Opera Lively's interview # 163 is with the great Swedish baritone Peter Mattei. His unconventional and insightful answers are very entertaining. The interview was done in person at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on February 11, 2015, on the occasion of his performance of the title role in Don Giovanni.
Photo Credit Håkan Flank, use authorized by singer's publicist
Singer: Peter Mattei
Born in: Piteå, Sweden, June 3, 1965
Recently in: Don Giovanni (title role), Metropolitan Opera; back to the Met as Wolfram in Tannhäuser in October 2015
Next in: Eugene Onegin (title role), Vienna State Opera, April 25, 28, May 1 - tickets [here]
Web site: http://www.braathenmanagement.com/en...s/peter-mattei
The Swedish baritone Peter Mattei has established himself as one of the most sought after singers of his generation and has worked with conductors such as Sir Georg Solti, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Muti, Sir Colin Davis, Riccardo Chailly, James Levine, Antonio Pappano, Zubin Mehta, Herbert Blomstedt, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Gustavo Dudamel, Jeffrey Tate, Sir Andrew Davis, Daniel Harding and others.
Highlights during the last seasons have included the title role in Don Giovanni at Teatro alla Scala’s season opening 2011, Amfortas in Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera and Wolfram in Tannhäuser at Staatsoper Berlin. The current season includes the Count in Le nozze di Figaro in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera under the baton of James Levine, Fernando in Fidelio at Teatro alla Scala with Barenboim, Don Giovanni at the Met and Eugene Onegin at Wiener Staatsoper. Peter Mattei also appears in roles like Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Marcello in La Bohème, Posa in Don Carlo and Yeletsky in Pique Dame. He has sung Shishkov in From the House of the Dead directed by Patrice Chéreau at the Metropolitan Opera as well as at Teatro alla Scala, and the title role of Billy Budd at the Frankfurt Opera and the Göteborg Opera. Among all the productions where he has created his signature role of Don Giovanni, the ones directed by Peter Brook and Michael Haneke could be mentioned. He has delighted audiences at Opéra National de Paris, the Royal Opera House in London, Bayerische Staatsoper, Opernhaus Zürich, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Royal Swedish Opera and the Norwegian Opera as well as the prestigious festivals of Salzburg, Aix-en-Provence, Lucerne and Tanglewood.
Mattei’s concert repertoire includes Ein deutsches Requiem, Kullervo, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Bach’s passions, Messiah, Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie and Britten’s War Requiem. His recent performance of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen at the Carnegie Hall with the Met Orchestra under the baton of James Levine was nothing but a sensation.
Peter Mattei studied at the Royal Academy of Music and at the University College of Opera in Stockholm. He made his debut in 1990 as Nardo in Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera at the Drottningholm Court Theatre and made a sensational Royal Swedish Opera debut as Pentheus in Daniel Börtz's The Bacchae (directed by Ingmar Bergman) in 1991.
His discography includes DVDs of Don Giovanni (Aix-en Provence), Le nozze di Figaro (Opéra National de Paris), Eugene Onegin (Salzburg) and Parsifal (Metropolitan) and CDs, among others, of Mahler’s 8th Symphony under the baton of Chailly, Berlioz’ Les Troyens with Sir Colin Davis (winner of two Grammy Awards), Fidelio with Abbado as well as solo CDs.
Photo Credit Håkan Flank, use authorized by singer's publicist
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Peter Mattei
Questions by Opera Lively journalists Mary Auer, Natalie Greenly, and Luiz Gazzola. © Opera Lively, all rights reserved. New York, NY, USA, February 11, 2015.
Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - First let’s talk about Don Giovanni. One of our staff members wanted me to ask you this question about him. She’s your biggest fan!
Peter Mattei – Good. I need those. [laughs]
OL – [laughs] So, here is her question. Apparently at one point you proposed the hypothesis that he was from a wealthy household where he was brought up by maids with no contact with his parents, and was spoiled and neglected, and she wanted you to comment on this.
Peter Mattei – I don’t remember having had that idea; I had plenty of those over the years, but it could be a likely one. The guy in Don Juan DeMarco, the movie, was brought up in a place with only women who were prostitutes; [laughs] he was taken care of and loved by each of them, and he learned all the secrets about women. Maybe this is also a possibility. He could also have been brought up in a completely normal family, because I don’t think Don Giovanni’s mindset is something rare. Every man can recognize this lust, this desire for conquest. It’s not a mystery, but the mystery is to be successful, I think.
I used to say that in all societies, there is always a Don Giovanni. If you are in a big city like New York, there is probably the Don Giovanni of New York, somewhere. If you go to a smaller place, there will be a Don Giovanni there, and if he comes to a bigger place he will be run over by a better Don Giovanni. If you go to a party with your colleagues, there is always a guy who is the most successful with women that evening, and the next evening it’s another one, because the men change, the women change, but there is always someone with some special talent for this.
It’s similar to the virtuoso who can play the violin like Paganini. I don’t think it’s just the sexual drive; it’s something that has more to do with the mind. It doesn’t matter for him if he seduces a man to make him believe in him, or if it’s a woman who will think that he is going to marry her.
It’s more like having the sort of charisma that Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Lech Wałęsa or Mohammed Ali had; these guys who had something to seduce a lot of people and to bring people together; it’s the same kind of quality that Don Giovanni had, minus the political ambition and minus the desire to save the world.
Don Giovanni wants to do it for himself, but actually also for the other person. I don’t think he does it all for himself. For the moment when he is there with someone, he is giving everything to the other person and making of that person the most sensual figure.
OL – The current production at the Met is a traditional one but lately the Don has been portrayed in various productions with directorial concepts including the character being shot and slowly dying throughout the opera, or drunk and falling apart in progressive deterioration, or jaded, bitter and bored. How do you see these ways of portraying the character?
Mattei as Don Giovanni at the Met - Photo Mary Sohl / Metropolitan Opera, used with authorization
PM – This is what it is for him. He has to pay a price for this. He has to go through a lot of self-burning periods, when his continuous mission is to go on and on. And of course he doesn’t listen to himself, to how he feels. I mean, he can’t stop. This day when everything happens and he kills a man, I don’t think he had killed another man before.
It’s a day when time changes; it’s like being addicted to heroin. At the beginning it’s all very good, but then you have no teeth and you’re sleeping on the pavement or maybe you are dead in a toilet. This kind of over-consumption comes with a price to pay. That’s why he becomes destructive. He has no limits and he doesn’t regret anything, he just wants to continue.
OL – Good answer. Another frequent twist or variation - I’ve seen four or five productions that go this way, especially in Europe - is to portray the initial encounter between the Don and Donna Anna as consensual sex rather than rape. What is your opinion on the possibilities that this opens up?
PM – She has to have guilt. It’s the most important thing for her, in her relationship with her father, and also it’s what makes her forget what happened and stops her from recognizing him. I don’t think it’s necessarily rape. I think she is very attracted to him, and probably says no, no, no, but then says yes; then she does it, then she says no again and throws him out, very guilty. Of course she is a very powerful woman, with a lot of will and up to that point nobody could bend her, but Don Giovanni bends her will. She has never wanted anybody before; it’s the first time that she is with somebody she wants.
She wanted him and he took her, then she couldn’t re-power. She fell completely, erotically in love with this man and had, I think, a fantastic moment, but afterwards she realizes what happened, and minutes later she sees her father coming in. He wants to defend her, because he sees an intruder in her room; the window is open and he thinks that his daughter is in big trouble.
She lets him believe that. She doesn’t say “stop, father, he is my lover.” She runs away. Then the next moment, she finds her dad on the floor, dead. Of course she must think “this is my fault. What have I done?” Then she can’t really remember anything, even if Don Giovanni is there in her face, she suppresses it. For me, this is the best way to see the situation.
OL – I agree. She suppresses everything and is in denial.
PM – Yes. What would make him rape? He doesn’t need it. Also when he sees that he killed someone he is very frustrated. I don’t agree with productions that show him having lots of women that day. Much the opposite, nothing works for him that day. This is something really strange, happening to Don Giovanni. He says “Mi par ch'oggi il demonio si diverta d'opporsi a miei piacevoli progressi; vanno mal tutti quanti.” [It seems to me that today the devil is having fun opposing my pleasurable progress; everything is going badly]. It is something like “what is f…. going on? Why is it that nothing is working today? What is this?” And then he takes Zerlina with a little guile, and tries three times, but Masetto is there, and Elvira is there, something is not working. The lucky star is gone.
OL – It’s a very bad day for him. [laughs]
PM – It’s a very bad day, yes!
OL - I found it interesting, that in your acting you displayed compassion towards the Commendatore, closing his eyes, and being sorry that he got killed, right?
PM – Yes, but maybe less than normal, because I also think that he is very fascinated by this. It’s an extraordinary event for Don Giovanni. This doesn’t come across in this production, but does in my production – that he sees a man dying, and this is even a bigger high for him than sexual conquest. It’s something new, and he has a sort of vision of what will happen next, like a prophet.
He sees himself there, he sees a man die, time flies. It’s a moment when I think they should really have eye contact for the whole time. When he stabs him, he doesn’t take his eyes away from this man who is dying. It’s a big love, or whatever, a connection; the biggest connection I think he had in his whole life, with this dying person.
OL – Yes, it’s interesting that at the end he doesn’t refuse his destiny, and offers his hand to the Commendatore.
PM – Yes, this is exactly what is going on. It’s his strongest challenge, to even defeat death. It’s the perfect ending for him. He is scared. He is not supernatural or anything. He is deadly scared, but he is driven by this. With the women, of course maybe he had normal doubts like any man but he never allows it to become a problem, he just keeps going on; but here when confronting death, it’s his final challenge and it is the best.
OL – So, when you talk about your production, are you planning to tackle it as a stage director?
PM – No, it’s not just planning; I’ve directed it already, in my festival.
OL – Oh wow! So, you put those ideas there?
PM – Yes, absolutely, I put lots of my ideas there, like when the father comes in and says “Lasciala, indegno, battiti meco!” [let go of her, unworthy, fight me instead]. Because I have two daughters, I try to look at it myself like if somebody is doing what I think he is doing to one of my daughters. He comes in and kicks Don Giovanni in the stomach the first time, and starts to beat him all the time. It’s completely realistic, to maximize the guilt and the terror for Anna. Because Donna Anna in my production is between these two guys, trying to separate them and to stop them, but she can’t, and in the end she has blood in her hands. And then she goes… [imitates someone going crazy].
OL – What festival was that?
PM – It was my own festival, up in the north of Sweden where I am from. [Editor’s note: In January 2009, he launched his own festival in Luleå called Matteifestivalen, with concerts and opera of the highest international standard; he directed Don Giovanni on 8. 9, and 11 January 2009, conducted by Danier Harding with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and he sang the title role as well. Other singers were Gudjon Oskarsson as the Commendatore; Donna Anna was Carmela Remigio, Don Ottavio was Shawn Mathey, Donna Elvira was Maria Fontosh, Leporello was Gilles Cachemaille, Masetto was Gudjon Oskarsson, and Zerlina was Elin Rombo].
This is a picture of that Don Giovanni in Mattei's festival, credit unknown, fair promotional use
OL – Interesting. Is there any recording of it?
PM – No, I didn’t want it recorded.
OL – That’s too bad.
PM – Yes, but I like it like that, because we are already recording too much, today. We have to have something for the moment, also, exclusive for the people who are there. I think we are making a mistake by making everything public. That is good too, but on the other hand, you have to have something that is just for the public who attend it in person.
OL – So that people go to the opera house; I see.
PM – It’s like going to a restaurant; you cannot just read about it; you have to try the food. [laughs]
OL – So, what do you think of this production? It is very traditional and doesn’t challenge any of these relationships, very much.
PM – This one at the Met?
OL – Yes.
PM – I think we did something good with it. The set is like a façade, and it is a bit hard to have a focus, because there is too much happening on stage; there are dancers and all. For me, it’s too much. I want to have more focus so that the public knows exactly who is talking. I have no problem with updates. For me, it doesn’t matter if it is modern or traditional, but we need to have focus.
Don Giovanni at the Met with Mattei - Photo Credit Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera, used with authorization
OL - Have you seen the movie Juan by Kasper Holten, with Christopher Maltman?
PM – I saw parts of it on YouTube but I haven’t seen it whole. I was looking for something else and bumped into it. It is very sexual, I think.
OL – Yes.
PM – It’s very much about making love and things like that.
OL – Well, in the trailer, probably to sell more tickets, they show the more erotic scenes, with some nudity, but if you watch the whole thing, there is not much in terms of nudity that isn’t in the trailer.
PM – Typical!
OL – The rest is more subdued. The twist is that the fight with the Commendatore is a gun fight and the Don gets a bullet in his belly, and he is slowly dying throughout the movie and dies at the end.
PM – That happened in a fantastic movie in Sweden, Bröderna Mozart [The Mozart Brothers], by Suzanne Osten. Don Giovanni dies in that moment, and the rest is a dream. A linear timeline for telling the story like the clicking of the clock is not necessary. It’s a beautiful film about how to make an opera production; there are the opera house bosses, and the orchestra and the singers and their conflicts.
OL – It’s a Swedish movie?
PM – Yes, if you can find it, watch it. It’s the best movie I think you can see about making an opera. [Editor’s note – it is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsUmHp6VPb4 and there is also a trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwM37HMmAP4 ]
OL – OK, I’ll look it up. You have a DVD of Don Giovanni, in a production 13 years ago, in 2002 in Aix-en-Provence. Your performance was really acclaimed by reviewers. Although I haven’t seen it, the cover image suggests that it was a sexier production than this one at the Met. Given the 13 years interval and of course you’ve done the role many times elsewhere, what has changed for you in your take on the character and the way you portray him?
Cover detail for the Aix-en-Provence DVD, fair promotional use
PM – The basics are the same, I think. You can’t change that. The one I did with Michael Haneke was different [Editor’s note - Paris, Opéra Bastille, March 2012].
Opéra Bastille. On the left: David Bizic (Masetto), Aleksandra Zamojska (Zerlina), Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni). Photo: Charles Duprat, fair promotional use
I loved that one too, and also the one I did with Sebastian Baumgarten in Zurich [Editor’s note - May 2013]; it was completely off the record. He cut all the recitatives. So I’ve done a lot of different Don Giovannis, but still, it’s my voice, my instrument that I’m playing with.
Credit in picture, fair promotional use
OL - OK, moving on from Don Giovanni, I’m curious about other elements of your artistic biography. You were once directed by the great film auteur Ingmar Bergman, in the contemporary (1991) opera by Daniel Börtz, Backanterna, based on Euripides’ Greek tragedy The Bachhantes. It was your Royal Swedish Opera debut, no less - please tell us if you have interesting memories to share with us of your work with the great Ingmar Bergman.
PM – He was my first director. I was very young. I didn’t know so much about him. I knew he was Swedish; that was all. He got my respect from his work, from how good he was. I think he respect me too for being a good hard worker, somehow. It was amazing. After that I had wonderful directors, all my life. It was a good start.
OL - It is rather curious and cute that in your official website, the sample of your singing you chose to upload is – brace for this, readers! – the 6-year-old Peter Mattei singing Bixio’s “Mamma”! How did the idea of doing this come about?
[Editor's note - here is what the dialogue at the end means:
Q: Peter, what language were you singing?
Q: You know Italian?!
Q: How come?
P: Dad comes from Italy and you know, this is difficult, I know two parts in Swedish, but this is more difficult.
Q: Do you speak Italian too?
Q: You just sing?
P: Yes, I don't understand what it means either, but I sing.
Q: So you don't know what you are singing about?
P: No, but I sing regardless.]
PM – [laughs] Well, it was not my idea to put it up there! That recording was on the radio when I was young, and then it was used in a documentary many years later. My father is Italian, and this is why I sing. He had lots of records with Robertino [Loreti] and I used to sing while listening to him, so I can say Robertino was my first singing teacher, when I was one year old, through eight years old. It’s how it started.
OL – Oh, interesting. I didn’t know your father was Italian. Mine was Italian too.
PM – OK. He was from Meduno, in the Friuli region. And yours?
OL – Mine was from Borgoricco, close to Padova, in the Veneto region.
PM – OK, very close.
OL – Yep, our fathers' towns are about 90 miles apart, and here we are, a generation later, meeting in New York City!
PM – Small world!
OL – Yes! So, this naturally brings the question about your beginnings – how did classical singing and opera came to your life, growing up?
PM – That was the reason, I think. My father was not a musician. He worked in a factory. My mother sold bread in a shop. It was not a place where there were violins and opera, in my home, but somehow I got my instrument, and I could really sing well when I was young, and I got my identity from that. I already knew I wanted to do opera when I was five, six years old, I don’t know why.
OL – Five or six? Wow!
PM – Yes. But I didn’t know exactly what it was, until I was eight or something. I didn’t listen to opera. I wasn’t an opera freak and had never been to the opera. One of the reasons why I’m me, with my own style, is that I wasn’t listening to opera singers when I was young. I have no special sound that I want to imitate. That’s a good quality, to bring out your own voice.
OL – Is this how you prepare a new role as well? Do you avoid listening to predecessors?
PM – No, now I do listen to predecessors, but I listen to many singers with different conductors, to prepare for the biggest variety possible – if one conductor is very slow and the other one is very quick, I can work with both of them and be prepared for whatever the conductor will do. Then I work a lot by myself before I go see a pianist, then I work with the pianist, and go to the opera house already prepared. When we have a new opera production, we have many weeks to prepare; while they are working on the staging, we are working on the music.
OL - You were born in Piteå and raised in Luleå in the north of Sweden, almost in the Arctic Circle. How was life, there? Cold, I suppose, with less than four hours of sunlight in the winter?
PM – Well, it’s OK. There is not so much sunlight in the winter, but there is more in the summer. [laughs] It’s a normal town; no reindeers [laughs]. There are icebergs.
OL - You can also play the piano, the double bass – and most interestingly, the accordion! What kind of accordion music do you play? Is that for Swedish waltz? Sounds like fun.
PM – How did you know that?
OL – Oh, I did a bit of research about you on the Internet.
PM – I have a double bass and I can play a little bit, but I’m not good at anything. On the accordion, yes, exactly, I play a bit of Swedish waltz and folk music.
OL – Do you like that?
PM – I love that, yes.
OL - You studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the University College of Opera in Stockholm. Please tell us about how popular opera is in Sweden, how the companies there are doing, and what kind of operatic education was available to you, growing up in your country.
PM – We have very good singing tradition in Sweden. The educational system is good, we produce a lot of singers. We have good opera houses. They are all struggling, of course, like in the rest of Europe, but they are still there and they are still working and producing. I haven’t been working at home for a long while, but we have good orchestras; many fantastic orchestras. The model is like the one in Germany, a little bit; the houses are repertory houses and people get hired for the entire year; it’s not the stagione, free-lancer system.
OL – Did you spend time in this repertory system?
PM – Yes, I worked a little bit at the opera house in Stockholm. My first Barbiere was there.
OL - When you got into opera, did you expect to have such a busy international career? Was all this success and all the performances all over the world personally or psychologically disruptive in any way, or has it been really rather a fun ride?
PM – No, I could have started earlier. My voice was ready to go but I wasn’t ready here [points to his head]. I had to wait until I had my international debut in Scotland. I had to become adult, I think, [laughs] and to be OK being on my own to do my job. I have always taken it very slowly. I think I’ve said “no” much more often than I’ve said “yes” to role offers. I was a little bit careful; not too careful. I always wanted to have two jobs – one that I was doing and another one lined up, and I wanted to know that I was doing it at the level I wanted it to be, so that the next offer came along. So if I was not getting an offer, I’d try to figure it out and ask myself “what is wrong, now?”
It’s been more fun to sing now than it has ever been, and it has always been very, very fun. It’s my passion. I love it. This is also why I think the career itself is secondary. First I want to be happy, because if I’m not happy, I can’t sing. It comes from pleasure. I have to be very careful, to be happy. I don’t really need to be career-oriented in my thinking, because if I’m happy the career is going well, and that’s what I have to think about. I say “yes” to things I know I can do and have time for, and “no” to the rest.
OL – With your two daughters, is it more difficult to be around them? Do you bring them with you?
PM – My girls? Yes, we’ve been together when I travel, but it’s a little trickier now that they are in school. It was easier in some years, but this is the toughest period, now. They have so much to do, themselves! Even though they have a holiday in two weeks, they will not come because they are too busy with school work to come to New York and have jet leg. On the other hand, I try to do my job in periods, so I work hard for a period, and I try to be home for a long period. Every time I have to decide on a new job, we have a family meeting and everybody has to say an opinion about it.
OL – So you listen to your daughters when you are considering a job offer?
PM – Yes, yes, of course.
OL - How is the person Peter Mattei in terms of personality and take on life?
PM – I think I’m a lone wolf a little bit, but I’m happy with myself. I’m a happy person. [laughs]
OL - Anna Netrebko said you’re crazy in the good sense and very funny.
PM – Yes, OK. That’s nice! [laughs]
OL – Do you agree?
PM – I think it goes for her too! [laughs]
OL – [laughs] Absolutely!
PM – Yes!
OL - What about your extra-operatic interests and hobbies? What do you like to do?
PM – Nature. I love to be in nature when I’m free, and to be with my family, and have wonderful days in our summer house. I like to work on things that result in a difference in one day, like taking down a forest [laughs] and carrying stones.
OL – You seem to have a lot of energy and you like to do a bit of manual labor, huh?
PM – Yes, I like to be cutting and fixing things. In the summer house, after three or four weeks I settle down a little. I think everybody should be free for two months. It’s not so easy; we are used to going on and on. To prepare for a vacation you have to be much cleverer than to prepare for a work period. I like it when I spend all this energy and then in three or four weeks I start coming down, remembering things, and talking in another way. We need this kind of tuning up.
OL – But then there is the need to learn new roles…
PM – I do some clever planning so that I don’t need to do that in summers, because otherwise the connections with the family will not happen.
OL – I see. Let’s go back to your career a bit. You have an amazing variety of roles in your repertory, with, in addition obviously to Italian opera, roles in Russian, Czech, English, and German operas; in five languages.
PM – Yes, languages, I like, but I don’t speak any. [laughs]
OL – You speak very good English.
PM – Thanks, but that’s the only one.
OL - You’ve done some Wagner (Tannhäuser, Parsifal) – you don’t seem to be afraid to be type-cast. Some singers I’ve interviewed said that once they do Wagner, everybody wants them to do more Wagner.
PM – I love Wagner. It is amazing. But not only.
OL – Not only, so you wouldn’t want to specialize.
PM – No. It’s the most challenging thing, to be sort of specialized in everything [laughs]… You want to surprise people; they will say “how can he sing that???” It’s the same singer all over, but he can do different repertoire. That, I like.
OL - Opera Lively Press has published our own guidebook to Les Troyens, which I personally consider my next favorite opera right behind Wagner’s Ring. You were part of the iconic second (2000) recording with Sir Colin Davis, in the role of Chorèbe; this earned you two Grammy awards. I’d love to hear something about your work with the illustrious conductor, who sadly passed away recently. He seemed to have strong opinions. How was him in the day-to-day rehearsals and performances?
PM – He was a wonderful, passionate, strong man. I remember when we did Brahms’ Requiem for the first time. I really understood why it is called the German Requiem; Ein Deutches Requiem, because Sir Colin Davis brought up something different, maybe from being an English man doing German music. It was very strong and the conflicts were so visible, somehow!
OL – Do you learn a lot from conductors, as opposed to voice teachers and pianists or your own work? Do they really teach you useful things for your singing? Or is it more a question of you having to adapt to them?
PM – It’s a difficult question. I think you learn how to deal with things. Sometimes you don’t know what they mean, but you try anyway. Sometimes you know what they mean but you cannot do it. Sometimes they want to teach you, and sometimes they don’t say a word. My job is to be prepared for anything. The best thing is to know your music a little bit better than the conductor. Then he feels that, and relaxes.
OL – Nice answer. The list of prestigious conductors you’ve worked with reads as the “Who is Who” of the very top of the conducting world: Sir Georg Solti, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Muti, Sir Colin Davis, Riccardo Chailly, James Levine, Antonio Pappano, Zubin Mehta, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Gustavo Dudamel, Jeffrey Tate, Sir Andrew Davis, Daniel Harding, and others. Can you tell us about some of them who were most helpful in your development as a singer? Of course, there is no disrespect intended for the ones you might not quote, given that our readers understand that we’d be here all day long if you were to address all of them one by one.
PM – I’ve worked with so many fantastic conductors that it is impossible to say which ones are my favorites. I would – and will – work with them all again, with love, but maybe I can say that they have different approaches. For Don Giovanni maybe Abbado would be ideal, because he never looks at the score; he always looks at the singers, to let them drive the thing themselves. There are singers who can drive, and others who don’t want to drive and want to be driven, and then Abbado is not a good choice for them. For other operas it is best if you have a very strict conductor, like in La Bohème, because everything is so tic-tic-tic, so precise; you have to treat it like a Mozart piano piece. You cannot be free in that music, but it must sound as if you were free. But to achieve the freedom, you have to be very strict. Then you need a conductor who is very strong and forces everybody to do exactly what is written on the score and be very, very metronomic.
OL – Give me an example of a conductor who is like that.
PM – Daniel Oren. I remember that there was a big difference, doing it with him and with others.
Maestro Daniel Oren. Credit Unknown, fair promotional use
OL - Another memorable recording is the recent Met DVD of Parsifal, which was a huge triumph with public and critics. Please tell us about being part of that. Your performance of Amfortas was heralded as one of the best ever, and called heartbreaking.
PM – It was a fantastic production, and it is a fantastic opera. It is wonderful to be so emotional and to have music to carry that emotion through. I didn’t know if it was the right choice for me to do it, when I started. I think many people thought like that, too. [laughs] Maybe myself, and everybody, got a little surprised.
Peter as Amfortas at the Met - Photo Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera, used with authorization
OL - What did you think of the post-apocalyptic concept by François Girard in that production?
PM – It was very good. From the first to the last minute, there was a good arc. The imagery was fantastic and beautiful; the production looked like a movie, sometimes. François and the directing team did a great job.
OL - Maestro Gatti was said to take the pace very slowly which some people liked a lot in terms of highlighting the music in the right non-rushed points while others prefer faster tempi. What’s your take on it?
PM – He was amazing too. He was perfect for this piece, because it is so difficult! You have to be like an organist, very solemn, and he was very emotional in his conducting. I liked the slow pace. For me, I have time to sing. It was not just slow; he wanted to express some hesitation, to come out from the soul. He wasn’t so much focused on the tempo, but rather he had a vision for his conducting. It was like a journey, I have to say.
OL – Very interesting, yes. I forgot to follow up on one of the questions. You said that some singers like to drive, others like to be driven. I’d assume you are the former, right?
PM – Yes, I like to have freedom, especially in opera, although some of them need a different approach, like I told you.
OL – Yes.
PM – If you want to drive, you can’t be stubborn and only do your thing. That is not good. Maybe there is something better to do. You have to be open, also. When you are open to new ideas, then you drive with the new idea. But I think ultimately you have to drive, because it is part of what a musician should do. A musician needs to have passion. You have to be open to different interpretations of the music, but then you need to take that interpretation into your own system, and then, drive.
OL - Your recent performance of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen at the Carnegie Hall with the Met Orchestra under the baton of James Levine was also very well received. Are you passionate about art songs and song cycles?
PM – Yes, I do like lieder. I do it rarely, but I want to do more in the future.
OL – It must be difficult to schedule, because not only you have the family constraints you’ve described, but these days, opera houses are scheduling their pieces five years in advance.
PM – Yes, exactly. If you want to schedule lieder concerts, you have to stop and say “this period I’m not taking any opera jobs” and leave that slot open. And then when time gets closer, you try to schedule concerts and tours.
OL – What do you like best, concerts and recitals, or fully staged operas?
PM – I like them the same.
OL - You appeared twice at La Scala in non-Italian works, Fidelio, and From the House of the Dead. You did roles in Italian there too (like Don Giovanni). Probably, performing works that are not in Italian there shields the artist a bit from that demanding, at times insulting audience. In general, regardless of whether or not it has personally happened to you, what’s your take on that? Some singers say they don’t want to sing at La Scala anymore.
PM – Well, they’ve been good to me [laughs] so I don’t feel like that. I’ll happily go back to La Scala, but I’ll choose my repertoire, again. I will not sing Rigoletto there for the first time. [laughs]
OL – [laughs] That is wise.
PM – Yes! It’s clear that one shouldn’t sing certain roles there. [laughs]
OL - Please tell us a bit about your solo CDs, such as “Kaleidoscope” which contains a focus on Christmas music, or your “Great Baritone Arias” CD. You’ve also recorded pieces like Sibelius’ Kulervo, Op. 7, and your CD of it was praised by specialized magazines as the best one in the market. Which one is your work on CD that most pleases you?
PM – Have you seen my Sinatra CD?
OL – I haven’t.
PM – It’s called “Once In My Life.” You have to go buy it now and come back to ask me about it! [laughs]
Cover picture recovered from the web, credit unknown, fair promotional use
OL – [laughs]
PM – Yes, I made this whole CD with Sinatra and Sammy Davies Jr. songs. I had so much fun with that! It was the best time in my life! I liked the Christmas songs CD as well because it’s very traditional, in Sweden. We have a lot of Christmas recordings, there.
OL – Many singers tell me that they don’t like to listen to their own CDs. You seem to like yours.
PM – Well, I don’t listen to them, myself, except for this Sinatra. That one I really enjoyed. It was so much fun, to sing this music, with a big band!
OL - You have mentioned that your favorite city to perform is New York City, thank you for that! Please tell us what is great about our city and our audience.
PM – Maybe I shouldn’t have said that it is my favorite city because I like them all, but there is something special here in New York, I don’t know. I love Central Park, and the Met is amazing. These things also have to do with the working environment, even if the city is not your kind of city. For example, I don’t like Milan so much, but I do like La Scala a lot. I like the work in every opera house I’ve been singing in, but here in New York it’s not just the Met; I love the Met and I love the city too, so it becomes ideal.
OL – What is amazing about the Met?
PM - What do you think, yourself?
OL – I like most of the productions, and love how they are modernizing, now. I saw Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle two days ago, and it was an amazing double-bill production.
PM – Yes!
OL – The Parsifal was amazing as well. They are moving away from the stuffy Zeffirelli kind of production.
PM – I’ve done some fantastic productions here that I wasn’t expecting to be like that, like The House of the Dead. It was a very intimate and European kind of feeling, and the public loved it. They love the traditional, classic ones, but they are able to love these more modern productions too. I think the public is very open, here.
OL – For one thing, our audience is very welcoming of the artists.
PM – Yes, it is.
OL - I don’t think I’ve ever heard booing here. Maybe there was some in The Death of Klinghoffer.
PM – Oh yes, but that was more for political reasons.
OL – Yes, it was political, but other than that, the audience always applauds the artists and supports everybody.
PM – Yes, the audience here is welcoming and curious. You do also have that in Europe. But if you work in Paris, people will show their feelings. I did an amazing production there by Michael Haneke; some loved it, some hated it. It’s also very political, in Paris. Here at the Met it is not so political. Here, the public literally pays for the productions, while in Europe it is all government money from taxes. It makes for another approach, I think; that’s my own theory, but if you pay for your own party, you should better have a good time there.
OL – [laughs] That’s an interesting take, yes. But also if your audience is the party that is paying for the productions, you have to please them.
PM – Yes, but I think the Met has been less keen on just pleasing the audience. Or rather, they want to please them, but in a way that they didn’t expect to be pleased. In some places, artists and creators would be disappointed if the audience didn’t laugh, but this is going away. You don’t need to be funny all the time.
OL – But in a sense, if your productions are being paid by taxes and you don’t depend as heavily on the public, you can dare more, because whether the production is a flop or not, doesn’t directly affect your budget, while here if something flops and offends the patrons and the donors, that’s a problem.
PM – Yes. It’s completely different. But the best, is that we have different systems so we can do something very experimental and explore the art form. I wish we had more differences between the countries, but now it’s coming to be a little more the same. There is cooperation among the countries and the same production travels to different houses. I wish these houses kept their own identity. By analogy, if you want to have a Frankfurter Würstchen, you have to go to Frankfurt, while here you can have the American-style hamburger.
OL – It’s globalization.
PM – Yes, in opera too, it is happening. I do hope we can keep places where we can go and experiment and go a little bit into extremes.
Talking about extremes, yes, it is Peter inside the ape costume! Credit in picture, fair promotional use
Also, people shouldn’t be so quick to say “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” I think it’s almost a disease in society today, that we have to think about everything in a very quick moment. Go to a production, don’t overthink too much; maybe it will come to you in two or three days. Maybe later you’ll start to think about it and something will open up for you. If you only consider it in the moment, you are stopping your process of appreciation.
OL – Yes, I thought that what you said about too many recordings was interesting. Opera is becoming such an entertainment industry, with broadcasts into cinemas, and HD videos, etc.
PM – But I love that, also. It’s not that I don’t like it, but you also have to have places where you don’t do it. My mother and father can go to a movie theater in the north of Sweden and see me when I’m here singing the Barbiere, and this is amazing, the way we are spreading opera and making it possible for more people to see it.
OL – But my concern is that this might kill the smaller places. I’ve heard people here in the United States saying “why should I go see these operas staged by our regional opera company, if I can go to the movie theater and see the same operas from the Met with much higher production quality and better singers?”
PM – Yes, but if you really love football for example you’ll still attend the games of your local, small league, even though you watch the big games on TV from the big leagues. Millions of people watch those games on TV, and if we can make opera popular again by broadcasting it to millions, it won’t make people stop going to the smaller opera houses. Maybe it will in the short term, but in ten or fifteen years we’ll be getting the fruits back from this.
OL – Interesting.
PM – I’m sure about that. It has to reach the masses, because if opera remains just for some elite in just a few places, then it will die, I think. Nobody worries about that in football, because people will pay money to have those games on TV, so I hope one day people will be willing to pay to see opera if they get used to it, including at the local level. If you go see a football game in the second league in England, it’s almost as good football as in the Premier League; just the players aren’t as famous. They still play good football there, and the better the second league becomes, the better the premier league will be, too. You can have really good quality all the way down, if you can maintain the system well. Opera is a very expensive art form, so we need people to watch it, and I think this is a good way. It’s tough for the artist, because if you do a bad show, ten million people are watching that show. [laughs]
OL – [laughs] Do you get nervous, when it’s the day of the broadcast?
PM – Oh well, there is nothing I can do. If I have a bad day, a bad day will come. If I have a good day, a good day will come, you know, and that, I cannot do anything about it. But if I have a good day, it will not be destroyed by nerves, you know what I mean?
OL – Yes. Besides, a bad day can come out of other factors like a respiratory infection.
PM – Yes, and if I catch one, there’s nothing I can do about it.
OL – Yes, but when I wrote up my review of your show yesterday, I said that I’ve never seen you having anything less than a good day. As far as I’m concerned, in everything I’ve seen with you, you were always perfect.
PM – [laughs hard] Good! No comments!
OL – I mean, it’s impossible to be perfect every time, but at least the times I saw you, you were super good.
PM – Thank you!
OL - You seem to be very popular in Sweden although I hear that popularity is considered not a very cool think in Swedish culture… but you did earn the distinction of Court Singer from the Royal family, which is a distinction you share with such outstanding predecessors as Jussi Björling, Birgit Nilsson, and Nicolai Gedda . How cool was that?
PM – It was very cool, yes. I’m very proud of it, of course.
OL – Are you recognized on the streets in Sweden?
PM – I’ve been away from Sweden for so long… I do most of my work here and in other houses outside of Sweden, and that I like. I like to be a normal man when I’m home. But in opera, this is not a problem, ever. You don’t get famous from opera to the point of being recognized on the streets, except for Pavarotti.
OL - What are your next steps? Any exciting projects coming up?
PM – Yes, there is a lot coming up, but I don’t know… If I needed to do all the same operas that I’ve already done for the rest of my life, I would still be happy. But I want to put in something new, also. Ten years ago I thought my voice would change and take me into a different direction, but actually my voice hasn’t changed that much. Maybe it even became a little bit better, but it hasn’t changed in Fach, like becoming more dramatic.
OL – So, you think you are pretty much settled in your repertory?
PM – Yes, but I don’t know if I’ll be doing something truly different. I don’t plan for it. If it happens, it happens. I don’t want to steer it anywhere.
OL – OK, that’s it, these were all the questions I had. Do you have anything to add?
PM – No, it was a very good interview, thank you.
OL – I liked it a lot as well. Thank you.
Photo Credit Håkan Flank, use authorized by singer's publicist
Let's listen to the singer, in arguably the best Figaro (Rossini's) I've ever seen live on stage, the one he did at the Met with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez:
Here is his very funny clip in Le Nozze di Figaro at Opéra National de Paris (this clip was suggested by the singer himself who liked very much this performance):
Here we have him in a more serious role, the one he is about to do again in Vienna, as Eugene Onegin:
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