Road Show: Peter Mattei in New York City
ERIC MYERS catches up with the Swedish baritone, who favors some unexpected dining options when he is working in Manhattan.
Mattei as Eugene Onegin at the Met, 2013
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2014
"The more you travel," says Peter Mattei, "the more you know where home really is." Home for the Swedish baritone is Stockholm, with his wife and two children. But when asked his favorite place to perform, he unhesitatingly names New York City.
"The things they say about New York are true, I think," says Mattei. "There is such a welcoming atmosphere. The first time you come to New York, you feel it is your place. You own it. Everybody owns it — it's not exclusive. There is an openness to it. When you are alone, it's like good company. You don't have to be with anybody. You can do your job and then go alone and do things alone. You still feel that you are normal somehow. In other places you can feel so lonely."
Mattei was speaking during the few days' break he had last season between the end of his acclaimed series of Eugene Onegins at the Met and his Carnegie Hall appearance with James Levine and the Met Orchestra in Mahler's Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen. Eschewing the city's famed hotels, he was calling from his regular New York rental apartment on the fifty-seventh floor of a high-rise behind Carnegie Hall on Fifty-sixth Street. "I have a fantastic view. From here I can feel the pulsation of the city — the light, the morning sun, the moon. It's a little bit of a science-fiction feeling that it gives. I have an amazing view of Central Park and all the way north to the Bronx.
"The more I walk in Central Park, the more I'm discovering. There are parts of the park where you really can feel like you are in a forest. The park is my rescue, I think, when the city is too much. And on a snowy winter night, it is like magic, with the reflection of all the lights. And of course it's a great place for jogging, especially in the morning before work if you're jet-lagged. A twenty-minute run in the park gives you a boost that you can fly on all day."
Mattei spends his free days in the city rambling and exploring on foot, but he also puts a real premium on the time he spends in the apartment. "People who come to New York and want to see and do everything sometimes lose something about New York," he says. "The best way to find New York is just to do absolutely nothing, and let the city do something to you. I don't go to museums, I don't go to shows, I don't go out to many restaurants. But I do like to wander. I allow New York to come to me." That includes buying groceries at nearby Whole Foods, which he loves, and then having a picnic in the park or cooking at home. "I stayed once at the Trump Hotel on Columbus Circle, which was nice, of course. But I think it's much better to rent an apartment, come home and make your food — know that you're really in New York. That's a special feeling, I think. And it's a much better value than a hotel."
When he does go out to eat, one of his favorite treats is a Sunday breakfast at 27 Sunshine, long known as the king of Chinatown Dim Sum joints. "It's this huge place, where they are running around with big wagons of food. You don't know what you're ordering — you just point at what you want, and you taste. It's a completely different world there!" He's also fond of the lumberjack-scaled breakfast at the Flame, a traditional New York City Greek diner of the sort parodied by John Belushi during Saturday Night Live's first seasons. Located just south of Lincoln Center on Ninth Avenue, it's been a neighborhood fixture for years. "Other singers don't really know about it," he confides. "But I've introduced a few to it. Katarina Dalayman was suspicious of it at first — but then she thanked me in an e-mail, saying, 'I always come here now!' I always feel comfortable there. They have pretty good food, and the staff always seems fairly happy. I like the breakfast menu there. I normally don't eat late at night after a show, but sometimes I'll go there the next morning and have a huge breakfast — pancakes, eggs, everything. My family loves it, too, when they come to visit. We order and order and order at breakfast!" When he chooses to stay in and make breakfast at home, it's "bacon, eggs, toast with peanut butter and bananas, beans — it's a combination of a British breakfast and an American cowboy breakfast. That's something I treat myself with when I'm in New York. And if I wake up late and have that, it's all I need to get through the rest of the day. I can sing at night and not disturb the stomach so much. That's the irregularity of a singer's life — the stomach has to suffer a little bit!"
Mattei knows that New York would be nothing without New Yorkers, and he has a great fondness for New York audiences. "There is something in New York that sharpens the edges," he says. "I think the audiences are one part of that, because they are so with you. When the Met is full of people, there's an amazing focus, and it's generous, somehow. New York audiences like to be entertained, but they are also open to new things. You wouldn't think it would be so easy to play From the House of the Dead in New York — but it went straight to their hearts."
ERIC MYERS is the author of three books. He has contributed articles to Playbill, Time Out New York and The New York Times Magazine and Arts and Leisure sections.
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