Interview by: Olivia Giovetti, VAN Magazine
Regarding his opera “Fidelio,” Beethoven wrote: “Of all my children, this is the one that cost me the worst birth-pains and brought me the most sorrow; and for that reason it is the one most dear to me.” The “birthing” process was indeed a difficult one, and while “Fidelio” remains Beethoven’s only opera, it exists in at least three different versions. Still, the composer’s favorite problem child contains some of his most incandescent vocal music. It also boasts one of opera’s strongest female leads in Leonore, a wife who, in order to rescue her political-prisoner husband from execution, disguises herself as the eponymous Fidelio and finds work in the prison where her husband is being held. Her plan works (perhaps too well—the jailer’s daughter, Marzelline, falls in love with the alias of Fidelio).
In 2000, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila headlined Jürgen Flimm’s new production of “Fidelio” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The amount of agency that Flimm gave Leonore, combined with Mattila’s method-level commitment to the role, was one of the most significant moments in opera at the turn of the millennium. 20 years later, Mattila reflects on the significance of that production, the compelling complexities of Leonore as a character, and why the gender dynamics that Beethoven composed an opera around are still vitally relevant today.
How do you view the character of Leonore?
Leonore could be in any time, any generation: extremely smart, intelligent, educated, and extremely in love. She’s in a good relationship with her husband. [So she’s] fearless in her plan to free her husband from jail, which is a really, really dangerous and risky plan.… I mean, imagine your spouse being in jail, and you are doing everything to get into that jail, ruthlessly, like a man would.
That word—I remember when I did Leonore, I remember having a conversation with one woman who saw it and said, “She's so ruthless!” And I said, “Well…” [Shrugs.] For me, she’s fearless.
That fearlessness and Leonore’s agency as a character—as a woman who takes matters into her own hands—seemed central to the production you did with Jürgen Flimm.
Flimm caused a little bit of controversy directing Leonore the way he did. But… I was so committed to that brilliant concept, I went and I cut my hair. I spoke with a designer and I said, “Would you like me to be brunette and [my hair] shorter?” And she was like, “…Would you do that?!”
Before I entered the Jürgen Flimm production, I had done [“Fidelio”] in a not-so-interesting production, where I did it for the first time.… A very traditional production in a sense that it wasn’t very interesting to me and I thought, Oh, such a boring character, boring story, boring everything! I wasn't sure at all that it would become such a successful role for me and such a beloved part to me.
And then you get to the Met and decide to cut off all your hair due to Flimm’s vision.
After his introduction, I was totally blown away and spoke with the designer [about] when to go and cut my hair. And I said to the hairdresser—who was horrified, because I said, “It has to look like she has cut it herself, and then I want the color to be changed.” I just decided that it’s a good idea for Leonore to be a brunette, because I thought I looked too modern for that time. So it's just an example of how I treated this [role]. It’s for me one of the most modern characters and a great female character.
You mentioned that Flimm’s production was controversial because of how he directed Leonore. What do you remember of that reaction?
We don't need any misogynists to direct an opera like this, so the director who does justice to this character has to be well-prepared and be able to think quite openly and liberally and forget that traditional female-male stuff. It was amazing to hear the controversial reactions from the audience—because we had a panel afterwards and I took part [in that]. There were some hostile people coming to ask questions because they were so horrified at this version of Jürgen's concept! A lady was horrified that, for example, I ate a banana on stage.
And I said, “Well, it was so well-rehearsed, so you didn’t need to be worried about me.”
“I wasn't worried about you, I was worried about Beethoven!" [Laughs.]
[Leonore is] a real flesh-and-blood human being; she's not defined by her gender in that sense. Maybe, when they were so boldly and openly presented in that concept, that was the surprising thing. It shook up the audience a bit. It shook up audiences’ presumptions and expectations of how that role should be treated.
Do you think that the production would be received differently today, given how much has changed over 20 years?
There was a way that I felt totally at home with it, and I think that I even grew myself, in the part. I'm sure that Jürgen's production today would still work. Maybe it would be less shocking. Although I do know how slowly these things develop and how slowly these prejudices—especially when it comes to gender—change or disappear. So it would be interesting to see this production performed today and then really witness how the audience would take it compared to .
It’s funny, because you mentioned the woman who described Leonore as “ruthless,” and I’m struck by how women often get described with that word for doing the same things that would be fine if done by a man. It’s the same dichotomy.
Yes! It would show strength [if Leonore was a man].… Especially the fact that she decides to take advantage of Marzelline's attraction towards her to get closer to Rocco. So the fact that Leonore, a woman in disguise as a man, flirts with a woman in this classical opera… Well, probably people get a little uneasy when sex enters the opera stage. But you know, it is in people, it's in everything. And it made perfect sense! But I had some colleagues (male colleagues) who, in the rehearsals, were distracted by that concept, especially Leonore flirting with Marzellina openly. And I stood up and I said, “Look guys, I’m going to carry my bad reviews, you carry yours. Okay?” And everybody was laughing… I just put them in order. Like Leonore would in that kind of situation.
At the end of your performance, you had this incredibly touching moment with Marzelline where you as Leonore realize that you as Fidelio broke her heart. She didn’t realize she was in love with a woman pretending to be a boy. What would go through your head in that moment onstage?
It’s a horribly sad moment for [Leonore] because she knows exactly what she has done, what she has caused, and she wouldn't have done it otherwise. It was just necessary. It's like in a war: You have to make choices, and some people will suffer. But when something is this serious, when it’s a matter of somebody’s life, you have to make really hard decisions. So all that goes through her mind, she's just utterly sorry and sad that that had to happen. And she understands how Marzelline is totally crushed, because she has caused it, and she knew that if ever she is going to succeed, this is going to end like this
After opening night, there was a dinner at the Met, and I sat in the middle [of a group of men], and the men were joking to me and said: “Oh, wow. Would that really happen?” What they were talking about was [Florestan’s] wife flirting with another woman. They were hinting at something, like thinking of their own wives or something, so I said to them, “You know, every woman in love, in a happy marriage, whose husband is in jail for political reasons and obviously going to lose his life—is going to be killed, shot… Every woman would do the same.” And there was this very memorable silence. [Laughs.]
It would be interesting to see more female directors interpret this piece based on all of the dynamics and nuances.
I have worked with so few women directors, it’s really sad. My highlight of a year ago was in Berlin. I did my first Kabanicha [in Janáček’s “Káťa Kabanová”] with the fabulous director Andrea Breth. I wish I could work on something else with her. My first [female director], who was totally fantastic, was in the late ’80s [with] Ruth Berghaus on “Fierrabras,” this Schubert that nobody knew. She was so amazing to work with, so fantastic, and I couldn't understand how political it was in the audience, at all. That’s the European curse, because in so many European countries, we think that we are the only culture that exists, and this is the only “real” culture, and if it is not done in a certain way or understood in a certain way, it’s not real. It’s cheap, or it’s wrong.
You seem to have a very strong vision of Leonore; have you ever thought about directing “Fidelio” yourself?
I could prep and coach singers, that’s what I would actually love. I could coach a lot of young singers at least with the roles I have done myself, I think I would have a lot to give. But to direct, maybe not. I was directed by a singer in my early days, and the director was just obsessed with directing the part [that they had sung]. I remember just thinking, I’m so glad I’m not singing that part.
I have far too much respect for directing. It's so hard because the best directors—it really comes from a different field, I think.… I have started working with some singers privately, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction. It requires a lot, but it is so rewarding to try to give guidance to someone and try to find a solution. I always tell them that there is no one single solution, not one right way. Everybody's aiming for the best result, but there are so many different roads that lead to that.
One last question: You have a very authentic presence on Twitter, especially when it comes to happy hour. What cocktail would you make for Leonore?
I don't think she would drink anything when she's on that mission.… She would be just so observant. But in the celebration, I think she would drink beer with her husband after it was over, and then she would make the most fabulous bloody mary the next day.