Easy Does It : The Relaxed Success of Baritone Peter Mattei

Very little about a successful operatic career is easy. But Peter Mattei, best known for his interpretation of the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the Count in Le nozze di Figaro, has a gift for making it look that way. Or perhaps it is an intention. Mattei, a native Swede with Italian parentage who sings in the world’s most prestigious theaters, chooses only roles that that best support a natural vocal production.

“I don’t use the word ‘Fach,’” Mattei says in a phone interview with Classical Singer from his home in Stockholm. “I try to sing with variation. I sing in concert, I sing Lieder, opera, and crossover. Everything is sung with the voice I have. The foundation of the voice is zero, which is what comes naturally out of me.

“You can go heavier, up from zero, or lighter, down from zero, and from that you can make a balance so you can sing different repertoire. But I am probably a lyric baritone, what you call a Kavalieres baritone, or something like that. I haven’t sung much Verdi; I’ve sung more Wagner. But when I have sung Amfortas [in Parsifal], I try to go back and sing Mozart and Lieder, so I don’t fix the voice in a particular sound. I try to go back to zero again.

“It is a living thing, so I don’t want to fix the sound and say, ‘This is what I sing, and I don’t sing anything else.’ If you specialize, you can probably develop a special technique for Verdi, and then you block yourself. I don’t know, but that’s the feeling I have of doing one thing more frequently, so I try to stay open. I am not a younger singer anymore, but I still think I have a young sound. The vibrato is not wobbling, and I think I can sing a hundred years more.”

Now in his 50s, there is a timelessness to Mattei’s style and his choice of repertoire. His discography includes his Mozart roles, Eugene Onegin, and several solo albums—including Once in My Life, which features lush orchestrations of classic songs from Hoagy Carmichael to Stephen Sondheim. “It’s something I gave myself—a little present. [He laughs.] I love those songs and I was very happy recording them.

“At the same time, I was singing Billy Budd. So I would go back and forth from Billy Budd to the recording, and it was giving me happiness in both places. Billy was developing, and the crossover was also happier for singing the Billy—so in a way that’s what I mean. It’s the same voice. The zero is the same.

“Sometimes you fail finding the right sound for something, or the right praxis. [The Swedish word praxis means the usual way to do things.] It’s the way you sing a special repertoire: you have a praxis for Lieder, a praxis for Verdi. It’s a certain style you have to find. You have to know the style before you do it.

“But the effortlessness is something I always want. And when I find the effortlessness, the voice is unlimited. But as soon as I go to pressure, I am diminishing myself and my voice. Maybe in certain repertoire I haven’t found the effortlessness, so I don’t sing it. Maybe if I’m going to develop myself for Verdi in the coming years, I want to find a way of making it sound like Verdi singing, but effortless.

“But that’s also my technique. Because if you have a voice with spin, with air, you work in all the right places but you don’t push on the instrument. A violinist can’t put hard pressure on the bow. You have to do it with flow, air, and energy. These are things I find very cool and fascinating, and that’s what I want to achieve.”

For most of his adult life, Mattei was a student of Solwig Grippe, whom he first studied with at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, and who passed away in 2011. “I still hear her voice,” he says. “And after she died, I think I understood much more what she was trying to tell me all her life. I also have been teaching a little bit and I try things Solwig said to me and I hear the instant effect. Maybe the singer can’t, because it’s hard to know.

“You always want to work and have the will to work hard, but you have to go against that will. You have to work in the right places, to allow a voice to sound young and beautiful as long as you can. You can always twist and turn, make your voice more compelling and dangerous—but you have to go back to that zero place and work from that. When you do opera, you can almost shout and scream. I don’t want to sound beautiful all the time, some of my repertoire—even the Mozart stuff, Don Giovanni—you have to bring some energy, some intensity that causes people to vibrate.”

When asked if perhaps young singers are sometimes too reliant or dependent on their voice teachers, Mattei says no. “I don’t know how young singers are, but sometimes people are not patient enough to do the hard work and they try to do a quick fix, and then the career comes and problems stay with them for longer than they should. That can be damaging. I think it’s good to have a teacher, but you have to have the right singing teacher. If you rely on the wrong teacher, you have a problem.

“Sometimes I think, ‘How would I sound if I were from Italy or America?’ I would have developed differently because of the language, but also different countries have different needs and traditions. In America, so many singers go to their first opera, and there are four or five thousand people. I think that is why you have young singers in America maybe singing a little too loud in the beginning. Because maybe they have to fill a big place.”

The list of renowned Swedish opera singers is long for a country of its size, and why that is so depends on whom you ask. Dramatic soprano Iréne Theorin laughingly says that there may be so many great Swedish singers because Swedish people are big-boned, but also recognizes that singing is an important part of Swedish culture. “We connect through children’s songs,” she says. “I can see in my one-year-old grandchild when I sing the Swedish songs—he’s into it. We sing a lot from childhood.” That was certainly the case for Mattei.

“I sang before I spoke,” he says. “And dad is from Italy. He came to work in a factory in Sweden and he brought some Robertino records with him. [Robertino Loreti was a popular boy soprano in the 50s and 60s.] It was Neapolitan songs, and kind of Schlagerish [German Schlager music]. He had a beautiful boy soprano—not necessarily a classical voice, but a good singer with his instrument. If you listen to ‘O sole mio’ and ‘Mamma,’ I think that’s my musical fingerprint somehow. It shaped me.

“But I am from Sweden. I never spoke Italian with my father and never had any contact with Verdi and opera when I was a little boy. But I sang those songs when I was five, six, seven years old, and it was a very good Bel Canto style. So probably I got something from that, together with the Swedish language, and the other side of my mother’s tradition. But no classical music until I was 17, 18 years old.”

Mattei has a practical approach to musicality. “If you think it’s too beautiful, you can’t sing it well,” he says of Mahler. This attitude should not be confused with irreverence. “With Mahler, and I also do [Schubert’s] Winterreise now,” he explains, “even the most beautiful song has an edge, an antagonistic side, and you have to keep pain in there somehow. The pain brings a sharpness to the beauty.

“Don Giovanni, in a way, has very little to sing. The recitatives have more energy, but when you come to the canzonetta, you have to sing in a way that anybody would follow you home. You have to put some kind of loneliness in it, so they feel you expose your soul maybe a little bit. You become very truthful, even if it’s manipulation.

“Don Giovanni would have those tools and probably be very good at emotional blackmail and showing the most vulnerable side to get what he wants. It’s very clever of him to sing an easy little song that farmers probably recognize. He doesn’t show off with a complicated aria or some intricate harmonic thing. He just sings a simple song to reach Zerlina’s heart.

“And in Mahler, when you sing those beautiful things, he always marks it ohne Sentimentalität [‘without sentimentality’], and that’s a clue that you cannot think, ‘This is the most beautiful thing and I’ll just give that one dimension.’ There is always another dimension—or two, or three, or four. And this happens without thinking. If you approach it right, you are not aware of things you do when the music is reaching into you.”

Even before his teacher passed away, Mattei, who plays piano and several other instruments, had made it his practice to learn roles on his own before being coached by others. “I work alone in the beginning. I don’t want anybody to be there and put the music inside of me. It is also a source of pride. When I come to the first coaching with a pianist, I know it.

“But time is so rare. Sometimes you have to learn a role while you’re still singing another role and you have to find time here and there, but the best thing is to really take time. I’m learning Wozzeck for the Met and I’m taking many months off to be at home and learn that. I’m looking forward to it, but I’m also terrified. It’s going to be a hard job.”

As for tips for young singers, he says, “Sometimes, if it’s a complicated part, I learn it without the text, just the melody. You get a lot of ideas from the composer if you sing it on a vowel. And then when you see and understand the text, a lot of things have already come to you from the composer’s intention, because he did the first interpretation of the piece—and if it’s a good composer, you can really trust that.

“Another idea for singers, maybe you build layers and shouldn’t expect everything to be ready right away. The best work is in a good night’s sleep when, after a day’s work, you sleep, and the next day things have happened in the night. That’s why you need time to get ideas.

“So sometimes it’s good to not have anybody who knows the piece, because you can find these things yourself; it goes to your backbone. Do you say that? It is in the body if you discover it yourself. If you have somebody telling you to do this and that, or this needs that, it becomes an intellectual approach—but things you find yourself stick with you.”

Mattei even carries this so far as to avoid listening to recordings, to a point. “This period now, with Winterreise, it’s a pianist and myself and it’s wonderful. There’s nobody who can tell you what to do. I haven’t listened to any recordings and I didn’t learn the piece until two years ago. I wanted to wait until after I was 50, so every song was totally new.

“Maybe I’m close to what the others did, or maybe I’m far away. I don’t know, but that is not important. What’s important is that I’m doing something that is me doing it. If a singer is doing something that sounds like another singer, or a generation of singers, he forgot an important thing. It has to come from him. He has to put his brain and soul and intuition into line with those songs and give a reason that someone will come to listen to that person.”

But Mattei will make use of recordings, if needed. “Sometimes, if I don’t find things or I don’t have time, then recordings are fantastic. Sometimes you have to do a quick fix and hope nobody notices. But if you learn it quick, even if you learned it in a bad way, you can still relearn it. You always work on a piece. Five years later it comes up again, [then] you can do the research and come closer to the piece. And, sometimes, the first time you perform is when you really understand it.

“That happened with Winterreise. It revealed itself the first night. It was very scary to not know it until then. I did a good job, good research, but somehow you always find it when the audience is there.”

Though seemingly at ease socially, Mattei is something of a rarity in that he doesn’t have much of a social media presence, and there’s a reason for that. “You have to have a hunger for communication, and if I have a lot of fun between shows and meet with a lot of people, I am a little too happy, too content. I need my communication hunger.

“If I have two or three days between shows where I haven’t met a person and have had long walks and I come to stage, I see my colleagues and really long for them. I want to do the story. And after the show I am happy and I can have a nice time, but the day after that the preparation starts again. To go out with your singer friends after a show when you still have the show in your blood—it’s a good feeling.

“But I’m not on Facebook. I have no homepage. Maybe I was very lucky to have a career without those things. I try to help people [through] my agent, to let people who want to know what I’m doing. It’s not that I’m secretive. I want people to come. But still I try to help and tell them my schedule and things like that, so the people who want to come can come. I think Sinatra said, ‘The only thing you owe your audience is a good show.’ I think if you respect that, people forgive you for not being on social media.”

Recent engagements have included Amfortas in Paris and New York. And next up, Mattei will bring his Don Giovanni to the Met and Vienna. And his interpretation of Winterreise will be captured in a recording.

“I’m putting my life into that one,” he says. “It’ll be so great to finally do that. I want to be like the Rolling Stones, on a never-ending tour. I hope to sing Winterreise forever. I didn’t do it for the first 50 years, but I’ll do it for the second 50.”

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.