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Success comes through collaboration

by Amanda Kauranne

Helena Juntunen, one of Finland’s most sought-after opera singers, appears in a variety of roles and concert productions with many ensembles, but her busy freelancer’s schedule will be replaced by maternity leave in October.

Helena Juntunen has a versatile and sensitive soprano voice that has dazzled audiences in Finland and abroad, for instance as Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and in the title-role in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. In autumn 2015, she is appearing in the title-role in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea in a production staged by the Finnish Chamber Opera in Helsinki.

“A singer’s work is made up of repertoire planning, rehearsing, performing and travelling to performances. In fact, travel is a very large part of the job,” says Helena Juntunen, whose working time is about equally divided between Finland and abroad.

Singing for a paying audience is where the money is

“The overwhelming majority of my income, 98%, comes from performance fees – those evenings when I am singing to a paying audience. In the world of opera, no one pays anything for rehearsals; soloists are always engaged on a performance-fee basis,” says Juntunen. “A performance fee may seem like a lot of money considered as a lump sum, but if you factor in the hours spent rehearsing over a period of, say, three months, possibly including hiring a pianist and/or a language coach, the pay per hour is not that spectacular,” she explains.

For a typical engagement, she will first have to learn the role and the music at home, book flights and find accommodation on site for the rehearsal period (four to five weeks) for herself and her family. “At times it’s living on a knife-edge, because by the time the premiere rolls around, your finances are heavily in the red,” she says. The performances then compensate for the investments made. “Of course, what your pay per hour works out to be largely depends on yourself – how quickly you can learn a role, for instance. My time management mostly concerns myself. I monitor and plan my practising, which is the most time-consuming part of the whole process.”

Opera is a joint effort

“For me, success is having meaningful work: being able to perform in roles that are genuinely interesting and to work with people who are equally committed to a good end result, a production that will have an impact on audiences. Working towards a common goal is important,” she stresses. “Today, opera is increasingly production-driven, which I feel is a welcome trend. We should not underestimate audiences; what is important is to achieve a real ensemble feel on stage. And that means that everyone, no matter how big a star they may be, is present and part of the ensemble all the time.”

Early this year, Juntunen spent four months in France with her husband and their two-year-old daughter. “Although I get most of my income from abroad, I pay my taxes in Finland and am happy to do so. Finland’s benefits for families with children are unlike anywhere else,” she says.

She and her husband are dividing up their parental leave equally, beginning after the performances of L’incoronazione di Poppea this autumn. This means that she will be able to continue her performing career. “When he can take time off from work for a while, we can all go abroad together. Going off for a two-day gig when you have small children is more of a problem, but ultimately it’s all about organising things in advance. After all, opera houses plan their programmes well ahead.”

One project at a time

“A freelancer’s work is all about balancing between freedom and insecurity. You have to make your living where you can find it, and you have to be active all the time. Of course, freelance singers are booked for a certain time forward, but rarely have anything agreed for five years from now.”

Juntunen’s next major foreign engagement will be the title-role in Strauss’s Salome a few years from now. “I have dreamt about it for a long time, but I am well aware that it is not a role for a young girl. Now the time has come.”

She plans her career together with her agents, one in France and another in Austria. A classical musician cannot function without an agent, since many opera houses will not even begin to negotiate directly with private individuals.

“Performers’ needs change, and agents are used as required. Agents are affected by the general economy, since they get 10% to 15% of everything I earn, operas and concerts alike.”

Not only the freelancer but the agent too must be active and successful. An agent sells a singer to venues where she has not appeared yet, and she will be invited back if she performs well in a production. “In Europe, distances are short and the circles are narrow. Whether you succeed or fail, everyone will know about it.”

Choosing roles suitable for one’s own voice is an art in itself, and one also needs to take into account how the voice is developing.

“The voice is not stable, because the body is changing all the time. You and your agent have to be in agreement about what repertoire is suitable for you, so that neither ends up wasting their efforts. Fees are largely driven by a singer’s reputation, but the agent has quite some influence in this too. Some countries pay better than others. There are rarely any great surprises, though, either pleasant or unpleasant.”

Training – development – internationalisation

Continuing to have work in Finland is important for Juntunen, yet internationalisation is a survival necessity for a freelance performer. “Having a continued international career means that you have made it. It also removes some uncertainties. The market in Finland is so small: there is only one opera house and one major festival, and they are always run by individuals with their individual preferences. If you run into irreconcilable differences, you may run out of work very quickly.”

Continuity also means that she can occasionally take up financially less meaningful experimental projects. “I’ve never said no to a project simply because the fee was too small, but since I have a family to support, I need the money from somewhere to pay the electric bill. But some of my fondest memories are from the shoestring projects where you have to take needle in hand to alter your own costume or scrounge around for props. That’s where you really feel like you are working in an -ensemble!”

She has no need for grants or subsidies. “I get paid for what I do, and I keep myself in shape in order to do my work as well as I possibly can so that I will be given more work. The Sibelius Academy trained me to do this. It is an institution that should be maintained at the highest level of quality possible, and the education it provides should not be undermined, nor should tuition fees be introduced,” she stresses.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi