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The New Finnish Opera Boom

by Liisamaija Hautsalo

A superficial reason for the opera boom may be the composers' wish to celebrate the new millennium with a work of opera, the king of music genres. However, the boom also speaks of the current good financial situation, for operas are expensive, as is well known. Opera has also spread beyond the stages of the established institutions such as the Finnish National Opera, and small ensembles are trying their wings.
Finnish opera seems to be flourishing in an unprecedented manner. In the 1970s, the trend originally disparagingly called “fur cap opera” in Finnish was towards works with themes embedded in the Finnish national experience, and the two first and most prominent examples, Joonas Kokkonen’s Viimeiset kiusaukset (“The Last Temptations”) and Aulis Sallinen’s Ratsumies (“The Horseman”), both reaped success outside of Finland too. Now, at the turn of the millennium, it is hardly an exaggeration to speak of a new opera boom, even of a second wave of Finnish opera. Already during the first year of the new millennium, at least 15 contemporary Finnish operas – as many as during the national operatic renaissance of the 1970s – as well as several ballets will be premiered. 

A superficial reason for the opera boom may be the composers’ wish to celebrate the new millennium with a work of opera, the king of music genres. However, the boom also speaks of the current good financial situation, for operas are expensive, as is well known. Opera has also spread beyond the stages of the established institutions such as the Finnish National Opera, and small ensembles are trying their wings.

Although Finnish themes are still in favor, this second wave of Finnish opera represents a wide spectrum of styles, themes, and forms. Knights in love, sports heroes, comic strip characters, and famous historic people take to the stage – among the latter Martin Luther, the writer Aino Kallas, and the man who ran Finland onto the map with his many Olympic medals, Paavo Nurmi – even science fiction makes its appearance. Not only large, full-length but also small and experimental works are in store. Their composers also constitute a variegated group: Aulis Sallinen, Atso Almila, and Ilkka Kuusisto are no novices in opera, as a glance at the catalogues of their works confirms, whereas Kaija Saariaho, Kimmo Hakola, and Tuomas Kantelinen are trying their hands for the first time. An often mentioned librettist is Paavo Haavikko, who has written the text for a total of three of the new works.

Most of the new operas are domestic productions. Saariaho’s L’amour de loin (“Love from Afar”) will however be premiered in August 2000 on an especially esteemed foreign stage, that of the Salzburg Music Festival.

Avant-Garde and “Folk” Opera

Tapio Tuomela jumped the gun on this year’s Finnish opera boom with his work Äidit ja Tyttäret (“Mothers and Daughters”), which was premiered at the Finnish National Opera in November 1999. Tuomela’s work is based on the national epic Kalevala and, in terms of its choice of themes, belongs to the genre “fur cap opera.” Its musical idiom and thematic development are however modernistic.

Ilkka Kuusisto, known for his Muumiooppera (“Moomin Opera”), starts off the premieres of the year 2000 in January in Helsinki. Sticking to national subject matter, he tells about the Finnish author and poet Aino Kallas in the monologue opera Nainen kuin jäätynyt shampanja (“A Woman Like Chilled Champagne”).

The young Juha T. Koskinen continues with his courageous, experimental style together with the small avant-garde ensemble, Ooppera Skaala. The newest fruit of their collaboration is the chamber opera EUKKO – pidättekö vainajista (“OLD WOMAN – Are You Fond of Dead People?”), which is based on the Russian writer Daniil Harms’ short story “The Old Woman.” The work will be premiered during the contemporary music festival Musica Nova in Helsinki in November.

Tuomo Teirilä’s opera Pyymosa will be heard for the first time in May in the city of Vantaa. The Ilmajoki Music Festival has produced “all-Finnish” folk opera for decades and continues along the same lines in the summer of 2000. Atso Almila’s Isontaloon Antti (“Mansion Antti”) will be premiered in June. The work’s libretto is by Antti Tuuri and tells about one of the knife ruffians that used to be typical for northwestern Finland. In addition, Pentti Tynkkynen’s opera about the Finnish national poet Runeberg will get its premiere in the town of Saarijärvi at the end of July.

Three Composers, One Night

A total of 15 premieres is planned, but there are even more composers. In July, the Savonlinna Opera Festival will stage a unique experiment that it has commissioned, a collaboration between three composers called Aika ja uni (“The Age of Dreams”). Kalevi Aho, Olli Kortekangas, and Herman Rechberger will each compose one part of the work trilogy based on a text by Paavo Rintala.

August is an active period on the opera front with the art form also spreading to other venues besides the traditional opera houses. Tuomas Kantelinen’s Paavo Suuri. Suuri juoksu. Suuri uni (“Paavo the Great. A Great Race. A Great Dream”) about the legendary runner Paavo Nurmi will be presented at the Helsinki Olympic stadium. The large-scale production is a collaboration of the Helsinki City Theatre and the Helsinki 2000 Foundation. The libretto is by Paavo Haavikko, and the role of Nurmi will be played by the young Finnish-Swedish baritone Gabriel Suovanen.

Saariaho’s First Opera

Kaija Saariaho lives in Paris and belongs to the elite of contemporary composers. Her first opera, the five-act L’amour de loin (“Love from Afar”) will be staged at the Salzburg Music Festival in August. The work is a joint commission from the festival and the Parisian Châtelet theatre, and it will also be performed in Paris in the near future. The French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf prepared the libretto on the basis of Jaufré Rudel’s poem about a 12th-century troubadour. The main role is acted by Saariaho’s trusty, the US-American soprano Dawn Upshaw, and the opera is in the hands of the cult director Peter Sellars and the conductor Kent Nagano.

The Ooppera Skaala has been commissioned to present another work in Helsinki in August, Kimmo Hakola’s Marsin mestarilaulajat (“The Mastersingers Meistersingers of Mars”), which is based on Matti Hagelberg’s comic strip figures. Also in August will be premiered Harri Ahmas’ Sydänvirrat (“Heart Streams”) and Eero Erkkilä’s Kalastaja (“The Fisherman”), the latter in the context of the church music festival in the town of Lohtaja.

One of the most anticipated climaxes of the opera season is based on Shakespeare’s classic by the same name, King Lear, and is the sixth opera by Aulis Sallinen, known for his Horseman, Red Line, and Kullervo. The work’s September premiere will open the autumn season at the Finnish National Opera, which commissioned the work. The bass Matti Salminen will play the role of King Lear.

In the city of Turku, the stage will shift from the theatre to the cathedral, where Mikko Heiniö’s opera Riddaren och draken (“The Knight and the Dragon”) will be premiered in November. The libretto by Bo Carpelan is in Swedish. In December, Kirmo Lintinen’s Ihmisäänen ihmemaassa (“In the Wonderland of the Human Voice”), the only children’s opera among the premieres, as well as Kari Tikka’s Luther can be heard in the Finnish National Opera.

Nor does the boom seem to be ending with the year 2000. Tapani Länsiö is planning the opera Sulka (“The Feather”), based on a text by Paavo Haavikko, for the beginning of 2001. Esa-Pekka Salonen is better known as a conductor, but the already once cancelled premiere of Nainen ja apina (“The Woman and the Monkey”) is being eagerly looked forward to. Where and when the work will be seen is nevertheless still an open question.

Translation: Ekhart Georgi

Photo: Sakari Viika

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 1/2000

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