Some thoughts on today’s mish-mash and Anja Silja’s commentary about Karita Mattila

The press photo for Mattila's Tosca.  Glamour abounds.

The press photo for Mattila's Tosca. Glamour abounds.

While I have my own doubts about Mattila singing perhaps the most veristic of Puccini’s heroines, it is not because I don’t think she can sing it but rather because I recall artists of the past who didn’t belong to the current mish-mash of having to sing everything  Just because one’s voice is capable of singing Tosca, doesn’t mean that any voice is well-suited to singing Italianante repertoire.  Last season, Mattila’s performance in Manon Lescaut was successful albeit fragmented.  I felt that the first two acts were not performed at all well, and I don’t blame Mattila as much as those who cast her in this role. Part of the issue was that the meat of Mattila’s voice lies higher than what is available to her in those first two acts.  Therefore, there were pronounced difficulties. But then, who would recognize them other than those of us who have spent most of our lives learning about aesthetics.  In the last two acts, however, Mattila’s voice shone more brilliantly even if her voice is not one that I think is well suited to Italian repertoire.

In the past, singers like Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Renata Tebaldi, Enrico Caruso, Claudio Muzio, and even more recent singers like the late Hildegard Behrens, and Luciano Pavarotti tended to specialize in a specific area of the repertory because it was more conducive to singing and to the art from altogether.  Perhaps it was with Callas, whom I have always adored, with her penchant for glamour and public image, that the current state of opera was induced.  It is not a secret that she delved into repertoire that was beyond her realm.  And for what?  For fame and glamour or to simply be indispensable.  To me she was indispensable anyway.  Why am I bringing this up?  Young singers today are being forced into constraints because they are expected to sing every type of repertoire.  “If one is a good singer, they should be able to sing anything.”  While this is true about technical ability, it’s not really a great way to forge a career.  I think this is one of the major problems with opera today.  One example on which we might reflect is when Madame Hildegard Behrens sang Tosca years ago, but well understood that her voice wasn’t really suited to the role.  She sang it well, but aesthetically her voice wasn’t appropriate for this aesthetic platform.  An art form is only an art-form by way of its aesthetic components.

The late Hildegard Behrens

The late Hildegard Behrens

In a recent publication of Opera News, the great Anja Silja, who is one of the remaining singers to stick to her voice’s actual innate qualities, comments on Mattila and offers a few interesting points about opera in North America. “Anja Silja, who last performed at the Met as Kostelnička to Mattila’s Jenůfa in 2007, has some insight into Mattila’s essence. “She is not a showgirl, which I hate in opera,” Silja says. “She is still kind of a diva-like thing, but this is a little touch of America. I think this is maybe necessary for those houses. It’s a little glamorous, and one has to have a beautiful picture, and these kinds of things, and interviews and things like that. That’s more of what the Americans like. It has nothing to do with her personality onstage.” It’s hard to argue with the idea that stateside audiences have been trained to consume their celebrities and performing artists on sheer glam factor. But in truth, Mattila adores her subscription to Martha Stewart Living and wasn’t interested in wearing designer labels for her photo shoot.” (Oussama Zahr, “Opera News”, September 2009, 74/3).

Even if Mattila doesn’t really fit into the glamour world of North American opera, Silja’s comments should make us take note.  What ever happened to art for art’s sake?

Anja Silja

Anja Silja

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 4:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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