m fully dolled up on stage to sweaty gym pics – as that’s who I genuinely am!
Karita subscribes to the digital editions of American and British quality newspapers, such as the New York Times and The Independent. German, French, Swedish and Finnish media – radio programmes, political debates on television, research, opinions – she follows it all online. She comments on it, sharing links on Twitter.
In spring 2020, the New York Times had Karita Mattila on the cover of its European edition. Quite the opera diva: an avid consumer and commentator of information, a true influencer!
“Being someone’s idol is a great honour and yet somehow unbelievable to me, because I feel myself decidedly unlike an idol”
On banishing anguish
In 2021 performing arts started to come to life again, in small jolts across the world, depending on the vaccination coverage and the numbers of COVID-19 cases.
Karita was finally allowed to breathe the same air as her audience in opera roles and concerts in London, Lisbon, Salzburg, Berlin, and Munich. The audience and the performer were equally exhilarated, and Karita’s words of thanks after the applause came straight from the heart. Other engagements were still cancelled.
The pandemic isn’t over yet, and the war in Ukraine is changing the world. And there’s nothing we can do about that.
How do you deal with the anguish and depression all this might cause?
– Exercise is my therapy. It’s a matter of life and death to me, every form of it. And massage. I have a great masseur at home in America and in Helsinki – that’s holistic self-care.
– I call my friends, and I write to them. I have a small but close circle of friends, which is built on trust. We keep each others’ secrets, always.
– And yes, I cry a lot! I’m always moved by something, all the joy and all the sorrow. By heartbreak, too. Oh, my. Tears are provoked by everything beautiful. They purify me. I sit down and let the tears come. When I feel better, I get up again.
One of the ways in which Karita looks after her mental wellbeing is obvious from her social media. It’s dangerous, too, in the sense that her photos of delicious, beautifully presented meals immediately make you feel hungry. Or thirsty, perhaps, as you read on…
– Cooking is one the ways in which I relax. I love pottering about in my kitchen. I also enjoy high quality drinks. I’ve been bitten by an American-style cocktail bug. Instead of just toasting, I like to create my own combinations, too. To me, vodka and champagne are some of life’s elixirs of pleasure!
Water also fuels Karita’s busy lifestyle – by the gallon, thanks to her training regime. The elixir she’d have to buy in a bottle elsewhere comes free from the tap in Finland.
That’s one thing that has stayed the same, in the midst of all today’s turmoil. Another constant is the Finnish audience’s love, which will soon flood the stage of the Opera House. And Karita will spread out her arms and embrace everyone in that audience, one at a time.
Text RAILA KINNUNEN
Photo of Karita Mattila KIRA GLUSCHKOFF, stop motion-photos from the film noir-video RAIMO UUNILA