Taking the Finnish opera boom to the next level?
The Helsinki Festival
Autuus by Antti Auvinen, world premiere at Musiikkitalo 16 August
Wunderbar! by Lotta Wennäkoski world premiere at Ateneum Hall 26 August
Lusia Rusintytär by Juha T. Koskinen at Sellosali 23 August
The “Finnish opera boom” is a concept that has taken its place in the rhetoric aimed at international audiences alongside the sauna, Sibelius and the vitality of musical life in Finland. Ever since Aulis Sallinen’s Ratsumies (The Horseman) and Joonas Kokkonen’s Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptations) in the 1970s, Finnish opera has formed one of the pillars of Finnish artistic identity.
Every year, a vivid new dramatic insight into the Finnish psyche is created somewhere in Finland. And whenever there is an anniversary to be celebrated with relevance to our collective memory, opera is often the vehicle of choice for celebrating it.
All this is nationally wonderful and internationally unique. What is regrettable in these marvellous efforts is that, with a handful of exceptions, none of the works thus created survive beyond their premiere productions. More significantly, Finnish operas are very rarely performed abroad.
For a Finnish composer, receiving a commission for an opera is the most exalted mark of professional recognition imaginable. An opera is also a vessel for an entire collection of artistic ambitions: every composer, librettist, set designer and director worth their salt feels they are obliged to challenge the conventions of the genre as testimony to their creative potential.
Yet the opera market in Finland has stagnated, remaining the privilege of a group of composers who emerged and established themselves in previous decades. The current middle and younger generations of composers feel overshadowed by the old hands. Our major professional venues, the Finnish National Opera and the Savonlinna Opera Festival, are loath to take financial and, dare we say, artistic risks.
Erik Söderblom, who stepped down as Executive Director of the Helsinki Festival this year, an artistic jack-of-all-trades whose merits include directing opera productions, organised a seminar at this year’s festival to debate the current state and future of music theatre in Finland.
What Söderblom considered the principal problem is the large number of projects that never make it off the drawing board. He declared that he himself was aware of some 30 music-theatre projects in various stages of completion that were just waiting for someone to say OK.
Söderblom decided to take action: he boldly included no fewer than three new chamber operas in the programme of his last Helsinki Festival. Autuus (Bliss) by Antti Auvinen (b. 1974) and Wunderbar! by Lotta Wennäkoski (b. 1970) were world premieres, while Lusia Rusintytär by Juha T. Koskinen (b. 1972) had been premiered at the Oulunsalo Soi festival earlier in August.
Many points of concern for creative artists were brought up at the seminar: institutions such as the Finnish National Opera and the University of the Arts Helsinki do not provide a platform for the nurturing of new opera and music theatre; young composers and stage professionals are not trusted, and hence they are not allowed to develop their art through experimentation, trial and (inevitably) error, as elsewhere in Europe. Small, active groups are worried particularly about the high rents charged for premises. Finnish producers find themselves scraping up funding from a variety of sources, and there are no resources available for touring or international networking. What the seminar did make abundantly clear was that there is a large body of enthusiastic and innovative young artists in the new field of multi-modal performing arts. This is a wealth of intellectual capital that any country should be proud of.
As is often the case, established structures will not shift until the pressure mounts so high that a saturation point is reached. The Finnish grant system as it now stands mainly supports natural persons, enabling individual artists to focus on their creative work on a full-time basis. In today’s production environment, this system comes across as lopsided: in order to attain its full potential, creative work must be supported by robust and carefully planned production subsidies to support the entire life cycle of a new work and its premiere production. What this means in practice is that production teams and performing companies should be supported more and over longer periods of time.
Returning to the opera premieres at the Helsinki Festival, Antti Auvinen’s Autuus responded to the hunger of audiences exploring the borderlands between new performing arts and traditional music theatre. Auvinen makes varied use of electronic and audiovisual hybrid technologies to create a new aural and visual experience through multi-modal expression. Auvinen’s skilfully modified soundscape is sensitising and fascinating. His smooth video editing sometimes comes over as pretentious, but it is effective. The video aesthetic, reminiscent of Bill Viola, could perhaps have been even bolder.
The story in this chamber opera comes from an actual historical occurrence: one of two brothers, both priests, became convinced that he had received a divine message requiring him to kill his brother so that that brother might become beatified. This story is split onto several psychological levels. Of the four scenes in the opera, the first two are a powerful display of composition seeking new means of expression; by contrast, the documentary-like third scene featuring an interview with forensic psychiatrist Hannu Lauerma sprawls out of control. The fourth scene, evidently intended as a sort of psycho-chronological synthesis, is unable to regain the momentum of the first two scenes.
Juha T. Koskinen’s chamber opera Lusia Rusintytär also draws on actual historical events and as a production is firmly rooted in the conventions of traditional opera. Koskinen has a very definite idea of what an opera should sound like. The directing and set design were of artistically high quality, but one could not escape the feeling that each of the creators was driving in their own lane separate from the others.
Lotta Wennäkoski’s Wunderbar! was an exciting exception. Although its story too has historical roots, it is from a far more recent time in history: the main character loses her twin sister as the Berlin Wall comes down. The power of the narrative grows through literary processing and the composer’s skill in integrating memories and sensations into an increasingly dense and wild texture, weaving the musical material into the story itself. It is an intimate, sensual and delightful mini-opera providing a kaleidoscope of fascinating and at times tantalisingly complex food for thought.
So, does the cross-section of opera offered by the Helsinki Festival accurately reflect the present state of Finnish opera? It is exhilarating simply to be aware that there is a young generation of creators working behind the scenes, as it were, beyond the established composers now firmly in middle age, ready to challenge the idiom of music theatre and to take it to a new level. Obviously, the structures in place should be improved so as to support new developments and new potential.
A lack of funding for non-commercial cultural imports is a major policy problem in Finland. We have no mechanisms that would enable organisers to bring interesting international multi-modal projects to Finnish audiences without taking massive financial risks.
Our cultural exports would rise to a wholly different level if we were to become fully involved in the international, interactive network of cultural operators. Finnish creators, performers and audiences would gain the opportunity to feed on current international trends for their growth. Instead of having to reinvent the wheel, emerging artists could concentrate on finding out whether that wheel can fly.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Lotta Wennäkoski’s Wunderbar! at the Helsinki Festival. Photo: Pirje Mykkänen.