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Singing for a changed world

by Andrew Mellor

As the Mirjam Helin Competition in Helsinki names its winners, what awaits the next generation of singers who are hoping to repeat the success of their forbears – or simply earn a living? We assess their options and opportunities with the help of two established professionals.

There’s a well-worn saying in Finland: “you will learn, once you get to Siberia.” Euphoria, adrenalin and champagne will carry the victors of the 2019 Mirjam Helin Competition through the hours of celebration that will follow the Grand Final on 29 May. Then they will face the loneliest and most challenging prospect of all: forging a career in the face of huge expectations. “When your reputation is made quickly, you have to find a way of surviving and fast,” observes the Finnish soprano and laureate of the Kangasniemi Competition, Tuuli Lindeberg. Welcome to Siberia.

The jury’s chosen winners face a very different professional landscape to that in which Mirjam Helin struggled to forge a career in the face of prejudice. After Helin initiated her competition in 1981, the Finnish opera scene matured and then exploded. What exists now is an ecosystem more fractured but also more fertile than ever.

For starters, the major institutions no longer wield all the hiring power following the emergence of a vibrant fringe and the prevalence of community performance. The growth of early music ensembles, a sharpening of choral stylistics and a renewed interest in lieder all mean singers have serious options outside the bastions of opera. In Finland as in Europe as a whole, Siberia may have warmed up. But it has also become harder to navigate. 

An evolving scene

The Finnish National Opera (FNO) came of age in 1993 when it moved into a palatial new home on the edge of Töölönlahti Bay. Finnish opera experienced its first boom, but in the last decade the operating model has shifted. The ensemble of vocal soloists, which numbered 30 in 1997, has been wound down to eight and the theatre is quieter than it once was. 

It’s a moot point whether that constitutes a “shift” rather than a decline. The ensemble system is notoriously tricky to maintain in an age of operatic globalization, when many of the big names in Finnish opera work abroad but discerning audiences in Helsinki still want to hear them (and others, too). A more innovative, relevant form of theatre has attracted the likes of Esa-Pekka Salonen to the orchestra pit. If the FNO is ahead of the curve, the one group that has stood to miss out is local soloists hungry for a long-term contract.

“Most young singers in Finland will never get an opportunity to sing at the FNO, or at least can’t rely on getting a role there more than once every six years or so,” says Lindeberg, who has appeared on the company’s stage in Britten’s Peter Grimes and Kaija Saariaho's Only the Sound Remains. “The Scandinavian countries have several professional opera houses each. That is not the case in Finland.”

Finland, however, has something different. After the first opera boom of the nineties, a second and rather different one has materialized. Fringe opera has sprung up in the FNO’s former home, the Alexander Theatre on Bulevardi, where two separate operatic start-ups – Helsinki Opera and Opera Box – have already presented shows on the main stage this year alone (including the first staging Fredrik Pacius’s Die Loreley for 130 years).  Liisamaija Hautsalo outlined the frenetic and unprecedented pace at which new opera is being created in Finland in a 2018 article for FMQ. It is striking how much of the activity she cited happens away from traditional theatres: in churches, kindergartens, schools, forests, bars, clubs and even on the internet.

“Small scale opera is booming in Helsinki, from what I have noticed,” says Arttu Kataja, a Finnish bass-baritone who now treads the boards of the Berlin Staatsoper as a member of the soloists’ ensemble. It’s not just in Helsinki. Fringe opera companies have sprung up in Kuopio, Joensuu, Pori and Vaasa. “My feeling is that because of this boom, there are more opportunities in Finland now, for experienced singers as well as younger ones,” says Kataja. “But of course, you still have to go and win an audition.”

Arttu Kataja C Markus Henttonen
Arttu Kataja
Photo: Markus Henttonen

Uncertainty or opportunity?

Winning an audition does not equate to being handed a career, or even starting one. “I can only imagine that bouncing from production to production and from company to company is insecure and stressful,” says Kataja. The money isn’t brilliant, either.

But the development represents less of a disintegration of Finland’s musical ecosystem, and more of a reflection of general European economic trends. Millennial professionals are far more likely to adopt so-called “portfolio careers” that combine a number of strands within their chosen discipline. You may not get the same holiday pay, sick pay and job security. But many, notably young parents and those in the creative industries, appreciate the flexibility of being able to take time out whenever they want. The trend has been thrown into sharp focus by the UK opera scene, where a new professional model has emerged. Britain’s very different kind of opera boom has seen an explosion in summer festivals, bringing a sudden glut of contracts to the market from April to August and forcing singers to diversify for the rest of the year.

When Lindeberg completed her Masters Degree at the Sibelius Academy, she was, as she recalls, “totally lost, artistically and technically”. But she had a strategy, even if existed to some degree in her subconscious. In identifying simply as a “musician” rather than a solo singer, she forged a career inside Finland that can still be considered pioneering in its versatility and breadth. She sang in professional chamber choirs, and with good advice, honed “a reliable instrument for professional use” with a specialism in baroque repertoire.

The clarity of her instrument soon brought her to the attention of composers who needed new works performing. “I built up a good network of colleagues – instrumentalists, festival directors, composers and concertmasters – and decided to focus on working in Finland. I started a family right after I graduated; I had made a conscious choice that the life of an international opera singer was not an option.”

Lindeberg, who now underpins a rich portfolio of paid activities with a teaching post at the Sibelius Academy, has an archetype portfolio career. It may not have been planned, but nor did it come about entirely by accident. “As a freelancer, you have to be aware of your strengths and you need to be your own guardian,” she says. “That means knowing what repertoire will work with your voice and knowing when to say no. There will be people who will ask you to sing Wagner at a time when you might not know where your borders lie.”

Knowing where one’s borders lie is a trickier prospect than it has ever been for singers. The idea of operatic fach – specific voice types matching specific repertoire – is eroding fast. New theatrical priorities and a liberating dissolving of genre boundaries means versatility is now as valuable a commodity as expertise – even more pertinent if the market means you sing opera for five months a year and other repertoire for seven.

That doesn’t negate any of Lindeberg’s advice. “I certainly gained expert knowledge in early and contemporary music performance, exploring extended vocal techniques and that sort of things,” she says. “But more important has been thinking about presenting music rhetorically across all styles – how to perform in a concert environment in a way that is touching, moving and bigger than life. I worry that specialising in a particular fach or focusing on your voice type, you might well disappear. There will always be singers of the same voice type coming up to compete and sooner or later they’ll start getting younger than you.”

“I certainly gained expert knowledge in early and contemporary music performance, exploring extended vocal techniques and that sort of things. But more important has been thinking about presenting music rhetorically across all styles."
Tuuli Lindeberg

Finding your voice

Besides, becoming a singer is a lifelong journey. “Getting to know your instrument and developing your technique never really ends,” says Lindeberg. She may have bravely gone it alone. But her colleague Arttu Kataja trod a different path, moving to Germany to join a traditional operatic ensemble.

“It was not my intention to leave Finland,” Kataja says of his departure 13 years ago, “On the other hand, I didn’t want to limit my career or my singing to Finland. Germany is really a country of music theatre; joining an ensemble there is an excellent way to learn how music theatre works.”

Like many young singers, Kataja knew even then that he had years of vocal exploration ahead of him. “Nobody’s voice has fully developed at 25 – this is a fact. Yes, if you know what you want to sing and what works, it can help you sell yourself. But personally my voice never fitted into a clear type and in a way, it still doesn’t – I slide from high baritone to bass. I thought it was a problem once but I see now that this versatility has been a blessing.”

While learning theatrical skills in the ensemble of the Berlin Staatsoper, Kataja was pushed through a huge range of roles – low and high, big and small. “The first thing you learn is the German language, which is essential for an opera career. You gain so much repertoire, singing in up to 15 productions a season. You get on stage three times a week. You spend time with singers, sometimes truly great ones, who are more experienced than you. You watch and listen to them every day. It certainly doesn’t harm anyone to be in an ensemble. Musically speaking, I grew up there.”

Kataja’s contract allows him to return to Finland to sing concert repertoire with orchestras and to take the occasional role with Tampere Opera. But his voice embodies the idea that to be assigned a fach and stick to it is becoming futile for all but the most gifted Lise Davidsens of this world. As Finland’s early music scene has blossomed and baroque operas have seeped into the repertoire of the FNO and others, will the opera singers who get the work will be the ones, like Joyce DiDonato or Patricia Petibon, who can not only act but manage their Handel alongside their Humperdinck?

Maybe. But that still leaves the problem of knowing just how well you can manage either of those: an awareness of the fact that, as the artist in question, you might not be best positioned to judge. “I was lucky, I had several people who listened to me and commented on my voice throughout my career and still do,” says Kataja. “But it’s as much about encouragement as cautioning. Sometimes you need a push, someone to give you the courage to go around the next corner. I needed that even though I have been relatively independent and have mostly trusted my own musicality.”

The right guidance at an early stage was pivotal for Lindeberg. “I found the right teacher who said the important things to me in the right way. Remember that a teacher who is good for one type of singer may not be good for another; you need someone who has the right kind of ears for you.” Now on the other side of the exchange in her role at the Sibelius Academy, she holds the process in the same high esteem. “I enjoy the dialogue. We are formulating more than technical things: ideas about repertoire, the relevance of this profession to people and even the meaning of life. It’s important to have someone you can ask even the stupid questions.”


Out into the world

Once all that is passed, Siberia beckons – for the sufficiently talented, anyway. “As long as you’re still studying, you’re in a safe environment,” says Lindeberg. “Once you enter the professional world, you will have to survive mentally, vocally, financially and artistically which will require a lot of work and some luck.”

But despondency kills ambition. Finland’s opera scene may have changed and it may be more precarious. But it is clearly more fertile, versatile and opportunistic than it ever was. Big beasts like the FNO and the Savonlinna Festival cannot help but be stimulated by the innovation and imagination of Finland’s new operatic fringe. Meanwhile, Finns are just as likely to take their talents abroad while Finnish audience are apparently hungrier than ever to listen to visitors.

Add to that the country’s rapidly maturing early music community, its continuing preeminence in contemporary music and its still unrivalled network of regional orchestras, and there is opportunity aplenty for singers fresh on the scene who have versatility and curiosity in their character. Some might even fancy initiating an operatic start-up of their own. All, however, should follow one takeaway piece of advice from Arttu Kataja:

“Find work, get on stage, and keep singing.” 

Featured photo: Tuuli Lindeberg at the Aino Ackté villa in 2017. Photo: Heikki Tuuli.

Jussi Juola C Heikkituuli
Jussi Juola
Photo: Heikki Tuuli

After Helin: contestants on their hopes for the future

Among the 47 singers participating in the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competitions 2019 there were three Finns: Jussi Juola, Virva Puumala and Henri Tikkanen. 

Jussi Juola, bass-baritone 

How was the competition experience so far?
I was actually pretty relaxed, partly because it was organized so well which meant we had plenty of time in between performances. I tried to approach the first rounds as if they were just concerts – focusing on the music. 

Do you prefer a particular form of vocal music?
I very much like the lied repertoire. But my dream would be to sing one third opera, one third lieder, and one third concert/oratorio in a year. Opera would certainly be in there though – baroque opera, Mozart, maybe Wagner. 

Where will you be in a year?
After this summer I will audition at some medium-sized theatres and see what comes from that. I don’t care so much where I live. If there are people I like then it’s home for me – Finland, Germany, France, UK…wherever.

Jussi Juola is one of the soloists at the Oulu Music Festival 2020.

Virva Puumala, soprano

What made you start singing?
I was training in music pedagogy, with singing included, and my teacher suggested I go and study singing as a profession. I agreed, as I find singing came very naturally and easily for me – despite lots of practice.

How would you describe your voice?
I started singing quite late, only five years ago. So yes, there have been so many changes. At this time I feel like a lyric soprano. Mozart and lighter Puccini roles are very singable for me. 

Do you have a career plan?
Not yet! Of course I would like to perform roles like La contessa or Fiordiligi and I would go abroad if there was an opportunity. But in Finland more opera companies are arranging productions, which gives more chances for us young singers to work as professionals within a group. That is really good. 

Henri Tikkanen, bass

How did you discover opera?
I heard some opera on the radio. I didn’t know what it was, but it felt really touching. It stayed with me for years and I tried to follow it. 

Is your voice still developing?
My voice is certainly quite different now from 2 year ago. It used to be this light lyric baritone but it is definitely going towards more of a Germanic tone, gradually. We will see what the future brings. 

What is next for you after the Helin competition?
I will be applying to opera studios in Germany and Europe in general. I will see what comes from that. The best case scenario is to get into a studio, to work with stars and learn from really good teachers, repetiteurs and directors. 

The final round of the Helin competition will take place on Wednesday, 29 May in Helsinki. The finalists are:

Teaa An, mezzo-soprano
Stefan Astakhov, baritone
Olga Cheremnykh, soprano
Jussi Juola, bass
Palesa Malieloa, soprano
Bryan Murray, baritone
Rodrigo Sosa Dal Pozzo, countertenor
Johanna Wallroth, soprano

Read more about the competition in FMQ's article Payback time: Mirjam Helin and the art of singing.

The competition final will be live broadcast at Yle Areena here on Wednesday 29 May at 6.25 PM EEST: