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Librettists in tune with the times

by Kimmo Korhonen

Themes in Finnish opera gradually became more diverse and international after the first opera boom in the early 20th century, when topics were primarily national. Opera became the scene of national aspirations in the 19th century. In many countries, not least its homeland, Italy, it was a means of expressing national ideals and of stressing unity. It was as much an item in political debate as drama and literature, and sometimes even more so.

Themes in Finnish opera gradually became more diverse and international after the first opera boom in the early 20th century, when topics were primarily national.

Opera became the scene of national aspirations in the 19th century. In many countries, not least its homeland, Italy, it was a means of expressing national ideals and of stressing unity. It was as much an item in political debate as drama and literature, and sometimes even more so.

Finland jumped onto the bandwagon later than many European countries, the main reason being that operatic culture was in general slow to evolve here. Only the occasional opera saw the light of day in 19th century Finland, and of these the best known (Kung Karls jakt, The Hunt of King Charles, 1852) was by a German composer, Fredrik Pacius, who had settled in Finland only as an adult. Its topic – Finnish loyalty to the Swedish King – can be interpreted from a nationalist perspective, but the opera was to remain an isolated phenomenon. In his second opera, Die Loreley (1887), Pacius turned his gaze on German mythology.

The first real boom in Finnish opera did not dawn until the start of the 20th century. Only then did operas begin to be written in any number, and the emphasis was on national themes. Almost all these operas were set in a Finnish environment, sometimes in a particular period in Finnish history, and their topics were often drawn from Finnish literature. None of them could yet be said to have an international or supranational subject and libretto. “International” in this context refers on the one hand to an opera with a libretto based on international literature or some other international source, and on the other to an opera by a Finnish librettist set outside Finland and with a topic unconnected with the country.

Great national line

Heralding the first wave of Finnish operas was Aino (1909) by Erkki Melartin. As in Armas Launis’s Kullervo (1917), the subject is taken from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. Other major first-wave operas were Selim Palmgren’s Daniel Hjort (1910) and Launis’s Seitsemän Veljestä (The Seven Brothers, 1913), both based on Finnish literary classics, and Oskar Merikanto’s Elinan surma (The Death of Elina, 1910), after a Finnish play. Daniel Hjort was the only one of these originally composed to a libretto in Swedish, Finland’s second official language, though Palmgren later produced a Finnish version.

The subjects of Aarre Merikanto’s Modernistic Juha (1922) and Leevi Madetoja’s more traditional Pohjalaiset (The Ostrobothnians, 1923), both masterpieces of 1920s Finnish opera, are again deeply rooted in Finland. The third great work of that decade, Launis’s Aslak Hetta (1922-30), is already beginning to look further afield, being set in Norwegian Lapland. Launis does, however, view his theme – dealing with the indigenous Sami of the Arctic region – from a Finnish perspective.

National origins continued to be a primary feature of the librettos and subjects of Finnish operas in the next few decades, too, with only few exceptions. Most of all the great national line in Finnish opera has, perhaps, been emphasised by the reliance on Finnish topics of the operas that set in motion the great “opera boom” of the 1970s. In a way these works – Joonas Kokkonen’s Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptations, 1975), and Aulis Sallinen’s Ratsumies (The Horseman, 1974) and Punainen viiva (The Red Line, 1978) – recreated a national school of opera.

The national nature of Kokkonen’s and Sallinen’s operas began to arouse debate when The Last Temptations and The Red Line won international acclaim on tour with the Finnish National Opera. The younger generation of composers criticised the operas’ nationalist origins and their easily accessible neo- or atonal idiom. Was their focus on the past what Finland really wanted to show the world, they asked. These and others like them became branded karvalakki (fur hat) operas.

Meanwhile, the terms “national” and “international” were the topics of deep-going debate, and were found to be artificial. An opera on a “national” topic can, of course, still be “international” in impact.

The Finnish operas on national themes have analysed both historical events and individuals, and all may be universal art. The triangle drama, for example, so common in opera, may mean the same the world over. Or it may acquire national overtones, as in both Merikanto’s and Madetoja’s Juha, both drawing on a libretto by the Finnish opera diva Aino Ackté (1876-1944), for the nationality of the characters in this triangle drama is of vital importance: Juha is Finnish, his wife Marja wavers between her Karelian origins and her Finnish way of life, and Shemeikka the seducer is Karelian.

The composers of the Finnish operas of the early 20th century had a clear motive in choosing a national topic: to mould and emphasise a specifically Finnish identity in a country that had been subject first to Swedish and later to Russian rule, and after the nation gained political independence in 1917 to strengthen and establish that identity. They may even have felt an unwritten obligation to favour nationalist themes.

Broader horizons

The transition to librettos based on an international subject or text was far from rapid. Early in the second decade of the 20th century Palmgren tried to compose a couple of operas to librettos in German – clearly in the hope of reaching an international audience – but they never reached fruition. One early example was Emil Kauppi’s Päiväkummun pidot (The Feast at Solhaug, 1922), which though based on the play by Ibsen has remained no more than a curiosity. Väinö Raitio, one of the leading Finnish Modernists of his day, experimented with international subjects in Jeftan tytär (Jephtha’s Daughter, 1929), Lyydian Kuningas (The King of Lydia, 1937) and Kaksi kuningatarta (The Two Queens, 1940), but again they have not found a place in the permanent repertoire. Armas Launis’s interesting Jehudith (1940) is set in an Arab nomad environment but has never yet been performed.

Also experimenting with international topics was Tauno Pylkkänen. Some of his operas are set in Estonia and based on texts by the Finnish writer Aino Kallas; hence they are only semi-removed from their national context. By contrast, his one-act operas Varjo (The Shadow, 1954) and Vangit (The Prisoners, 1964) are pan-European in subject. Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Kaivos (The Mine, 1963), dating from the same era, is likewise pan-European.

Finnish operas did not begin to advance significantly on a wider front until the 1980s. Examples here are some of those by Sallinen (Kuningas lähtee Ranskaan, The King Goes Forth To France, 1983; Palatsi (The Palace, 1993; Kuningas Lear, King Lear, 1999), Paavo Heininen (Silkkirumpu, The Damask Drum, 1983), Olli Kortekangas (Grand Hotel, 1985), Rautavaara (Vincent, 1987), Kalevi Aho (Hyönteiselämää, Insect Life, 1987), Erik Bergman (Det sjungande trädet, The Singing Tree1988), Herman Rechberger (Laurentius, 1991), Ilkka Kuusisto (Fröken Julie, Miss Julie 1993) and many others.

For practical reasons the texts even of these operas are usually translated into Finnish – hence their international dimension may seem less obvious. In other words they have, in a way, been adapted to Finnish conditions and composed specifically for Finnish stages. One of the few exceptions is Rechberger’s Laurentius, which has a libretto in Latin.

Rechberger’s Laurentius is about the second-century martyr St Lawrence and is thus a religious work. There have also been a few other Finnish operas on religious and hence “international” topics, most notably perhaps Kari Tikka’s Luther (2000), covering the life and thoughts of the great Reformer Martin Luther.

In a class all of her own is Kaija Saariaho, who now lives in Paris and has composed both her operas (L’amour de loin, 2000 and Adriana Mater, 2005) to librettos in French by Lebanese-French Amin Maalouf. Through her work she is, however, a cosmopolitan just as much as a Finnish figure. Sallinen is another of the few Finnish composers who have looked abroad for a librettist or writer, and then only in The Palace, the libretto of which is by two Germans, Irene Dische and Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

The disinclination of the early Finnish opera composers to look about for international topics may, of course, be interpreted as an indication of the richness of the Finnish subsoil. It is, however, more probably a sign of a certain introversion, of an inward-looking mental climate. It may also spring from a desire to pander to public taste, either real or imaginary. Perhaps this is why composers still actively favour librettos exploring the nation’s history and the Finnish mindscape, and it is only natural that they should do so in developing Finnish opera and their own mode of expression. The growing use of international topics nevertheless signifies a more genuine wish to become part of the international opera community, a certain artistic and spiritual maturity.

And maybe it is a more profound reflection of the change in the Finnish mindset beginning in the 1980s, a psychological unfolding to the world.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo