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Tales on stage

by Antti Häyrynen

Operas and other stage works to be performed by and for children have been written in Finland since the 1940s. A new boom began in the 1980s and is still going strong.

Children’s opera in Finland often involves works created spontaneously as a by-product of theatre or school pursuits and not nearly always included by composers in their official catalogues.

The genre incorporates works created and performed by professionals on the one hand and works compiled and/or performed by children themselves on the other. It is difficult to draw a line between children’s opera and music theatre at large. In fact, one of the best things about Finnish children’s opera is its disregard for genres, manifesting itself as a broad-mindedness that extends to accommodate serious and profound subjects as well.

In terms of narrative, the development of children’s opera goes hand in hand with the development of literature. The roots of Finnish music theatre for children go back to the breakthrough of Finnish children’s literature in the 19th century. Over the years, children’s operas have reflected both venerable national traditions and transitions in cultural policy and education ideals.

Legacy of a storyteller

Finnish children’s culture was founded almost single-handedly by Zachris Topelius (1818-1898), a Professor of History, journalist and writer of children’s stories referred to by later generations with the honorific satusetä (lit. ‘fairy-tale uncle’). He was also an important figure in the development of musical fairy tales and children’s opera. In the stories and poems he published from the 1840s onwards, he created a wholly new kind of children’s literature embodying progressive ideals such as national spirit, tolerance and social conscience. He also toned down the strict morality traditionally preached to children and channelled patriotism into an awareness-based and nature-oriented love of one’s native region. He also emphasised the importance of home and family and sought to inspire children to use their imagination.

Topelius likewise became one of the founders of Finnish opera, writing the libretti for the operas Kaarle-kuninkaan metsästys (The Hunt of King Charles, 1852) and Kypron prinsessa (Princess of Cyprus, 1860) composed by Fredrik Pacius (1809-1891). These would in fact qualify as children’s operas today. Topelius’s stories and poems have been set to music in songs, musical plays and children’s operas up to and beyond the turn of the millennium; as examples, we may mention Räätäli joka ompeli yhteen Suomen ja Ruotsin (The tailor who stitched together Finland and Sweden, 1991) by Kaj Chydenius and Adalminan helmi (Adalmina’s pearl, 2005) by Marko Autio. The incidental music for Prinsessa Ruusunen (Sleeping Beauty, 1904) by Erkki Melartin – which includes one of Finland’s most popular wedding marches of all time – was written for a stage adaptation by Topelius of the traditional fairy tale.

Curtain up

During the Russian era (1809-1917) and in the early years of Finland’s independence, children’s music was associated with school education. It is probable that Finland’s first operas or musical plays for children were created in the context of school work, but no researched documentation of such efforts exists, even if they are obliquely referred to in pedagogical literature.

The Finnish National Opera staged its first children’s opera, Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck, as early as in 1921. In 1936, the Chorus of the Finnish National Opera produced a children’s opera co-written by Jaakko Sola and Lauri Kyöstilä entitled Mikki Hiiri ja taikapeili (Mickey Mouse and the Magic Mirror). The Viipuri Music Institute staged productions of two modern children’s operas performed by students before the Second World War: Wir bauen eine Stadt by Paul Hindemith in 1934 and Around the World in 80 Days by J. Popelka in 1936.

The Second World War served to highlight children as a separate audience segment, and the first actual children’s operas written in Finland were Kalastajaprinsessa (The Fisher Princess, 1940) by Väinö Haapalainen and Uskollinen sisar (The Faithful Sister, 1945) by Felix Krohn, headmaster of the Viipuri Music Institute, which had been evacuated to Lahti soon after the war. The Finnish National Opera joined in with productions of Schwarzer Peter (Black Peter) by Norbert Schultze in 1942, Schneewittchen (Snow White) with music by Schubert compiled by Felix Weingartner in 1944, and Peterchens Mondfahrt (whose Finnish title translates as ‘Pekka and Liisa travel to the Moon’) by Humperdinck’s student Clemens Schmalstich in 1948.

Fairy tales and ballets

The Finnish Broadcasting Company and Finnish orchestras used to be active in commissioning musical settings of fairy tales, which were very popular in their day. Early examples include Lasten maailmasta (From the world of children, 1934) and Taivaan siemeniä (Seeds of heaven, 1951) by Lauri Saikkola; music for Kuninkaan sormus (The King’s Ring, from a novel by Topelius) and The Three Musketeers (Dumas) by Kalervo Tuukkanen; and the cycle Aamusta iltaan (Dawn to dusk) by Sulho Ranta, incorporating his works Lapsikuvia I-II (Images of children) and Topeliana.

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra engaged in a high-profile campaign to promote musical fairy tales in the late 1950s, performing Hipsuvarvas ja Nököhammas (Twinkletoes and Nibblenuts) with music by Mauri Hongisto, Se on totinen tosi (It’s Quite True!) by Bengt Johansson, Jeesuslapsi seitsenvuotias (Jesus as a child aged seven) by Tauno Marttinen, Kadonnut laulu (The lost song) by Tauno Pylkkänen, Nukkekauppias (The doll seller) by Simon Parmet and Elefantti jonka nimi oli Antti-Fantti (The elephant named Antti-Fantti) by Jorma Panula.

However, the most significant new departure in children’s music for the stage in the 1950s was the ballet Pessi ja Illusia (Pessi and Illusia, 1951) by Ahti Sonninen, based on the philosophical children’s book by Yrjö Kokko. Commissioned by Alfons Almi, it pioneered a genre of artistically ambitious music for children; Sulho Ranta and Matti Rautio followed suit with ballets of their own.

A lot of incidental music has been written for children’s plays in Finland, and basic research in this area is sorely needed. Many such settings seem to have been completely forgotten after their first performances, even though children’s music of good quality tends to age very well.

Turning the stage over to children

Finnish composers were rather slow to react to the children’s literature that began to emerge in the 1950s. In the early 1970s, a new brand of children’s songs established itself in Finland. Taking the child’s perspective, these songs took a critical attitude towards the patronising culture that sought to control children and stifle their creativity. This kind of children’s music could be understood as counterculture, although it often morphed into consumer goods through commercialisation.

One of the pioneers in this new approach to children’s songs was Pekka Jalkanen (b. 1945), who subsequently became one of Finland’s leading composers of music for children. His works for children feature a broad spectrum of folklore influences, inspired choices of text and a consciousness of the tradition of children’s culture; as a result, his works include an element of education by stealth.

The most extensive of Jalkanen’s works for children are the opera Tirlittan (1986) after the novel by Oiva Paloheimo, incidental music for the play Vaarallinen matka (Dangerous journey, 1990) based on a text by Tove Jansson, Seitsemän huivia (The Seven Scarves, 1990) and the musical fairy tales Oi ihana Panama (O Wonderful Panama, 1989) to a story by Janosch and Satakieli (The Nightingale, 2007) to a story by H.C. Andersen.

Stage works intended to be performed by children were important heralds of new things to come in children’s culture. Kari Rydman (b. 1936) wrote a number of well-known children’s songs, but these were preceded by two stage works written for pupils at Helsingin Yhtenäiskoulu in the late 1960s: an opera parody entitled Pernambuco setting a text by the popular humorous columnist Olli and the musical play Kuninkaan varpaat (The king’s toes), which highlighted just how childish the established culture of grown-ups can be. Similar needs and observations motivated the children’s operas written by Ari Hynynen, a music teacher in Turku, in the 1980s.

Jazz musicians were also closely involved in the breakthrough of new children’s music. As examples we may mention the stage works of Esa Helasvuo (b. 1945) and Jukka Linkola (b. 1955). The children’s opera Liisa ihmemaassa (Alice in Wonderland, 1980) is one of Helasvuo’s principal works, while Linkola has a whole series of dramatic works under his belt, including the ballet Ronja Ryövärintytär (Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, 1989), the musicals Peter Pan (1985) and Max ja Moritz (Max and Moritz, 1987), the family opera Hui kauhistus (One Spooky Night, 2006), the youth opera Robin Hood (2010) and the score for the film Lumikuningatar (The Snow Queen, 1987).

The Mörköooppera (The Bogey Opera) musical plays written by Marjatta Pokela between 1978 and 1985 are in a very simple style, suitable even for very small children.

From the Moomins to Indiana Jones

Ilkka Kuusisto (b. 1933) is one of Finland’s most prolific composers of the post-war era, and he has written a fair number of works for children, following in the tradition of Topelius in their philosophical approach. Chief among these are his stage works, such as the musicals Kiri kiri (Spurt!, 1972), Pekka Töpöhäntä (Peter No-Tail, 1993) and Kiljusen herrasväki after the books by Jalmari Finne (The Kiljunen Family, 1998), Muumiooppera (Moomin Opera, 1974) based on the books by Tove Jansson, the youth opera Pierrot ja yön salaisuudet (Pierrot and the Secrets of the Night, 1990) and the ballet Robin Hood (1985).

Harri Wessman (b. 1949) has been one of the most active among composers of ‘art music’ in writing music for children. His style, described as Neo-Romantic among other things, is simple yet musically intriguing, and any pedagogical content is usually jokingly or insightfully disguised. His stage works for children include Onnen arvoitus (The riddle of happiness, 1986) to a text by Raul Roine, Ruusunen (Sleeping Beauty, 1986) to a text by Liisa Isotalo, the ballet Satumaan Päivikki (Päivikki of Fairyland, 1987) and Ötökkäooppera (Insect Opera, 1998).

Timo-Juhani Kyllönen has been working along similar lines in his works Kuninkaiden kirja (The Book of Kings, 1992-1993) and Roope – poika joka ei uskaltanut pelätä (Little Roope who Dared not Be Afraid, 2007).

Many other composers have dabbled in children’s opera among other more serious projects. Points of interest over the years include Tulitikkutyttö (The Little Match Girl, 1984) by Martti Parkkari, Myrsky (Storm, 1987) by Tuulikki Kankaanpää, Chiqchippo (1988) by Alfonso Padilla – better known as a musicologist – Mielinkielinliemi (The Night of Wishes, 1999) by Herman Rechberger, Suomalainen tapiiri (The Finnish Tapir, 1999) by Jouko Linjama, Punahilkka (Little Red Riding Hood, 2000) by Ari Vakkilainen and Akka Harmaa (The Grey Crone, 2002) by Peter Lång. As a special case we may single out Jani Kääriä (b. 1969), who wrote three operas as a child and in his teens, before he had taken any formal composition studies: Koirani Pepi (My dog Pepi, 1982), O tempora o mores (1985) and Indiana Jones (1990).

The rise of children’s opera

The Finnish National Opera and regional operas have contributed significantly to increasing the number of Finnish children’s operas since the 1980s, and they were joined by independent opera companies in the 1990s. Increased quantity has translated into increased quality, and gratifyingly enough the stylistic range of the works that may be described as children’s operas has become wider and richer.

In the 1980s, even modernist composers began to take an interest in children’s music. One of the keenest is Olli Kortekangas (b. 1955), who has introduced many new techniques in his works for children’s choir. Several of his stage works feature children’s voices even if they are not specifically aimed at children. Jouni Kaipainen (b. 1956) has also stepped up to bat, principally with the musical play Hämärän maa (Land of twilight, 2004).

The musical fairy tale also enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s. One of the most successful recent additions to the genre is Ihmeellinen maalari (The wonderful painter, 1984), commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra from Marjatta Meritähti. Musical fairy tales have also been written by composers such as Pekka Jalkanen, Tapani Länsiö, Timo Hietala, Kirmo Lintinen and Riikka Talvitie.

Modern approaches have been employed in musical fairy tales and/or musical plays by Tapani Länsiö (b. 1953) in Taikaviulu (The magic violin, 1989), Kimmo Hakola (b. 1958) in Valjoppi (1996), Nurinkurin (Topsy-turvy, 2000) and Mara ja Katti (Mara and Katti, 2011), and Tapio Tuomela (b. 1958) in Hölmöläisiä (The Dummies).

Tradition without stuffiness

Arabian jänis (Arabian Rabbit, 2004), an opera by Seppo Pohjola (b. 1965) to a text by Sinikka Nopola, represents a new, bold and diverse generation in children’s opera, as do the sprightly modernist Onni Gebardi ja Karhu (Cheetah Onni and a Bear, 2002) by Perttu Haapanen (b. 1972) and the uproarious Voi vietävä! (Nuts about Nosh, 2001) by Kirmo Lintinen (b. 1967). Maukka ja Väykkä (Maukka and Väykkä) by Iiro Rantala (b. 1970) is an upbeat jazz-based frolic.

Jaakko Kuusisto, son of Ilkka Kuusisto, has found success with two family operas, Prinsessa ja villijoutsenet (The Princess and the Wild Swans, 2002) and Koirien Kalevala (Canine Kalevala, 2003).

Pyymosa (1999) by Tuomo Teirilä represents the rare genre of adventure opera that appeals to boys and is thus highly important. Works by Markus Fagerudd (b. 1961) such as Reea Ruu (1992), the puppet play Prinsessa Paysad (Princess Paysad, 1996), Gaia (2000), Heinähattu, Vilttitossu ja suuri pamaus (Hayflower, Feltslipper and the Big Bang, 2003) and Seitsemän koiraveljestä (Seven Dog Brothers, 2007) have managed to restore something of the original wild and free spirit of the new children’s culture.

The rapid ascent of Finnish children’s opera has meant the appearance on stage of both classic fairy tales and new, trendy narratives. For composers, children’s opera represents an opportunity for subverting the stuffy traditions of musical drama and for creating effective and economic works for the stage. For independent musical theatre companies in particular, children’s operas are challenging projects reaching out to new and grateful audiences. Institutions have also become aware of their responsibility in audience education, which is mostly ignored in our public education system.

Fairy tales for everyone

One of Finland’s most productive composers of stage works for children is Kaj Chydenius (b. 1939), who made his début in the area of political songs in the 1960s. His music is characterised by a striking framing of text, a naturally flowing melodic vein and a versatility of style. He has worked a lot in theatre, but he has only been writing children’s operas and fairy-tale operas since the 1990s.

His family fairy-tale opera Tsaarin tytär ja seitsemän urosta (The Tsar’s daughter and the seven brave men, 1981) was a sort of prequel to his children’s opera period. The puppet opera Trollet som ville se solen (The troll who wanted to see the sun, 1997) was premiered by Stockholm Opera Underground and has since had more than 300 performances in the Nordic countries.

In his later works too, Chydenius favoured classic fairy tales, which have a timeless wisdom with much to think about for children and adults alike. He feels that children are the best possible audience for opera: “My idea is to flood the market with fairy-tale operas so that all children in Finland would get used to the idea of going to the opera from the age of 3 to 5 and to the notion that all fairy tales are performed in song.”

Chydenius’s stage works for children and based on fairy tales include: Räätäli joka ompeli yhteen Suomen ja Ruotsin (The tailor who stitched together Finland and Sweden, 1991), Trollet som ville se solen (The troll who wanted to see the sun, 1997), Banyan-puun juurella (Under the banyan tree, 2000), Ovela hanhipaimen (The cunning gooseherd, 2001), Leijona ja kirppu (The lion and the flea, 2001), Ahne tuomari (The greedy judge, 2001), Ruma ankanpoikanen (The ugly duckling, 2002), Afrikan lapset (Children of Africa, 2002) comprising Chiwele ja jättiläinen (Chiwele and the giant) and Kaunis Karts (Beautiful Karts), Sammakkoprinsessa (The frog princess, 2003), Valkoinen koivu / Musta sorsa (White birch / Black duck, 2003), Sotamies Juan ja Lontoon prinsessa (Rifleman Juan and the Princess of London, 2005), Kolme pientä porsasta (Three little pigs, 2005), Noidan taikapeili (The witch’s magic mirror, 2005), Pikkuveli/Onnenpoika/Kaalinpää (Little brother / Lucky boy / Cabbage head, 2005), Unelmat ja unikuvat (Dreams and daydreams, 2006), Tuhka-Taava/Kampela (Ash-Taava / The flounder, 2006) and Tyttö jonka tuuli vei (The girl carried away by the wind, 2008).


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured Photo: Ihmepoika A by Timo Hietala & Paleface. Photo: Heikki Tuuli / The Finnish National Opera