in Reviews

Finnish opera is alive and well

by Lauri Kilpiö

Elke Albrecht and Eeva-Taina Forsius-Schibli have edited a compilation of essays from 19 Finnish composers on their operas and their thoughts about opera, Finland – A nation of opera. Judging by this book, contemporary Finnish opera – referring here to the period between 1963 and 2014 – is alive and well. New operas are commissioned, written and performed quite regularly in Finland. Considerable production resources are available, and even major works can be staged. On the other hand, we also read here of operas remaining unperformed and production processes suffering from delays and difficulties. The nature of opera as a collaborative artwork is made clear: an opera composer can and must deal with a large number of performers and people from other branches of the arts. Creating an opera requires a crowd of people who have faith in the composer’s vision. As the book demonstrates, such faith is in gratifyingly good supply in Finland.

The composers take different perspectives in their essays. Some describe the genesis of their operas, their subject matter or their musical decisions in detail, while others discuss opera in general. The literary quality of the texts varies considerably. The essays by Kalevi Aho, Mikko Heiniö, Veli-Matti Puumala and Kaija Saariaho, for instance, are excellent examples of music essays, interestingly entwining the personal with the universal. Some of the others are an unedited, mind-numbing stream of consciousness. The editors gave the contributors considerable liberties and made a conscious decision to edit the texts as little as possible.

No explanation for the selection of writers is offered in the introduction. Experience of writing operas for largish productions would seem to have been a criterion, since there are no composers here who have only written chamber operas. This is a pity, because contributions from, say, Perttu Haapanen, Juhani Nuorvala or Lotta Wennäkoski would have broadened the spectrum of Finnish contemporary opera as displayed in this book. As it is, the selection is largely very conservative: no one seriously questions the criteria of a good opera; there is a firm belief in narratives and traditional drama; and historical and mythical subjects are favoured. It should be noted, though, that several writers call for modern audiovisual technology to be used more on the opera stage.

The book argues persuasively that opera, far from being an anachronism, is a blend of music, text, drama and image that can move people profoundly even in our day and age. The history of opera – also of Finnish opera – goes on.