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Grassroots opera is all shook up

by Harri Kuusisaari

Beyond the great pillars of Finnish opera, the Finnish National Opera and the Savonlinna Opera Festival, there are regional operas, small professional companies and festivals that thrive despite a chronic shortage of money.

Opera is present in all major Finnish cities. There are eleven regional opera companies in Finland, and the art form is further sustained by summer festivals, freelance opera companies in the capital city area around Helsinki and music institutes. The field is broad and checkered, extending from folk opera to classics and world premieres.

In provincial cities, opera performances are staged in theatres or concert halls. Theatres usually have an acoustic that is too dry for music, and concert halls do not have stage machinery. Not that this has deterred anyone – provincial operas tackle the great classics with as much aplomb as the Finnish National Opera.

There are different ways of sharing production responsibilities: in some places the local theatre is an active participant, while in others educational institutions are involved. Usually the local opera company engages the soloists and the chorus, and the city orchestra appears in the production as part of its regular programme.

The lead soloists are usually professionals, but the chorus consists of local amateurs, who sometimes take up minor soloist parts too.

‘Often the chorus provides the driving force and the enthusiasm in a regional opera production. There are great people there keeping the whole show running on a volunteer basis and banging the drum for publicity,’ says stage director Ville Saukkonen, who has worked a lot with regional opera companies.

He sees regional opera companies as the backbone of Finnish opera, since they introduce the genre to new audiences and give young singers opportunities. The programming policy is traditional in most cities, but Saukkonen likes to take a fresh look at the classics too.

‘I do not subscribe to the notion of making rustic art for country bumpkins. You have to set the bar high enough to respect the piece you are doing.’

Measuring cultural will

No opera company could survive without dedicated financing from its home city. Additional funds are provided by the National Council for Music, which paid out 344,000 € in support to eleven opera companies in 2007.

Opera has become an indicator of the cooperative spirit of local arts institutions and, more generally, one measure of a city’s general cultural will – it does not enjoy statutory government grants like orchestras, theatres and music institutes do.

The oldest opera companies are the Tampere Opera and the Vaasa Opera. They have established themselves with a regular long-term policy of mounting one production per year. Elsewhere the aim is generally to have one production every two years, but the interval can be longer if funding problems arise.

In Tampere productions are managed by Tampere Hall, which has succeeded in engaging top-class singers up to and including Karita Mattila. The chorus is traditionally large, and in 2007 the Tampere Opera mounted a full-scale production of Aïda, no less.

The Vaasa Opera, by comparison, is a textbook example of what a single ardent personality can achieve. Former physical education teacher and singer Irma Rewell founded the local opera association in 1957 and still has her hand firmly on the helm. The Vaasa Opera has produced several premieres, most recently Kuninkaan sormus (The King’s Ring) by Ilkka Kuusisto in 2002. Rewell is known for having a knack for discovering young talent.

In some cities opera has fizzled out due to lack of funds. But sometimes the local opera association is resuscitated after a decade of lying dormant – in Lahti this happened with the help of a private donor.

The saddest fate is that of the Turku opera association, which went bankrupt. In 2005 the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra staged a massive production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer on board real ships on Aurajoki river. The project was ambitious but a disaster financially, leaving the orchestra scrambling to make up for the losses.

Turku will be one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2011, and a major opera project is in the pipeline for the occasion.

The most dynamic newcomer is the Kokkola Opera, which burst onto the scene, as it were, with an uproarious modernization of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro rendered in the local dialect of Swedish. Playwright and stage director Leea Klemola, known for her bold productions, turned the classic inside out, beginning with the libretto.

The Kokkola Opera was founded by singers Anu Komsi and Annika Mylläri - both natives of the region – together with Komsi’s husband, conductor Sakari Oramo. Their idea was to blow fresh air into an institutionalised art form. Companies and foundations have provided funding for the enterprise.

The company recently brought their production of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus to Helsinki – a brisk and visually rich performance that was a greatly energetic contribution to the opera season.

Young challengers offer alternatives

Regional opera companies’ productions are mainly classical operas. An opera production is such an expensive venture that taking up an unfamiliar work would be an unaffordable risk.

The alternative repertoire niche is mainly filled by freelance opera companies operating in and around Helsinki, such as Skaala, Kapsäkki, Pleno, Verso and the Finnish Chamber Opera. They are in a pivotal role in promoting non-institutional, mobile and creative musical theatre.

Ooppera Skaala, founded in 1996, is dedicated to contemporary opera, and to date it has given the world premieres of 18 works. The company consists of 20 to 30 professionals coming together for productions on a freelance basis as the needs of each production dictate.

Skaala’s most recent production, premiered in March, was Turing Machine, a multimedia opera by Eeppi Ursin and Visa-Pekka Mertanen. Its music is mainly electronic and based on the sampling of old and new material. The libretto features British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954), the father of the digital computer. Skaala will next be premiering a new Finnish opera in spring 2009 with Markiisitar de Sade (Marchioness de Sade) by Juha T. Koskinen.

The Kapsäkki opera company has made a name for itself performing children’s operas. Set up as a cooperative, it is a flexible touring company which can mount its small-scale productions virtually anywhere and is unabashedly entertainment-oriented. Kapsäkki will be producing the opera Anna Liisa by Veli-Matti Puumala at the Helsinki Festival in August 2008. Its libretto is an adaptation of a play by Finland’s first known woman author Minna Canth (1844-1896).

The oldest of the freelance opera companies is the Finnish Chamber Opera, founded in 1988. It has had more than 300 performances all around Finland, most recently with the production of the new opera Vapauden vanki (Prisoner of Freedom), whose main character is Risto Ryti, President of Finland during the Second World War. The company’s next new opera will be one by Uljas Pulkkis.

The youngest of the freelance opera companies, Opera Pieno, has attracted much attention with its lively performances of comic opera. All of its productions, most recently Le donne vendicate by Niccolo Piccini, have been directed by Juulia Tapola. Ooppera Verso, a touring company, is the heir to the disbanded Vantaa Opera.

Festivals augment the regular programme

Opera performances by educational institutions are an important addition to the field. In recent years, Stadia (the Helsinki Polytechnic) has been even more prominent in this field than the Sibelius Academy, but its opera productions now seem to be winding down because of a shortage of funds.

Savonlinna is not the only summer opera festival in Finland. The Ilmajoki Music Festival has established itself as a champion of regional folk opera derived from the history and tradition of southern Ostrobothnia. The most recent world premiere there was Lakeuksien lukko (Lock of the Plains) by Pekka Kostiainen, based on the novel by Artturi Leinonen.

A sparring partner to Savonlinna emerged in the town of Nilsiä in eastern Finland, where an open-air opera stage was built in an acoustically excellent abandoned quarry. Performances there have included The Magic Flute, Der Freischütz and Joonas Kokkonen’s Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptations). This festival has now folded, as grants from the local authority have not been forthcoming. Negotiations are currently under way to relocate the festival.

Individual opera projects are going on all the time and all over the place. In 2004, for example, the tiny village of Nivala in central Ostrobothnia mounted the world premiere of the opera Pula (The Shortage) by Ilkka Kuusisto, whose story is based on a local peasants’ civil disobedience movement in the 1930s. Local history was similarly featured in the form of a legendary local character in Jämsänkoski last summer with the premiere of the opera Hallin Janne by Jukka Linkola.

Opera out in the wild is a constant struggle for survival, as everyone faces the same narrow financial constraints. But the perseverance, volunteer contributions and constant innovation of free opera companies testify to a deep-set Finnish enthusiasm for opera: this is an art form that is truly alive, not just enjoyed in the palaces of the few.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Kokkola Opera production of Die Fledermaus. Photo: Esa Melametsä



Tampere Opera

Vaasa Opera

Kokkola Opera

Ooppera Skaala


Opera Pieno

Finnish Chamber Opera