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Juha Uusitalo’s rapid rise to the top - From piccolo to bass baritone

by Matti Tuomisto

Bass baritone Juha Uusitalo's ascent from flautist with the Finnish National Opera first onto the stage there and then that of the world's largest opera venue compares to the heroic tales of a number of Finnish conductors. Sometimes, it seems, there is no great difference between a player in the pit and an international star.

“I left my heart in San Francisco…” goes the old song. If things did not quite go that way for Juha Uusitalo, the city has at least become a familiar place to him. Michael Tilson Thomas invited Uusitalo as soloist in his orchestra in 2003. Since then he has appeared at the celebrated War Memorial Opera House on three occasions. 

Now he is back in Finland following a series of performances of Samson and Delilah, eight in all, with Uusitalo as The High Priest of Dagon.

“It’s an old production, dating back to 1982. On the first night Samson was sung by Plácido Domingo. This time the wonderful Olga Borodina was in the role of Delilah, and Patrick Summers was conducting. In 2005 I sang Don Pizarro in Fidelio there and in 2004 the title role in The Flying Dutchman,” says Uusitalo.

He is reluctant to rank the venerable San Francisco Opera above the young Los Angeles Opera. After all, Matti Salminen is singing the role of Rocco in Fidelio at Los Angeles, Karita Mattila is singing Jenufa there and Jorma Silvasti Stefa, in the same opera. Not to mention his own role there as Kurwenal in Tristan and Isolde.

We are sitting in Uusitalo’s artist’s room at Turku Concert Hall in Finland. He is still suffering from jet lag as the time difference is 10 hours. But work is in full swing – Uusitalo is making a disc of Christmas carols for Sony Finland with Atso Almila conducting the Turku Philharmonic. 

“It’s nice to be in Turku seeing that my first permanent job as a musician was with this same orchestra. I played flute here from 1992 to 1994. There are still a lot of familiar faces in the orchestra,” Uusitalo says with a smile.

Opera school accepts a flautist

Born in 1964, Juha Uusitalo lived as a child in the garrison area of Vaasa, in western Finland. He began playing the flute when he was 9. His first teacher was a musician with a military band. After attending the local Kuula College and then the Helsinki Conservatory, he became a pupil, first of Petri Alanko and then Matti Helín, at the Sibelius Academy, where he gained a diploma in flute in 1995.

That same year Uusitalo signed a contract as flautist with the Finnish National Opera, simultaneously applying to the Solo Voice and the Opera department (that time still a department of its own) of the Sibelius Academy.

“The tenor Tom Nyman coached me – he was the only singer I knew then. He promised to eat his hat if I didn’t get into the Solo Voice Department. Anyway, I didn’t. Instead, Pekka Salomaa, Professor of the Opera Department, took me under his wing,” says Uusitalo.

“Looking back that was a bit of luck for me. Studying to be a solo singer of songs would have been something of a barrier. My passion for singing was not quenched – it burned within when I got up on the stage, a place I had felt drawn to ever since I was a child.”

Part of the same score

Juha Uusitalo was having an exciting time of it. In the pit at the Finnish National Opera he was playing the same works he hoped he could soon perform on stage. He got to know the repertoire well – and the opera soloists.

“Playing in the orchestra developed my approach to chamber music. Now I feel I was terribly privileged being in the position of playing opera music from the top of the score as a piccolo player. This is how I came to understand that the work of a singer would never give me any special rights,” ponders Uusitalo.

He thinks that playing the flute and singing have a lot in common:

“I think about producing a phrase in the same way both as a flautist and as a singer. It is a matter of sound energy. The volume of air is not proportionate to the production of the sound. It is more a case of the oxygen from the air being a vital prerequisite for being able to produce the sound for a long time.”

“The easier it is to take in the oxygen the calmer and more robust is the music and the easier it is to get through an entire opera role: giving one’s all doesn’t lead to vocal and physical exhaustion on the last night.”

Regarding Luciano Pavarotti’s art, Uusitalo has always admired his joy, brilliance, and sheer ease of manner – that immense natural need to be a singer. Pavarotti was one of Uusitalo’s exemplars when he was playing flute.

“In my view there is no essential difference between a player and a singer, because both have to have the same pious approach to the end result. In opera the flautist and the singer are part and parcel of the same score.”

Rapid rise

When he began his opera studies at the Sibelius Academy at the age of 31, Juha Uusitalo was a fully trained musician, perfectly able to read music and follow the conductor’s baton. Although he lacked a singer’s training, his skills as a musician stood him in good stead and he made rapid progress.

“I am eternally grateful for being allowed to join Professor Pekka Salomaa’s brilliantly organised Opera Department. Abroad we were envied, as we had the Finnish National Opera’s former stage to practise and perform on, a real orchestra, a professional conductor, professional directors and professional set designers,” Uusitalo explains.

“At opera school I was on the stage right away in 1995. The role was Ivan, the bailiff in Bohuslav Martinu’s opera The Marriage. Two years later I sang Colline in La Bohème in Vaasa. My first roles at the National Opera were Angelotti in Tosca and Antonio in the Marriage of Figaro.”

Juhani Raiskinen, then head of the Finnish National Opera, and his assistant Heljä Angervo signed Juha Uusitalo up as a soloist with the Opera in 2000. He was 36 and had only been singing for five years.

“Raiskinen always said the stage was a sacrosanct place. He was an authority and a presence, and you could trust in his artistic judgment as General Director the same way you could the decisions taken by such figures as Sir Peter Jonas or Ioan Holländer,” remarks Uusitalo.

Flying Dutchman a signature role

Uusitalo glances through the long list of roles he has played at the National Opera. Most of them were rehearsed in just a short time for the first night of a revival production: (“Good God, how could I have done this?” he mutters.).

So playing the role of the Sherrif in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West was a real break – Uusitalo sang the part on the first night.

At the same time he was yearning for an international career.

“One of my stepping stones was the Tyrol Music Festival in 1999. The conductor Gustav Kuhn invited a totally unknown bass baritone from Finland to play the Wanderer in Siegfried. Arte Nova even made a live recording of it, which I would warmly recommend you to avoid listening to.”

The Flying Dutchman, a signature role for Uusitalo, who has now sung it in 11 productions – at the Bavarian State Opera, La Scala, and elsewhere – he first performed in 1998.

“Arnold Schrem directed the suitcase version of Dutchman in Freiberg in the former East Germany. We went on a bus tour of Austria, Germany and France with it. I’ll never forget the night before the premiere: there was a mix-up over the hotel booking and we were put in the main room of a boarding house where we slept in amongst the other residents.”

Stage presence

Juha Uusitalo has many qualities that make him an artist in very great demand on the world’s biggest opera stages: aptitude, a self-sacrificing approach to the job, a respect for his colleagues, a straight manner with none of the affectations of the diva – and of course a fantastically powerful and expressive voice, with a sonority which carries throughout the entire dynamic range.

On stage he also seems to be very much at home at every moment with the role he is playing. There is no Juha Uusitalo anymore – there is Wotan, Macbeth or Scarpia. How did he find such stage presence?

“A very important experience for me early on at the Sibelius Academy was the opera The Bear, composed by William Walton and based on a story by Anton Chekhov. It was directed by Jukka Rantanen, who is now working at the Finnish National Theatre. Under him we had a brief but very intensive course in acting,” says Uusitalo.

“In acting it’s supposed to be important for someone to abandon his own outlook on things and make way for the character in the drama. Whilst staying with what has been agreed with the director you also have to be creative. Control and freedom meet at the same point in time.

“When you can stop worrying on stage about vocal technique and thinking about musical theory or moving in time with the music on stage without noticing – all this opens a door to the opera stage as a spiritual home.”

Throwing himself into the part

Juha Uusitalo admires the veterans, like Zubin Mehta, Sir Colin Davis or James Levine – people who radiate an immense sense of awareness and serenity, as they have been brought up on music, and are still being nourished by it.

“Opera singing is unfortunately awash with diva culture, especially in countries like Italy, where the cult of the opera star has got out of all proportion. This is especially true when you realise that no performance of a role is ever really ready,” says Uusitalo. He goes on:

“Doing the role of the Dutchman repeatedly taught me that a singer can never do the job perfectly. The drama is in the music, in the composed phrases, and in the words. How could this be interpreted in rehearsals by just making notes? I feel the compulsion to put 100% into all the rehearsals. It’s not a question of volume so much as throwing yourself into the part. And there’ll be time enough to tweak the performance before the first night.”

Inspiration comes from the music

Ralf Långbacka’s direction of Verdi’s Macbeth is one of the most perfect productions in the history of the Savonlinna Opera Festival. In summer 2007 Juha Uusitalo gave a heart-rending performance in the title role: on the edge of a psychological precipice, Macbeth, the tyrant with a lust for power, manages to cling to the shreds of his humanity – his death spasms inspire pity in the audience, cruelly playing with the emotions.

Uusitalo says that the prime inspiration for a good opera production always comes from the music. The production will fail if it struggles against the music. He admits he is demanding, but he would actually like to know what a work is all about.

There is always controversy whenever a singer plays the same role, sometimes even at the same time, in different productions. There are differences in interpretation, phrasing, tempi, agogic expression, and the emphasis given to the text of the libretto.

And what do you do if the production is utterly awful? When Uusitalo was in London performing as soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre, Sir Colin Davis gave him the following advice: “Remember, Juha, however silly the production of an opera is and however ruined it is by its modernisation, the greatest passions are always in the music and they always help the performance to succeed – and if that happens the director gets all the thanks anyway.”

Busy internationally – quieter in Finland

Juha Uusitalo’s performance calendar is booked up for years ahead. But in Finland things are fairly quiet, even though the contract with the National Opera runs until 2012. This season he has just one role on the Finnish stage: Don Magnifico in Cinderella.

His collaboration with the Savonlinna Opera Festival ended, at least for a while, much to the annoyance of the public, when a relatively unknown Finnish conductor – Jari Hämäläinen – was appointed as its new Artistic Director. He is Director of Opera at the small Theater Pforzheim in Germany, where, during the 2007-08 season, there are some 40 opera nights or so and four works in all being performed.

Juha Uusitalo had been ready to sing at the Savonlinna Opera Festival until the year 2010, and he was pencilled in on the calendar for 2008 to sing in Rigoletto and The Flying Dutchman.

Rigoletto is now being sung by Jorma Hynninen – an excellent choice in Uusitalo’s opinion – and Dutchman by Jason Stearns, an up-and-coming American singer, although Uusitalo thinks it is important to stick to Finnish singers at the Savonlinna Festival:

“What makes Savonlinna such a splendid occasion has much to do with the fact that it has served as a springboard for many a young Finnish singer. Thanks to Savonlinna, I also made contact with the Metropolitan Opera, where I will be singing the part of John the Baptist in Salome in autumn 2008.”

The future: Vienna and the Met

Juha Uusitalo was one of the leading artists who dared to speak openly about the crisis in the Finnish National Opera which led to the resignation of its General Director Erkki Korhonen in the summer of 2007.

Juha Uusitalo rates the Finnish National Opera and its relaxed atmosphere highly, and would like to sing there more. But while the new management organisation is being worked out, Uusitalo is turning his attention to new challenges:

“I am really looking forward to starting the Vienna State Opera’s new Ring production. To play Wotan and the Wanderer in the footsteps of Hans Hotter and the other great names means much to me. My debut at the Metropolitan is also important.”

“I am also expecting a lot from the role of the Wanderer in Siegfried at Valencia’s Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía in spring 2008. In autumn the same year the production, conducted by Zubin Mehta, moves to Florence,” says Juha Uusitalo.

Translation: Spencer Allman
Featured photo: Heikki Tuuli