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There is no ‘passaggio’: Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo talks to Bill Kenny about musical training, singing and his personal philosophy. (BK)





Juha Uusitalo’s career has rocketed to international status in a remarkably short period and the one thing that everyone knows about him is that he started out as an orchestral flute player, not singing at all until he was almost thirty one.


I met him backstage at Finnish National Opera in Helsinki the day after his magnificent performance as Scarpia and he talked about changing over to singing,  the so-called Orfeo Method (the music training system that he still studies) and the values that nowadays guide his career.


What everyone knows about you is that you started your musical life as a flute player. How did you begin singing professionally and what made you decide to change careers? Did you sing as a student?

JU: Well not really - sometimes of course, but not seriously. The year was 95, the first time I ever opened my mouth and that just happened because of my own interest in the stage, and of course music…


BK: Had you done acting? Because that’s another important thing about you -   you’re a very good singer actor….


JU: Well, I think that there have to be no technical problems with the music to act. If you have to count and control, for example.  If there is no technical control – if there are no singing problems – then you can be free. You have to be musically free - and so the most important thing if I am studying for a part like Scarpia for example, is to wait until I feel free - until the music isn’t a problem and then I am ready. Then there is no more Juha Uusitalo and only Scarpia, and Uusitalo jumps outside and there Scarpia is on stage. (laughs) And then he lives his own life… why should Scarpia shout all the time for instance? So I have learned to sing many passages much more quietly. You can be just as evil without always shouting, I think.

BK: So what happened in the beginning? Did someone suddenly say to you that you had a fine voice and that it should be trained?


JU: Yes, and there was my own interest in music – Finnish tango music for example. Actually, my wife is a school teacher and a music teacher and she advised me, ‘Why don’t you take some lessons?  You have a very big voice unfortunately and it disturbs our normal life at home here. (laughs) So she said ‘Don’t just shout in the shower. Go and take some lessons!’

I knew only one singer here in Finland, the lyric tenor Tom Nyman, so I called him and asked if he would kindly have time to listen to me. Then we met and he said, ‘Well, you have a very big voice and we should fix it a little bit.’


BK: So you had lessons with him…?


JU: Yes, but there was also the so-called Orfeo Method. It started with Luciano Pavarotti – he was our idol (that’s me and the oboe player Ilmari Varila) how he produced his voice – and that came only from good recordings, I still haven’t heard him live - and also David Oistrakh. The big question mark about him was, ‘How is it possible that he is playing so well? How does he make such a good sound?’ Everything looks so natural.


BK: So ‘Orfeo’ is about music as a whole rather than just the voice? It’s an approach to thinking about music…?


JU: Exactly. It’s about the freedom – there is no physical thing between you, the human, and music. Like I told you about music and acting. But you have to study your anatomy – you have to know your own body so well that you know so much and can forget about it.


BK: Having enough control not to have to think about control?

JU: In the singer’s case it’s about breathing of course, about posture – how you stand - and about the diaphragm. If it all works easily then you have the necessary moral capacity, to.. to live. I believe music has so much power that the music itself can take you up to the right position. It’s always a discussion with your physical body and your so-called spiritual world -everything has to be under control but you have to forget your own attitude for example…


BK: You just have to let it happen?

JU: Of course.  It sounds very easy but the first thing for me when I started to study ‘Orfeo’ was to find out how the playing of a woodwind instrument could become easier.  So we (Ilmari Varila and I) played only one tone for several hours a day and we couldn’t do that easily here in Finland, especially not in the Sibelius Academy. So we decided in 88 to move to Jugoslavia as it was then. We had plenty of time and we spent three months just playing long tones on woodwinds…..


BK: Are there special places or centres where you go to study this? How do you find teachers?


JU: Ourselves. It was just ourselves. We allowed ourselves to make mistakes, to play in an ugly way. Nobody can control such an ugly way and nobody tries to play in an ugly way of course, but it was important to find out what was happening when the sound is ugly.


BK: So you play a tone and discover how you feel physically and mentally when it sounds good or bad? It’s about self-awareness, about noticing what is happening when the sound is good or bad but also about using the music to lead you to the best sound? But is it also about not worrying too much about what you are doing?


JU: Not any attention on for example, how to focus the voice. There is no focus, only freedom. The focus it works by itself and always it leads to freedom. We call it… like how to find the perfect intonation, the single tone from the bottom to the top, three octaves. So I started with the flute and Ilmari Varila on the oboe – two different kinds of instruments but the same kind of practice. These are always the problem instruments in an orchestra because they are very high and you hear them very clearly over the others. Conductors are always asking for the flute to be a little bit sharper or lower and for the oboe to be louder or softer and so the problem is how to find the right intonation while not losing the quality of the sound. That’s the thing.  So if the single tone is wide and big enough then there shouldn’t be any intonation problems. Of course the ground level when an oboe sounds an A natural for the orchestra, is that it has to be right so the orchestra can tune properly, but if you concentrate too much on intonation while playing with colleagues, it disturbs your musicality.


BK: So always you’re looking for the right sound with the least conscious technique. You say that the method has been around for a long, long time but where are its origins? It’s called 'Orfeo', so is it from Greece?


JU: It is, yes.  


BK: So it’s a kind of philosophy almost? It reminds me of a martial art training or the ‘The Inner Game,’ the thing that some sportsmen do: concentrating always on the result rather than on technique..

JU: It is … almost. It’s very difficult to explain the system. Every musician can say, ‘but that’s what we all do’ but it’s not so and there is no book yet about this method. The book that is coming soon is more than one thousand pages. My life changed immediately when I started to think about how to play easier and I started to criticise the world all the time. In the beginning it was too much for me as a young man because I really started to criticise and for two years I couldn’t listen to music at all; all I could hear were the mistakes. But that was my own personal problem which I needed to work through and also I needed to learn how to be more diplomatic and less difficult (laughs.)

BK: So how old were you when you started to think this way?

JU: Twenty four. And I was so high-minded that I thought I was a god! (laughs) But then I started to realise that I couldn’t do music all by myself. I needed my colleagues too!


BK: Did this sort of thinking make your life difficult with singing teachers?


JU: It did. So I don’t have any singing teachers now. In the beginning I did have them of course for advice, but now I have to say that it has nothing to do with them. You can’t produce a clone. Some teachers can be helpful but always you have to find your own way, your own spiritual way.


BK: I’m sure that takes very great determination. One of the things I wanted to ask you about was working with Gustav Kuhn and the Tiroler Festspiele. As a young singer did you study at Kuhn’s Accademia di Montegral? I have the recording of Siegfried with you singing the Wanderer at the festival.  


JU: Oooh, gosh. (laughs) By that time Ilmari Varila and I had stopped practicing together and if you have that recording you will hear that I was like a baby elephant who wanted to shout like hell with the great passion of the music. I was very blind as you can tell if you are listening to that recording.


BK: Well, it’s still obviously Uusitalo I think, but what were your first singing engagements and what eventually took you to the Tiroler Festspiele?

JU: Here in
Finland, I started with small companies – there are several - and also with the Sibelius Academy which I couldn’t get into as a student. They didn’t take me because they said I should think twice before starting a different career from playing the flute. In fact they never took me. At that time the Academy’s opera studio was very, very good and did real productions with professional singers, designers, stage directors and conductors and there was a lot of competition to get places from people all over the world. People wanted to know how we could produce such outstanding singers. The Director then was Pekka Salomaa and now it is his son Petteri Salomaa, but the school has changed a lot. Martti Talvela said of it when he visited the new Sibelius Academy, ‘It’s looks very gorgeous  and lovely but where is the art?’ The old spirit has gone somehow; the level is still very high but the quality isn’t quite so good now, I think. Like everywhere else in Europe and the rest of the world, we are so busy and there’s too much concentration on technique.


BK: So you started off singing in a small way and then gradually worked your way up?

JU: Yes. My CV is very funny because although I was never a singing student there, I did start off in the Sibelius Academy with Falstaff in 97 and after that I made my first Flying Dutchman… (BK: You started at the top!) … (JU laughs) and eventually they took me here at Finnish National Opera. They gave me Angelotti and Antonio and they thought, ‘This man has had a very short and effective career!’


BK: I heard you here in Fanciulla in 2001 and remember thinking then that your voice was developing fast and was already much freer.


JU: Yes, that’s the thing. To find the freedom. You have to ask where the power of the voice comes from. It shouldn’t come from the muscles. It should come from finding the freedom and then you  have to discover that you can still live and sing without using the muscles. Then you have more space in your head and you can actually control yourself easily because you are not always concerned about pushing yourself all the time.


BK: The tenor's disease! (JU laughs) But let’s go back to that Tirol Festival Ring - I have seen that production twice now, once in the 24 Hour version. What happened when you went there? Were you invited?

JU: Yes, and it came of course too early for singing the Wanderer.  I spent six or seven weeks there with my family and I was covering for Albert Dohmen. For the other parts there were several covers but I was alone. The company is organised in a very Italian way - you never know who will sing the performance until the last minute. My attitude was that I had nothing to lose but I could try my best and at that time I still needed the score because it was too early. I hadn’t learned the part by heart.

Anyway, Gustav Kuhn was very happy with my singing and musicality and also with the way I could follow his conducting. As the premiere came closer he called me to his office and said that Albert was ill and that I should sing the dress rehearsal and maybe the first night. And also maybe the second night – there were only two performances. Then I saw Albert somewhere and he was very, very friendly and he really wanted to give me that huge part, so I sang it. It went very well and was one of the most important steps in my career….


BK: A springboard?

JU: Yes, and it was very, very helpful.


BK: I’m fascinated that you have this huge range of roles - Don Magnifico, Rance, Balstrode and Scarpia as well as Wagner. And you enjoy them all.


JU: I really enjoy it, yes. When I did the first Magnifico, the day before I had sung Jago, and actually, they are brothers although Jago is much younger than Magnifico. They are both evil although Magnifico is more angry because of his behaviour, his drinking problems and lack of money but in a way you can find similarities between them. For Jago, you have to leave your body and be like a snake and for Magnifico the role is more physical but the two roles can really help each other.

As a flute player, I played all sorts of music and I want to continue with a wide repertoire. I don’t want to specialise in Wotans because music as a whole is the most important thing. I want to be a musician and want to find many different kinds of colours when I am singing.


BK: Won’t there be pressure on you to do mostly Wagner though because you’re so good at it?  You just did a Wagner concert here with Leif Segerstam, singing all kind of Wagner roles, some of which weren’t typically yours, and it was a great success I hear.


JU: There is pressure to do Wagner. If I look at my schedule I have three different Rings in the next two years – in Valencia, in Florence at Maggio Musicale, that’s the same production in different places,  and also in Vienna. I start rehearsing for those next Spring.


BK: Do you feel now though, that you have sufficient stature to choose what you do more carefully so that you can keep singing a wide repertoire?


JU: I feel more free now. I would really like to sing Don Giovanni or Leporello or both and maybe that will happen some day. Perhaps I will.


BK: There’s a wonderful even quality about your voice now throughout its whole range. I have described it as effortlessly seamless, without ‘gear changes’ on more than one occasion and others have too….


JU: There is no passaggio. Some people would kill me for saying that with a smiling face but there is no passaggio. There is only for example, like singing folk music and then reaching for some extra higher notes. Of course there is a kind of passaggio but there is no special trick to it. Once again it is about freedom in placing the voice and again too, it is the music that leads you.


 BK: Does that apply to diction too? I have heard you singing in Italian, German and English and always every word is audible and clear. How do you make that happen?

JU: Yes, it is the same but I listen to people very carefully when I am travelling and imitate them a little. In San Francisco for example, where I was recently, I found that if I used a slight American accent, then people understood me better and also I began to understand them more too. And it’s the same in
England where I practice the real English and in Germany too.


But if you have no technical problems with singing then the tongue is also freer and the diction automatically becomes clearer. It’s exactly the same process.

Time wears  on as always, and we talk finally about his heroes as a young singer and about working relationships with conductors. JU says that his early idols were Martti Talvela (understandably) but also Pavarotti, David Oistrakh and James Galway because he was initially unsure about his fach and was still an instrumentalist then.


He includes Sir Colin Davis,  Zubin Mehta and Sakari Oramo among conductors he admires for   their musicianship and ability  to work with singers cooperatively to ’find the music’ as he puts it. He values cooperation very highly indeed and mentions a serious disagreement he once  had with Riccardo Chailly about how to perform Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He says that although the orchestra had applauded his singing in rehearsal, Riccardo Chailly summoned him afterwards and told him that he did not understand Bach. Chailly was apparently quite threatening in attitude and started the discussion by implying that he could damage JU's career considerably. A difficult exchange of views followed in which  JU reminded the maestro gently  that he had performed a great deal of Bach as a flute player but also said that in his view, Chailly's way of presenting Bach was more like mathematics than music. The result was JU's immediate dismissal and the experience upset him very much, he says. Despite being invited to do so,  since then  he has refused to work with Chailly again.


It becomes clear to me that Juha Uusitalo is very much his own man these days, quietly but firmly assured about his current abilities but also willing and ready to learn from anyone for whom mere  rank or ego is not a problem.

It isn’t for him. Though he’s physically huge and has a deep and rich speaking voice,  he laughs all the time and seems genuinely pleased to be talking with me about music. ‘The music is always first,’ he says constantly, ‘That’s the really  important thing.’

Bill Kenny






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