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Sounds of shadow and light

by Hanna Isolammi

Kaija Saariaho has composed a new opera, Only the Sound Remains, to be premiered in March. One of the significant roles is assigned to the kantele, an instrument never before used by Saariaho in her music. Playing kanteles of various sizes at the premiere will be Eija Kankaanranta, an artist known especially for her performances of contemporary music.

On March 15, a new stage work by Kaija Saariaho is to be premiered at Dutch National Opera. Called Only the Sound Remains, it consists of two short operas: Tsunemasa (Always Strong) and Hagoromo (The Feather Mantle). These two Japanese Nôh dramas were translated into English by Ezra Pound, and together they form a full-length opera. The stage director is Peter Sellars, who has worked with Saariaho for many years.

The first of the stories, Always Strong, is about a young lute player who died under violent circumstances. In life, his music was heavenly and erotic, but after death his ghost can find no happiness. In the story, his ghost returns to the temple, where a priest performs a memorial ceremony on his lute. Touching the lute makes the ghost happy, but it then has to return to the other world. Only the sound remains.

The other story, The Feather Mantle, tells of a fisherman who finds a feather robe belonging to an angel. The fisherman promises to give the mantle back if the angel will dance for him, but the angel says it cannot dance without its robe. The fisherman finally returns the robe to the angel, who dances heavenly dances, gradually rising and vanishing. Only the sound remains.


Subtle shift from shadow to light

The opera is scored for a small ensemble – just two singers, a dancer, a vocal ensemble of four, and seven musicians. Counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky takes the leading role in both stories, and bass-baritone Davone Tines the other. Acting as the chorus is the Nederlands Kammerkoor’s vocal quartet, and the dancer in The Feather Mantle is Nora Kimball-Mentzos. The instrumental ensemble is also small; the Dudok String Quartet, Eija Kankaanranta (kanteles), Camilla Hoitenga (flutes) and Niek KleinJan (percussion). The conductor is André de Ridder and the sound designer is Christophe Lebreton, and the light designer is James F. Ingalls.

Camilla Hoitenga is excited about the new opera. She has been Saariaho’s trusted flutist for a long time now, and has performed, premiered and recorded several flute works by her. “Kaija’s writing for the flute is very particular. In fact, she’s brilliant at creating fantastic sounds and timbres with many different instruments,” she enthuses. “Only the Sound Remains is once again proof of her masterly work.”

Real-time sound processing and electronics are an integral element of Only the Sound Remains. Saariaho says in the opera’s trailer that she used electronics to achieve “a kind of surround effect, but very refined”. Light and shadow are also very important elements of both the visual image and the music. The opening Tsunemasa is more sombre in mood and visual design, while The Feather Mantle is light and airy.


The beauty and charm of the kantele

A growing volume of music has been composed for the kantele from the 1980s onwards. Many Finnish and some foreign composers have explored its potential for incorporating electronics and extended playing techniques. But until Only the Sound Remains, Kaija Saariaho had never written anything for it.

In an interview with Clément Mao-Takacs she said, “Two things led me to include it in the ensemble for Only the Sound Remains. In my third opera, Émilie, I added a harpsichord to the ensemble and it brought a special flavour to the identity and instrumental colours of the work. It was inspiring to use it with amplification and electronics. So I wanted to continue this experience with the kantele, to explore it more extensively.” Also, she said, the kantele may be considered a Finnish version of the Japanese koto, which in turn fits in with the opera’s tales.

“Of course, the sound is fragile, but that’s precisely a part of the beauty and charm of the instrument.”

In the Dutch production of Only the Sound Remains, the kantele is played by Eija Kankaanranta, an artist who specialises in contemporary music. She has worked before with Saariaho periodically, trying out ways of exploiting the instrument’s sound. She also made some sound demos and worked with the composer and the sound designer beforehand in Lyon and Amsterdam. The voice of countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, in particular, is also processed by means of live electronics.

Eija Kankaanranta plays six kanteles in the opera. In addition to a 39-string concert instrument, there are five others made expressly for the production: two with 15 strings tuned to Saariaho’s specifications, two with five strings and one bass kantele with five.

The parts are, according to Eija Kankaanranta, surprisingly idiomatic, considering how unfamiliar with the instrument Saariaho was at the outset. “The music of the opera is both beautiful and powerfully expressive – I could say that being involved in a production such as this is a dream come true!”

World Premiere: March 15, 2016 Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

US Premiere: June 10, 2016 Ojai Music Festival, Ojai, CA, USA

Translation: Susan Sinisalo

Photo: Ruth Walz