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Olli Kortekangas composes a celebratory opera

by Samuli Tiikkaja

“Opera comes into its own when it presents the big emotions of ordinary people,” says composer Olli Kortekangas. “In opera you can say a lot about a certain time and the events that took place during it.” His opera Daddy’s Girl, which is to be premiered at Savonlinna in July, traces the history of Finnish independence.

Olli Kortekangas is above all an opera composer. He has been writing operas throughout his career, but his reputation in this area has particularly grown with the major projects he has been involved in in recent years.

Certainly the largest-scale opera he has written is his latest, Daddy’s Girl, which is to have its first performance at the Savonlinna Opera Festival this summer. Before that came Messenius and Lucia, written to celebrate the City of Oulu’s 400th anniversary, and Maria’s Love, which formed part of a trilogy of operas by three composers called The Age of Dreams.

What has happened to Finnish values?

Like Messenius and Lucia, Daddy’s Girl is a celebratory opera. It was originally commissioned by the Savonlinna Opera Festival to mark 40 years of the Festival’s existence in its present form. But another commissioning body emerged, the Finnish Parliament, which wants to use Kortekangas’ opera to celebrate its centenary.

The two organisations commissioning the opera did not wish to impose their views regarding its content: the sole condition was that the subject matter should be linked in some way to the history of Finnish independence. For the composer this worked. Kortekangas himself suggested that he himself should be secondary librettist, proposing a collaboration with Michael Baran, playwright and producer with the Finnish National Theatre.

“At first Michael and I considered using some existing plays or novels as a basis for the text. Gradually, though, we realised we were talking more and more about values and the way they have changed. Finnish society is more affluent than ever before and we are better off in a lot of ways compared to the 50s or 60s, for example. But we have bread queues and there is a general feeling of a split in society. What has happened to our values – can we not all live together?” Kortekangas and Baran wanted to examine this theme in greater depth, so they decided to write the libretto from scratch.

Revolt and the generation gap

The libretto describes a series of events occurring over 50 years, from the middle of the last century up till the present day. The opera portrays the material and spiritual developments, political turmoil and conflicts and confrontations between different generations which have taken place during this time.

“Everybody with children or who remember what it was like to be young knows that different generations have to take the measure of one another. In our opera too the different generations confront each other and then are reconciled with one another once more,” says Kortekangas. Urho, the father of the opera’s main character, Anna, has died in the war. All Anna has left to remember him by are a letter and a photograph, and she turns to the letter’s wise words for solace at different stages of her life. The main theme of Daddy’s Girl is the relationship between Anna and her parents.

The presence of the mother character, Siiri, throughout the opera is in fact a symbol of the history of Finland as an independent nation, because she can be assumed to have been born in 1917, during Finland’s process of independence. “In the opera Siiri is like the Maiden of Finland [national personification of the country], and she is involved in the events that take place from start to finish.” The daughter, Anna, belongs to that unprecedentedly huge generation of people born immediately after the war who found their place in society in the 60s and 70s by moving politically to the left. This radical left-wingism was interpreted as an extreme kind of revolt against the preceding generation, a large number of whose men lost their lives fighting in wars against the Soviet Union.

In Daddy’s Girl too Anna becomes radicalised – much to her mother’s grief. Anna and her generation are seen as insulting the memory of their fathers through their open admiration of the Soviet Union. Later on Anna’s daughter, Vera, starts working in the finance sector and relishes her yuppie lifestyle at the end of the 1980s. Once again this is a clear break from the values of the previous generation.

Recollections of the leftist movement

When they were writing the libretto, Kortekangas and Baran focused closely on changes in values and conflicts in society.

“Although there are obviously a lot of characters in Daddy’s Girl – people – I think that this is also an opera about values. In a way, values function here as characters in their own right, and the opera describes how they have taken shape, conflicted and existed side by side in the last 50 years.”

Kortekangas was born in 1955 and was therefore too young to participate in the student movements of the 60s, though in the following decade he did get interested in left-wing ideas. “At the time there were political rumblings in the schools and I was interested. I had an affinity with the ‘general democrats’, but I could not accept the supremacy of the Taistoists, and so my enthusiasm for politics soon waned,” he says.

Taistoism was an extreme – at and the same time very vociferous – movement within the Finnish left-wing political scene. The Taistoists admired the Soviet Union and wanted to make Finland a communist society. The general democrats, on the other hand, were rather more moderate. The age of the radical left is also portrayed in the scene in Daddy’s girl which is set at the end of the 60s. “I can very well remember the slogans that were shouted at the time. The song of political agitation associated with the Taistoist movement in the scene seemed to come naturally. (More on the left-wing movement and music in the 1970s ‘The singing revolution'.)

The strong grip of modernism

Ultimately, politics was not a priority in Olli Kortekangas’ personal life. He had taken an interest in music from a young age and started composing whilst still at school. He took private lessons with Einojuhani Rautavaara, and continued to study under him when he entered the Sibelius Academy. “It was a kind of artistic father-son relationship,” muses Kortekangas. “It was only decades later that I came to realise how important some of the things that Rautavaara taught me were.”

Kortekangas also studied under Eero Hämeenniemi at the Sibelius Academy. “Hämeenniemi was actually my teacher of theory, but we covered so many aspects of composition that I also want to include him as one of my teachers of composition,” remarks Kortekangas.

Kortekangas and Hämeenniemi were also involved in founding the Ears Open association in 1977. Kortekangas fitted in splendidly with a group which spoke strongly for modernist tendencies, though even then he was composing in a broad range of styles.

Either way, modernism was still very much on the agenda with Dieter Schnebel, whose pupil Kortekangas became in West Berlin from 1981 to 1982. Under him Kortekangas says he succeeded in fine-tuning his composer’s skills. “Through Schnebel I also came into direct contact with 1950s modernism and the Darmstadt School.”

Vocal music as a vocation

Despite this background, Kortekankangas did not become an arch-modernist composer – his music reveals a wide range of influences. His early pieces were the closest in style to the dissonance of modernism, although even then he also wanted to bring something different to the complex textures. Kortekangas himself says that the harsh sounds he produced then were often accompanied by a simplicity of musical structure. His early works were also influenced by minimalism and postmodernism.

Crucial to Kortekangas’ stylistic development has been his own background as a choral singer, which has led to collaborations with a good number of choirs and, consequently, an emphasis on vocal music in his output. “I think that my experience with choirs has meant that I tend to think fairly linearly in music. I try to focus on individual parts and produce something meaningful and logical with them – though obviously not losing sight of the vertical aspect – harmony, that is.”

Over the last ten years Kortekangas has also written more instrumental music than before. In particular, he has worked with the Oulu Sinfonia, whose composer-in-residence he was invited to become in 1997. Major opera projects in recent years have of necessity taken up most of his time, though that hardly bothers him at least: in the operas vocal and instrumental music make for a balanced combination. The collaboration between Kortekangas and the Oulu Sinfonia in Messenius and Lucia bore fruit especially: it had been one of the composer’s most colourful works up until that time.

Inspiration from other art forms

Daddy’s Girl, Kortekangas’ sixth opera, is typical of the composer in the sense that in the opera he explores the similarities between music and other art forms. Actually, in this opera the references to other art forms may not be as obvious as in, for example, his surrealist television opera Grand Hotel (1985) or the Book of Jonah (1995), whose set designs were created before the libretto was even thought about.

In his first opera, the small scale work Short Story, which appeared in 1980, Kortekangas was perhaps at his most experimental. He devised an artificial language for the libretto, one based on the names of different varieties of rose.

As his career as a composer has progressed Kortekangas has got ever closer to conventional opera, in terms of musical idiom, subject matter and libretto. Different art forms are nevertheless also present in his latest output.

His two most recent operas, Messenius and Lucia and Daddy’s Girl, feature imagery that forms a bridge between the past and the present. In the action on stage this is achieved by someone in a photograph metamorphosing into a real live person, who becomes one of the characters in the opera.

“I am interested in two- and three-dimensional relationships or the conflict between them. In visual art I notice I focus my attention on the relief-like properties of paintings, such as the thickness of the paint or the scoring of the surface, which give a painting its depth.”

The visual imagery in Kortekangas’s operas also allows for another kind of stereoscopic effect: it is possible to move from one period in time to another naturally, the overlapping of spans of time being central to the events in Messenius and Lucia and Daddy’s Girl. The action in Daddy’s Girl is set over a few days in the summer of 1997 with flashbacks to 1956, 1968, 1981 and 1992. The epilogue brings the story into the present, the summer of 2007. The photo of the father and the appearance of his ghost in Anna’s life is one way of resolving the problem of how to realise the transitions between periods of time and control how they overlap.

Opera likened to film

Olli Kortekangas is a passionate film buff, which is very apparent when he talks about the structure and theatrical aspects of Daddy’s Girl. “For example, the crucial event in the scene set in 1981 is the breakdown of Anna’s marriage to Axel. This is, more than anything, a situation happening between two people, in which the opera’s theme of values is focused at the level of the individual. It is not a wide-angle view: it is an intense and intimate close-up.”

In contrast, the angle of view in the other scenes is considerably wider, evident in the melodrama and treatment of the opera’s basic themes in the crowd scenes. “The size and movement of the crowd largely determine the scale of the scene,” reflects Kortekangas. “On the other hand, in the big scenes it is possible to zoom in on a certain character using lights.”

Lighting will have a major role in the creation of the sets in Daddy’s Girl, because on the stage constructed in the old castle yard of Olavinlinna (St Olaf’s) Castle swift set changes are not possible in the same way as in modern opera houses. Mikki Kunttu, the lighting designer who is well known for his collaborations with the dancer Tero Saarinen, is responsible for the set and lighting arrangements for Daddy’s Girl.

“What I think is essential is that the opera allows for both close-ups and the broader perspective,” says Olli Kortekangas. “Of course that also happens in novels and visual art, but it moves me most in the cinema, theatre and opera, where there are real people before us.”

“The treatment of profound and wide-ranging themes via individual people interests me. And in film and opera you can make quick cuts, at the same time preserving credibility. In opera, for example, a chorus is an excellent medium for this: one moment it can play a strong role in the drama and the next mutate into an abstract element functioning as a sort of sounding board for the main action.”

However, although Kortekangas sees a lot of similarities between opera and film, but there is something in opera which for him places it above all other art forms. “The human voice. That to me is the fundamental reason why I am an opera composer. Opera can draw from many art forms, but in the end everyone’s attention is on the human voice: it causes goose pimples and draws tears. When the big emotions of ordinary people are channelled via the human voice, the experience is complete.”

Translation: Spencer Allman

Composer Olli Kortekangas:
Daddy’s Girl at the Savonlinna Opera Festival: