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I pagliacci 1911  

The first hundred years

History of the Finnish National Opera

Good day, it is I! (1911)
A tiny house, but our own
Opera in turmoil (1920s)
The return of Ackté (1930s)
Overshadowed by war (1940s)
A new boom (1950s)
An orchestra of our own, at last (1960s)
Travels around the world (1970s)
A dream come true (1980s and 1990s)
In a changing world, opera remains constant (2000s and 2010s)

“God dag, d’ä jag!” [Good day, it is I!] began Eino Rautavaara, launching into the prologue in I pagliacci, and soon the passionate music and exciting action captivated the capacity crowd, who sympathised with the fate of an artist as Väinö Sola sang “Skratta Pajazzo! Åt din krossade lycka.” [Laugh, O clown, at your crushed love!] and gasped as he killed Agnes Poschner’s character at the end. The evening featured everything that would continue to be played night after night on the opera stage: love, jealousy, death, human destinies and grand emotions.

After the interval, Oskar Merikanto raised his baton again, and Aino Ackté took to the stage, every inch the diva. She acted with expansive gestures and great passion, and her voice, which had filled large metropolitan opera houses, was stunning in the tiny Alexander Theatre. The date was 2 October 1911, and this was the first performance ever staged by the Domestic Opera, featuring I pagliacci in Swedish and La Navarraise by Massenet in Finnish; the fledgling opera company was reaching out to all segments of Helsinki society.

Tumultuous applause, curtain calls, flowers, wreaths; soon, cab drivers were ferrying the formally dressed patrons from the Alexander Theatre towards the city centre. The clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones of Bulevardi punctuated excited discussion: would this enterprise be more successful than the Finnish Opera founded by Kaarlo Bergbom, which had survived for only a few years four decades earlier? Would the energy of Aino Ackté and the business acumen of Edvard Fazer be sufficient to keep the eagerly expected opera company up and running? At least there was now much more of an audience base, since Helsinki was no longer a small provincial town but a city of 140,000 residents, the vibrant capital of the Grand Duchy. Finland was evolving into a modern industrial society, with goods being exported to St Petersburg by train and to central Europe by steamship; trains and phone lines connecting even remote parts of the country with Helsinki; and automobiles, electric lights and moving pictures already becoming part of urban life. Finland was part of Russia, but there was an earnest desire to demonstrate to the world that Finland was a nation unto herself, with a special culture all her own. Finnish literature, painting, theatre and music were enjoying an unprecedented boom, and now the Finns – the singing people of the Kalevala that had produced Sibelius – had an opera house of their own.

The first performances were sold-out triumphs, but towards the spring there were empty seats in the auditorium. The money was running out, and tempers ran high. Aino Ackté erupted in a tantrum while directing a production of Les contes d’Hoffman, giving the soloists such a tongue-lashing that not even the highly expressive vocabulary of abuse in the Finnish language was enough: she invented a new word, hirvistyttävä [a rough equivalent would be ‘terrifusing’], which she subsequently often used. She stormed out of the opera she had herself helped found and complained in the press: “The Domestic Opera has been stolen from me!”, to which cooler heads responded that something you do not own cannot actually be stolen from you. The Domestic Opera and Finland’s greatest opera star thus parted ways acrimoniously, and Edvard Fazer went on to lead the company on his own for a quarter of a century.

A tiny house, but our own

The World War broke out in 1914, prices went up and money became scarce, but the arts institution that had renamed itself the Finnish Opera was still standing. Finland was not directly involved in the fighting, but the bloody Civil War of 1918 following independence from Russia in 1917 interrupted the operations of the Opera too for some time.

Independence was a boon for the Finnish Opera. A lot of property was left behind in Finland by departing Russians, and the tiny gem of a building known as the Alexander Theatre was taken over by the Finnish government. It was turned over to the Opera as a temporary measure until an Opera House could be built – which, it was feared, could take as much as ten years. The Alexander Theatre was solemnly inaugurated as the theatre of the Finnish Opera in January 1919 and was immediately discovered to be too small, even if the auditorium seated 760 after renovation. Although the stage and the orchestra pit were tiny, even grand spectacles such as Aida were staged and performed with much gusto. New Finnish operas were also included in the repertoire.

Edvard Fazer was interested in dance. He had been bringing Russian ballet stars to central Europe even before the famous tours of Diaghilev. Fazer decided to set up a ballet company in Finland and invited George Gé from St Petersburg to become ballet master, at the same time selecting Swan Lake as the first work to be produced. Gé, who had never actually formally trained as a dancer, was hard pressed as the Prince to keep up with Mary Paischeff, who had studied in St Petersburg. The Ballet followed the strong Russian ballet tradition; after all, Helsinki had a substantial population of Russian expatriates who had fled the revolution, including dancers. After Swan Lake in 1922, the repertoire included such classics as Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker and Giselle.

Meanwhile, the Opera was performing Il barbiere di Siviglia, La bohème, Tosca, Tannhäuser, Eugene Onegin, The Magic Flute, Il trovatore and even Tristan und Isolde, though there was as yet no Finnish tenor who could cope with it. It became established practice to perform operas in Finnish, but visiting artists of course sang in any language they wished, so audiences were treated at times to anything up to three different languages in one performance. The guest artists included Finnish celebrities such as Maikki Järnefelt, Hanna Granfelt and Pia Ravenna, and also international big names beginning with Eugenio Giraldoni and John Forssell.

Opera in turmoil

True to its name, the Finnish Opera had a special interest in Finnish works. Their reception by the public at large was lukewarm until the advent of a masterpiece whose championing of freedom fit the mental landscape of the fledgling republic to perfection. Pohjalaisia [The Ostrobothnians] by Leevi Madetoja was hailed as a national opera, and to this day it is the most frequently performed Finnish opera of all time.

Finland prospered, but the Opera was not seeing any of the money. Ticket revenue was not enough to cover costs, even though salaries were so low that the dancers were obliged to take second jobs to survive. In May 1925, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy, and after one final performance of Pohjalaisia, with Liisa bringing tears to every eye with “ei mun silmäni enää oo kirkkahat” [my eyes are bright no longer], the lights went out and the doors closed. No one knew if they would ever be opened again.

The singers tried to make money by giving recitals and touring, and some tried to go into business, but what they really wanted was to be on stage. Emil Forsström, chairman of the board, bit the bullet and talked to ministers and civil servants at exhaustive length until a decree was enacted allowing lottery tickets to be sold for the benefit of the Opera. As the money started to come in, the Opera was reopened in 1926, and ever since then national lottery funds have been contributing to keeping the Opera going.

By now, Helsinki was growing into a modern metropolis, with neon lights, fast cars, and tango and jazz playing in restaurants constrained by Prohibition. Opera was very much in tune with the times. Ernst Krenek’s controversial jazz opera Jonny spielt auf was performed in blackface, a real car was put on stage in the operetta Dollar Princess, the startlingly modern Jenůfa was staged, and a brilliant production of Turandot by Puccini was mounted only a few years after its world premiere.

There was now a competent body of singers in Finland, but when Oskar Merikanto retired from conducting, headhunting had to extend to Germany: Merikanto’s successor was the experienced and talented Franz Mikorey. There were also foreign directors, the most brilliant of whom was Louis Laber. He created the best productions thus far seen at the Finnish Opera but was denied a residence permit, leading him to commit suicide at Christmas 1929. Fortunately, Finland’s most accomplished opera conductor, Armas Järnefelt, returned from his post in Stockholm and began to conduct and direct the great Wagner operas, completely ignoring how small the stage was. During his tenure, even the gigantic Ring was shoehorned into the Alexander Theatre, and a tradition of performing Parsifal at Easter was introduced. The pace was hectic: the company was tiny but mounted up to nine new productions per year, including Puccini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Strauss.

In the early 1930s, the Great Depression touched Finland, and audience numbers dwindled alarmingly. Patrons were lured back with operetta productions whose bubbly music, brilliant scenery and flashy dancing provided an escape from the realities of everyday life. Producing operettas was expensive, however, and Armas Järnefelt wished to stop doing them altogether. He would have shut down the Ballet too if he had had his way. In protest, leading dancers Lucia Nifontova and Arvo Martikainen together with ballet master George Gé decided to emigrate. At what was to be their farewell performance in 1935, the audience noisily showed its support for them, and ultimately the management had to back down: operetta stayed, and so did the Ballet.

The return of Ackté

Finland has never had a shortage of low male voices, but tenors to match the vocal quality of baritones Oiva Soini and Teddy Björkman were hard to find. The fortunate discovery of Alfons Almi in the early 1930s led to this untutored natural talent being thrown in at the deep end: Carmen, Aida, Il trovatore and Tosca. Almi eventually became Finland’s first Tristan, and when Jorma Huttunen graduated from high baritone to tenor, there were enough resources for an all-Finnish cast. Foreign guest artists included really big names such as bass Feodor Chaliapin and the diminutive tenor Josef Schmidt.

The conductor at this time was the hugely capable Leo Funtek, who spoke Finnish with a thick accent and gave everyone a hard time, regular soloists and guest stars alike. When Chaliapin failed to appear on stage, sending word that he needed a doctor, Funtek fumed: “He need a goddamn walking stick, that’s what he need.” Armas Järnefelt was more subtle, advising less fortunate singers: “You know, this bit sounds much better with the right notes.” Ballet master Alexander Saxelin, on the other hand, snapped at a dancer who complained of being given too insignificant a part: “Oh, you think you a diva, well, you a long way from being a diva, you know.”

The depression began to lift towards the end of the 1930s. People had money to go to the opera again, and now the Opera again dared introduce Finnish operas into the repertoire. Aarre Merikanto’s Juha was deemed too difficult, but the modern colourist operas of Väinö Raitio were staged. Juha too eventually made the stage, but in a setting by Leevi Madetoja instead.

It was time for the old guard to stand down. Armas Järnefelt resigned in 1936, and two years later Edvard Fazer retired at the ripe old age of 77. Aino Ackté, reconciled since the last break-up, still had a lot of energy left, and in 1938 she took up leadership of the Opera. She toured Europe looking for new singers and wanted to change everything. She picked up the pace at the Opera and improved the Ballet by coaxing Nifontova and Martikainen to return; but on the other hand, she managed to alienate the directors and singers by intervening in absolutely everything. Only one year later she was let go, as the money was running out, and was replaced by Oiva Soini. His first act in office was to replace the seats in the Opera House, now that it seemed that these temporary premises were to be occupied for some time yet.

Overshadowed by war

Everything seemed to be fine, Finland was prospering, and the Olympic Games were scheduled to take place in Helsinki in 1940. But there were dark clouds on the horizon that soon resolved themselves into bombers. The Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939, and the Opera House sustained its share of damage in air raids. Singers and dancers were sent to the front, and performances were discontinued. The Winter War ended in March 1940, and Finland was obliged to cede Karelia to the Soviet Union. When the Continuation War began in 1941 to regain the ceded territory, the men of the Opera were again enlisted, causing gaps in the programme.

The Ballet was saved by Les sylphides, which only has one male role, and Arvo Martikainen was home on leave every now and again. Tenor singer Alfons Almi spent much of the war in the artillery, but occasionally took aim at a high C in ‘Di quella pira’ in Il trovatore while on leave. The few guest artists that came to Helsinki mainly came from Germany, although in 1942 Anna Mutanen had the splendid opportunity of languishing as Mimì in La bohème in the arms of none other than Jussi Björling.

At times, the Opera itself went to the front lines, performing Carmen and Countess Mariza on outdoor stages in the wilds of Karelia. A symphony orchestra was assembled from front-line soldiers, the stage was framed by anti-aircraft guns and camouflage netting, and thousands of soldiers experienced the tragic tale of Don José and Carmen for the first time in their lives. When Aino Elenius declared to Alfons Almi in the final scene “I don’t love you!”, an old soldier in the front row grunted “I’ll be damned!” Why, indeed, would not a brave master sergeant be good enough for a cigarette factory girl? Singers and dancers also pulled their weight on entertainment tours, and the Ballet probably never had a keener audience than the young soldiers who had spent months living in a men-only environment.

In February 1944, Helsinki air defences were efficient enough to prevent the Opera House from suffering the fate of its counterparts in Vienna or Dresden. Finland only lost one limb in the war, so to speak, and that autumn the Opera too was able to return to peacetime status.

A new boom

The people were hungry for entertainment, and the Opera obliged with The Merry Widow and The Bat. Everything was in short supply: sets were made of cardboard and armour of paper string, and the fabrics bought by Aino Ackté before the war were recycled several times. A restoration of Russian opera to favour began with Boris Godunov, and a new Finnish opera composer, Tauno Pylkkänen, entered the scene with Mare ja hänen poikansa (Mare and her son, 1945). New foreign works were performed too: Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes was performed in 1949, only a few years after its premiere.

In 1947, the Ballet went to Stockholm to perform Swan Lake, demonstrating that Finland was alive and well. This message was communicated to the whole world in 1952, as aeroplanes and ships brought tourists to the Olympic Games in Helsinki while the train carrying the last of the war reparations to the Soviet Union crossed the eastern border. The same year saw the premiere of Pessi ja Illusia (Pessi and Illusia), the most popular Finnish ballet of all time, performed on the annual summer tour of the Opera and Ballet. The tours were organised by Alfons Almi, who had graduated from singer to financial manager when Sulo Räikkönen became director of the Opera in 1952. Foreign tours also continued with visits to Iceland and Leningrad, as it then was.

The year 1956 brought great changes. There was a general strike in Finland, Urho Kekkonen was elected President [and would remain in office for 25 years], and the Finnish Opera was converted into a foundation and renamed the Finnish National Opera. A new generation began to emerge, and by the late 1950s the FNO had an ensemble of near-legendary proportions: tenors Veikko Tyrväinen and Pekka Nuotio, baritone Usko Viitanen, soprano Anita Välkki and many others.

George Gé returned as ballet master. New ideas for dance were found at opera and ballet festivals each spring where East and West met. There was some amazement internationally at photos of dancers from the Bolshoi Theatre and the American Ballet Theatre pleasantly enjoying dinner together, even though this was at the height of the Cold War.

An orchestra of our own, at last

Alfons Almi became director of the Opera at the beginning of the 1960s and proceeded to hold the post for a considerable time. Tauno Pylkkänen, who by now was hailed as a ‘Nordic Puccini’, was appointed artistic director. The operating circumstances of the FNO improved with the construction of an annexe next to the Opera House, but dancers still banged their heads on the low ceiling of the rehearsal hall, and musicians were obliged to bend down in the corridors to get to the extremely small orchestra pit. Not nearly everyone had a dressing room of their own, and in the small staff canteen in the cellar the air was thick with smoke. Then again, the entire company was like one big family, and there was lots of laughter in the corridors to balance the cavalcade of love, hate and death on stage.

Though the premises were not getting any larger, major productions such as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der Rosenkavalier and Lohengrin were staged, and the repertoire included 20th-century operas such as Pelléas et Mélisande, Katya Kabanova and Albert Herring. Operetta began to recede into the past, being replaced by musicals such as Show Boat and West Side Story. The Ballet evolved some choreographers of its own, the most productive and significant of whom was Elsa Sylvestersson.

Money was always hard to come by, and the opera director was constantly signing promissory notes and sometimes even mortgaged his home in order to pay salaries. There was no scope for making cuts, as salaries were already so low that employees had difficulty supporting their families. What was worse, the FNO still did not have an orchestra of its own. The Helsinki Philharmonic, doubling as the opera orchestra, did its best, but there was simply not enough rehearsal time to go around. Two obstacles stood in the way of acquiring an orchestra: no money and no musicians. But once Alfons Almi had spent enough years wrestling with the Ministry of Education, the money finally came through, and when auditions were held in 1963, it was found that there were many young and talented musicians in Finland. Now, finally, the FNO had an orchestra of its own, led by two accomplished conductors: the gentlemanly Jussi Jalas and the Vienna-trained Ulf Söderblom.

Travels around the world

Finland attained middle age and celebrated her 50th anniversary with an operatic setting of Väinö Linna’s seminal novel Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) by Pylkkänen. When Merikanto’s Juha finally made it to the stage in the same year, things began to look good for Finnish opera.

Big men entered the stage: first Martti Talvela, then Matti Salminen and Jaakko Ryhänen.

In 1970, Alfons Almi moved sideways to the leadership of the Opera House Foundation and began a 20-year battle for a new Opera House. Juhani Raiskinen succeeded him as director of the FNO in 1973 and kicked things into a new gear. This was a time of great political activism, and theatres were carrying banners with the rest of them. Why should the FNO not be equally in touch with the times and socially aware? Courtly elegance from two centuries ago was suddenly joined by the earthy tones of rugged contemporary opera featuring ordinary and not so ordinary Finns as their leading characters. Director Sakari Puurunen introduced a style of realistic music theatre, and the number of premieres per year dropped to four.

A new Finnish opera was premiered almost every year. The real breakthrough year for Finnish opera was 1975, with the premieres within a few months of each other of Ratsumies (The Horseman) by Aulis Sallinen and Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptations) by Joonas Kokkonen. With the premiere of Punainen viiva (The Red Line) in 1978, it was suddenly discovered that opera had become an art form accessible to everyone.

Would the very Finnish story of an opera such as Viimeiset kiusaukset touch people abroad? “Well, people die in Switzerland too,” observed Joonas Kokkonen, and soon Paavo Ruotsalainen, the great lay preacher, was on his deathbed in Zurich, London and finally New York. The depiction of impoverished backwoods people in Punainen viiva, with Jorma Hynninen giving a powerful performance in the leading role, captivated audiences at the Metropolitan, while in Moscow some left during the interval. But on the whole, Finnish opera was praised so lavishly abroad that it finally hit home that Finland was an opera country and as such had to have a real Opera House.

The Finnish National Ballet also toured widely and acquired worldwide fame. In 1959, the FNB toured all over North America, giving no fewer than 63 performances to piano accompaniment. The South American tour of 1968 was even longer, with the FNB travelling triumphantly all over the continent for two and a half months. This remains the longest tour in the history of the FNO, and a remarkable one too, as in Buenos Aires two Romeos suddenly appeared on stage, the dancers being unable to agree on the casting. Cutbacks were made in the 1970s as financial difficulties emerged, and extensive touring became a thing of the past. New stars appeared on the dancing firmament as Ulrika Hallberg and Jorma Uotinen began their careers.

A dream come true

The plans for a new Opera House progressed slowly but surely. Ilkka Kuusisto and Jorma Hynninen took up leadership of the FNO in 1984 and began to prepare for the move to the new Opera House. Some large-scale productions were experimentally created outside the old Opera House. Classics were again introduced into the repertoire, as with the production of La traviata directed by Giancarlo del Monaco, but Nixon in China by John Adams also proved to be a big success. Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara created a fine sequence of operas: Thomas, Vincent and Auringon talo (The House of the Sun). Doris Laine was appointed director of the FNB, and exports of Finnish dance began again. The FNB toured Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Luxembourg, East Berlin, Edinburgh and China, and spent five weeks touring the USA.

In 1987, the long-awaited moment came with the breaking of ground at the site of the new Opera House in Helsinki. This happened in the midst of an economic boom, but only a few years later Finland was plunged into the deepest recession in its history. The FNO thanked its lucky stars that construction of the Opera House had actually begun, since otherwise the project might have been pushed back by decades.

The work was inevitably delayed by a lack of money, but the great white building inexorably rose on the shore of Töölönlahti bay, and Alfons Almi lived long enough to see the grand dream come true at the topping-out ceremony. The great bass singer Martti Talvela accepted the post of director of the FNO, following his success in making the Savonlinna Opera Festival an event of international repute, but his dramatic and untimely death led to the appointment instead of Walton Grönroos. Following the grandiose opening of the new Opera House in 1993, large-scale opera productions finally got under way. The first complete Finnish production of the Ring was begun, directed by Götz Friedrich.

Headlines were made again when Walton Grönroos abruptly left for Sweden in the middle of his tenure; and it was from Sweden that Juhani Raiskinen, of the quick wit and outspoken manner, returned once more to lead the FNO in 1997. Ulf Söderblom retired, and Okko Kamu became Chief Conductor.

New audiences were found as the FNO began to produce music theatre for children in daycare and schoolchildren. For once, the singers were able to receive direct feedback. “You wuss!” said one young viewer to a tenor who began to sing an aria instead of rescuing the princess from the dragon as he should have. Outreach work was begun in cooperation with schools. By the time of the 100th anniversary of the FNO, tens of thousands of schoolchildren around Finland had had personal contact with staging an opera production.

The principal Finnish composers featured in this decade were Aulis Sallinen and Erik Bergman. Sallinen’s Kullervo had been given its premiere in Los Angeles before the inauguration of the new Opera House, and the first world premiere of the new millennium was his King Lear. Bergman’s Det sjungande trädet (The Singing Tree) was taken by the FNO to Berlin on its major tour in 1999.

The FNB, meanwhile, was being led in his own inimitable way by Jorma Uotinen, who took the company on tour to Beijing, Rome, Amsterdam, Vienna and St Petersburg. One of the high points during this time was the visit paid by Sylvie Guillem as choreographer and soloist in Giselle, and the FNB subsequently also gave seven performances of Giselle at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris to capacity crowds.

In a changing world, opera remains constant
Juhani Raiskinen, who was well liked as director, finished his contract, and a new leadership was brought in from abroad: General Director Erkki Korhonen from Switzerland and Ballet Director Dinna Bjørn from Denmark. Korhonen’s high-profile directorship aimed at taking the FNO to the international top league. Big-name directors starting with Dario Fo were invited to direct impressive productions such as Der Rosenkavalier, Parsifal and Il viaggio a Reims.

Brilliant performances by Soile Isokoski, Matti Salminen, Jorma Hynninen, Juha Uusitalo, Jorma Silvasti, Lilli Paasikivi, Monica Groop and many others demonstrated that the legacy of Aino Ackté and Edvard Fazer was in safe hands. And when Karita Mattila made a guest appearance in Katya Kabanova and Tosca, tickets sold out almost instantly.

The tradition of new Finnish opera was continued once again by Einojuhani Rautavaara, whose impressive Rasputin was taken to St Petersburg in a guest performance. The operas L’amour de loin and Adriana mater by Kaija Saariaho, in productions directed by Peter Sellars, were overwhelming experiences, and foreign critics wondered at how Finns manage to fill the house night after night even for modern opera.

Leif Segerstam had been appointed Chief Conductor, but he backed out, and after years of searching Mikko Franck was appointed to replace him. Korhonen did not manage to finish his tenure without the by now familiar controversies; there was a reorganisation, and Päivi Kärkkäinen was appointed the new General Director, with Mikko Franck being renamed Artistic Director of the Opera. A new Artistic Director of the Ballet was also found: Kenneth Greve, a Dane determined to blow fresh air into the FNB. Päivi Kärkkäinen promised that a close eye would be kept on the finances, and Mikko Franck promised Verdi, French opera and 20th-century opera. The first century of the FNO came to a close with an intoxicating production of Die tote Stadt.

Over the past 100 years, a lowly agricultural borderland of the Russian Empire has evolved into a prosperous high-tech pioneer, and a penniless bunch of opera enthusiasts has grown up into a large, well-established cultural institution. The FNO has lived through the huge upheavals of Finnish history, making viewers laugh and cry in turn regardless of whether the country was in the maelstrom of the Civil War, in the depths of the depression, amidst the ruins of war, grappling with food shortages or beset by major changes in society. It all comes back to what Väinö Sola sang a century ago: “Laugh, O clown, at your broken love.”

Juhani Koivisto