FOR those who like their opera safe and traditional, Karita Mattila is definitely not the ideal diva. The Finnish soprano radiates an exuberance that lays waste to conventional expectations. Bold and sometimes controversial, she is a hotblooded creature who holds nothing back, whether on stage or off.
"I'm a spontaneous person," Mattila declared recently. "Some people warned me about that when I was a student. They said I was going to get hurt. And then my teacher said I have to stay the way I am. It's one of the best lessons she gave me. To this day, I can get into such a state that I have to count to 10 before I react to something."
Then she let out a hearty guffaw -- one of many during an interview from her home in Florida, where she was vacationing with her husband. On Thursday, she is scheduled to be back at work, making her Los Angeles Opera debut in the title role of "Jenufa" by the Czech composer Leos Janácek. It's a signature role for Mattila, 47, who debuted in this production in Hamburg, Germany, and has since appeared in it in London and New York.
"It's the perfect role for my voice," she explained. "It's a good, big lyric part." First performed in 1904, "Jenufa" is a challenging opera that combines elements of 19th century Romanticism with Moravian folk influences. The composer even incorporated local speech patterns into the vocal writing. "It's quite a stretched area musically," said Mattila, who learned Czech for the role.
The opera, however, does carry echoes of Mattila's own childhood. The young Jenufa is a headstrong farm girl who lives with her stepmother, the Kostelnicka. When this severe woman learns that Jenufa is pregnant by Steva, the town rake, she hides the girl in hopes of saving the family's reputation. But the Kostelnicka's actions have grave consequences, and Jenufa must ultimately learn to forgive and to transcend the pain inflicted by others.
Mattila grew up in a rural town similar to the one in "Jenufa" -- "it was a small village where everybody knew everybody's business," she said. She described her parents as caring but conservative. "I couldn't have possibly stayed there!" she said. "As soon as I started studying, it was so obvious that I had to move on."
And move on she did. She left home to study at the Sibelius Academy in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, and at 22 won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, which launched her international career. Today, she belongs to a select group of performers -- including Renée Fleming, Anne Sofie von Otter and Deborah Voigt -- who are in constant demand at the world's premier opera houses.
Praise for a 'singing actress'
Mattila is perhaps best known for her performances in German-language operas -- especially those by Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss -- but she has incorporated more Slavic music into her repertoire in the last few years, including the works of Janácek.
When she first sang his "Kát'a Kabanová," at San Francisco Opera in 2002, Times critic Mark Swed wrote that she delivered "a performance of such shattering dramatic power and stunning vocal assurance that it seems certain Kát'a will become associated with her forevermore."
Praise for Mattila tends to focus as much on her acting as on her voice and has earned her the label "singing actress."
"Some singers are quite happy if you leave them in peace because they prefer to concentrate on the vocal output," said Olivier Tambosi, who is directing L.A. Opera's "Jenufa." "With Karita, it's the contrary. She has a hunger for being musically and dramatically present." When Tambosi asked her to sing the opera's most famous aria while lying on her back under a big rock, he was nervous that she might refuse. "But it wasn't a problem at all," he recalled. "She grabbed the idea and understood it perfectly."
When discussing her role models, Mattila cites the late Uta Hagen, the actress who not only created such roles as Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" but was a celebrated teacher of acting as well.
"I got one of her books from someone who was studying in her studio, and I got totally hooked," she said. "I thought all opera singers should read this. I always travel with her books, and they are in my houses in Florida and Finland."
Acting for Mattila is a physical activity. "To act is to do," she said. "Thoughts and emotions have to come out in a physical way. And for that, you have to know your body."
Her corporeal awareness was born out of necessity. By age 14, she had grown to her present height of 5 feet 10. "I just stopped growing after that," she said. "Lengthwise I mean, but maybe I have grown in width since then!" (Another thunderous guffaw.)