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The freedom of song

by Hanna Isolammi

Soprano Soile Isokoski, one of Finland’s internationally most celebrated singers, has returned to her roots and begun a new chapter in her life. As of this year, her calendar features teaching and recitals.

Last year, Soile Isokoski dropped a minor bombshell in Finnish musical circles by announcing that she would no longer be performing opera but would instead become a voice teacher at the Oulu University of Applied Sciences. She said that she had been thinking of teaching and settling permanently in Finland for quite some time. She had been homesick for the past few years and tired of travelling all the time. “I felt that 25 years is quite a long time to spend on the road, travelling for nearly 300 days out of the year, always on the move. I missed having a place of my own, with my own coffee and my own salt exactly where I want them.”

Isokoski is still vocally on excellent form, and her operatic career was showing no signs of flagging whatsoever. Nevertheless, she points to ageing as one reason for making the change. “I can still sing all these young girls’ roles with no problem, but it would not be fair to the audience or to younger colleagues to have an obviously older person playing the part of a young one. I can feel that I no longer fulfil the physical requirements of some of those roles,” she says. “I felt that teaching would be a good application of my skills and experience. I have always enjoyed teaching, and there seems to be a demand for it. My summer masterclasses, for instance, have always been overbooked.”


Return to the north

Isokoski regularly received offers of permanent teaching positions in various parts of Europe, but she definitely wanted to return to her roots, to Finland. She was invited to become Professor of Voice at the Sibelius Academy, but as a result of a bureaucratic muddle the position had to be announced in an open recruitment procedure in which she had neither the time nor the inclination to participate.

Around that time, she was offered a job as Lecturer of Voice at the Oulu University of Applied Sciences. It seemed like a perfect fit. “North Ostrobothnia is my mental landscape, where I grew up as a child. I am more comfortable there than under the palm trees in the California sunshine – which is a nice place to be too, but it isn’t home.”

Returning to Isokoski’s old haunts felt like the right thing to do also because she was able to move back into her childhood home to help and keep company for her elderly mother. Thus, for all the seeming abruptness of the change, it was really about the coming together of a variety of interests and needs. The Sibelius Academy, having dropped the ball, still wished to benefit from Isokoski’s experience and expertise, and she was invited to become a Visiting Professor as of next autumn. This will involve giving masterclasses to voice students, coaching opera training productions and participating in curriculum development.

Out of the Mozart box

Soile Isokoski has created a dazzling and diverse career as a singer. She originally studied at the Church Music Department at the Sibelius Academy, but her international solo career took off after her début recital (1986) and first prize at the Lappeenranta Singing Competition (1987). In the same year, she was engaged as a soloist at the Finnish National Opera. She also did well in other competitions, including second prize in the BBC Singer of the World competition in 1987, first prize in the Elly Ameling Singing Competition in 1988 and first prize in the Tokyo International Singing Competition in 1990. She was soon in demand for opera productions and Lied recitals around the world.

Isokoski explains that she did not consciously aim at creating a career as an opera singer. “I had no idea of trying out for specific roles or specific venues at any cost; one engagement just led to another. Looking back now, I’ve had the opportunity to be in some very fine productions at excellent venues with wonderful colleagues.” In the early stages of her career, she sang a lot of Mozart because of her lucid, clear timbre, but she did not want to limit herself to any particular style. “Mozart’s music is brilliant, but at one point I felt that I was predestined to sing Fiordiligi [in Così fan tutte] and Pamina [in The Magic Flute] for the rest of my life. At the Vienna State Opera, I finally got to sing something else, even Italian opera, although my voice does not sound particularly Italian. But I got out of the Mozart box.”

Isokoski developed a special fondness for the music of Richard Strauss through his orchestral songs and the opera Der Rosenkavalier. “I first played the Marschallin about ten years ago, and it was love at first sight. The ‘Time monologue’ is so incredibly profound! I’ve learned new things about the character and the opera in every production.”

In addition to Strauss and Mozart, she has also played several Puccini heroines, most importantly to her among them Liù in Turandot. She also enjoys playing Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. “The problem with Tatiana is that you have to have the age and the experience to be able to perform all the emotions and moods required for the Letter scene. But Tatiana is a young girl and has to be played as such.”

Isokoski has not performed very much Finnish opera, due to a lack of time and a variety of coincidences. “I have not played any Finnish opera roles other than Maija in The Ostrobothnians [by Madetoja]. I simply haven’t had the time; my calendar has been so full these past 25 years. I was almost in Sallinen’s Palatsi, but a knee operation prevented that.” She would have liked to sing in Joonas Kokkonen’s Viimeiset kiusaukset [The Last Temptations]. “I remember listening to the recording and feeling chills down my spine – it’s such fantastic music. I couldn’t stop, I had to listen to the whole thing right through.”

Although she will no longer accept new opera productions, Isokoski says that she would be pleased to hop on a plane if called in as a last-minute substitute by an opera house she is familiar with – in Vienna, London, Dresden, etc.

A year of Sibelius

Soile Isokoski is known not only as an opera singer but also as a performer of Lieder and orchestral songs. Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder is one of her favourites, along with Sibelius’s Luonnotar. She has recorded both works, Luonnotar twice. She received the Gramophone Editor’s Choice Award for the Strauss, and the MIDEM Classical Award and the Record of the Year award of BBC Music Magazine for the Sibelius. She remembers how a live performance of Luonnotar caused confusion. “It’s quite a modern piece of music! I sang it once in New York under Sir Colin Davis about ten years ago, and the audience was dumbstruck – is it over? There was complete silence until Sir Colin turned to the audience and indicated that it was OK to applaud now!”

Isokoski feels that Sibelius did not write as idiomatically for the voice as Richard Strauss. “Many of his songs are difficult both technically and in terms of interpretation, and very taxing to perform. They are profound and compelling, but tricky in structure. Erik Tawaststjerna once described Var det en dröm [Was it a dream?] as a slab of granite, and I think that’s very accurate!” Nevertheless, she enjoys performing Sibelius in recital and considers him one of her favourite Lied composers along with Schubert.

During the Sibelius 150 anniversary, Isokoski has several performances of Sibelius booked in Finland and abroad, for instance at the Oulu Music Festival in March, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Helsinki in April and with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo in Monte Carlo in the autumn. “There are also Lied recitals, for instance with Martin Katz in Hämeenlinna in September. It’s a year full of Sibelius!” she says. “In fact, I’m going to rehearse with Ilkka Paananen for a radio recording of Sibelius songs right after this interview.”

Soile Isokoski has also performed solo songs by many other Finnish composers, such as Toivo Kuula, Yrjö Kilpinen, and Aarre and Oskar Merikanto. She says that when she was younger she felt that she was representing the music itself and its international language rather than Finland as a nation. However, Finnish repertoire has always played a prominent part in her recital programmes, and her merits in bringing Finnish music to international audiences have been recognised for instance with the Pro Finlandia decoration in 2002. She feels particularly fond of the songs of Kilpinen at the moment.

“There are some real gems among Kilpinen’s solo songs. I’ve been studying his Tunturilauluja [Songs of the Fells] recently. I think that it’s only now that I’m experienced enough and far north enough to sing them. And they’re not really soprano repertoire, either.”

The joy of self-discovery

Giving recitals and learning new songs are not the only things keeping Isokoski busy this year, as she has finally come to grips with full-time teaching in Oulu. Working with the same students over a longer period of time is both more interesting and more rewarding than masterclasses, which have their challenges.

“Masterclasses are all very well, but they can be a frightfully intense and even exhausting experience for both the teacher and the student. I can well remember as a student how you felt when you had concentrated to the utmost and given everything you had and then fell into a sort of vacuum when the masterclass ended. You no longer remembered the things you had been told by the time you got home, and you felt that nothing was working as it should. But that’s entirely natural and normal,” she says.

She likes working with the voice class at the Oulu University of Applied Sciences. “I have really good students there, sopranos and mezzosopranos at the moment. Later I’ll have male students too, and I’ll need to learn new repertoire for that. I’m looking forward to the challenge.” The Oulu University of Applied Sciences generally has a large number of applicants for voice studies, and as a result the student material is of high quality. Isokoski describes listening to a Lied seminar and a production of The Magic Flute with Oulu singers and being impressed by their standard. The quality and the popularity of singing in general may perhaps in part be traced back to the strong tradition of hymn singing in spiritual communities in Ostrobothnia, which provides an excellent foundation for classical voice training.

Soile Isokoski is a student-oriented teacher. She has no interest in founding an ‘Isokoski school’; her aim is to help her students discover natural, unrestrained voice production. “The technique needs to be as far automated as driving a car so that it can be fully subservient to the music, the interpretation and the musical communication.” She works with each student’s own vocal colour and does not try to shape it to fit any particular voice type or style. Of course, a particular colour of voice is suited to particular kinds of repertoire – by convention, if for no other reason – but voice types are not set in stone.

Isokoski herself is an example of such diversity. “My voice has been described as lyrical, or sometimes lyrical-dramatic, but I’ve performed heavier roles too.” The main thing is to listen to yourself and be careful not to damage your voice by pushing the envelope too far. “If my voice won’t naturally shape itself to a particular role or style, I won’t force it,” she says.

When teaching, she aims to focus on whatever is giving the student trouble at that time. “It wasn’t until later that I realised how wise my own teachers were in focusing on the essential. I want to do the same, to be able to say the right thing at the right time,” she says. She sees the job of the teacher above all as being a technical troubleshooter, which leaves the student a great deal of latitude and responsibility – and the joy of self-discovery. “I’m not a teacher whose ambitions include getting as many students as possible to win prizes in competitions. My reward is in getting them to sing freely and to feel good about it,” she says.

About humanity and music

Soile Isokoski is a friendly and broad-minded person with a solid work ethic, tolerant mind and positive attitude welcomed by conductors and fellow musicians alike. For all her success and fame, she has remained herself with her feet firmly on the ground and her values unchanged. She recalls that in the first years of her career she was uncertain about what a singer should be like.

“When I went out into the world, I was a bit lost with who I was and where I belonged.” What proved crucial was an encounter with conductor Zubin Mehta. “He is not only an artist but also a Mensch, as they say. I remember him once being late for a rehearsal: one of the percussionists in the orchestra had fallen ill, and he had visited the hospital. It was then that I realised that I should just unapologetically be my own self and simply make music as well as I can – there was no need for me to try to change my personality.”

Soile Isokoski talks about the things that are important to her with excitement and feeling; she is obviously moved when talking about the peace and quiet of the natural environment in her native region. She was completely occupied by her interesting and challenging work on the operatic stages of the world for 25 years, but now that she travels less she can find time to do other things she loves: outdoor recreation, reading good books, cooking and baking. But music remains her principal love. “God gave me the gift of loving music, and it never fails to excite and enchant me. It gives me energy. As long as I can make music, I forget about the stress of travel and all other cares!”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: AJ Savolainen