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SEEN AND HEARD INTERVIEW
 

Olli Kortekangas: The composer of ‘Daddy’s Girl’ talks about the popularity of opera in Finland, the importance of singing in Finnish culture and the value of opera in modern society (BK)



Olli Kortekangas - Picture © Saara Vuorjoki/Fimic

Olli Kortekangas (born 1955) is one of Finland’s busiest and most popular contemporary composers. After studying composition at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy with Einojuhani Rautavaara (and later with Dieter Schnebel in Berlin) he has written a huge range of music for orchestra, choirs and solo voices as well as chamber music and instrumental pieces including two fully radiophonic works.  ‘Daddy’s Girl’ – Isän tyttö is the latest of his six operas. We met in the afternoon preceding the premiere of ‘Daddy’s Girl’ at Finnish National Opera in Helsinki.

We began by discussing why so many modern Finnish composers are drawn to opera. Compared to the UK, the Finnish operatic output is enormous and until very recently Finnish National Opera was committed to producing at least one new Finnish opera every year.

OK:  Well, opera has for decades been very popular in Finland, partly of course because we are still a young country without a long history of any opera at all but partly also because we do have a very long tradition of singing. Singing is a major theme in  the Finnish national epic The Kalevala for example, in which disputes are sometimes settled by singing contests. We also have a lot of choirs in Finland  - although only one fully professional  one – the Finnish National Opera Chorus  – and the standard is generally very high. I myself was a choral singer for many years and I also directed children’s choirs.

Though all of this is obviously true – the first acknowledged Finnish opera is Kung Karls jakt  - The Hunt of King Charles written to a Swedish libretto by Fredrik Pacius and premiered only in 1852 and the first major opera  in the Finnish language Pohjalaisia – The Ostrobothnians by Leevi Madetoja dates from as recently as 1924, I am still curious about  the fact that opera has fascinated Finnish composers so consistently over the years. How do so many performances come about, I wonder since new opera is so often an expensive luxury in the UK?

OK:  One important additional factor is that every major town in Finland has a professional orchestra. They have a tradition of performing operas as a change from concert music and sometimes even commission operas. Also, there are quite a few small, experimental opera companies. So, we have a lot of outlets all of the time.

I comment that it is a great pity that Finnish opera does not get performed much elsewhere, apart from operas by Kaija Saariaho – who is based in Paris and whose operas have libretti in French -  and wonder why this is, especially since Finnish is a particularly beautiful language to listen to and is probably very rewarding to sing.

OK: Well, some of Rautavaara’s and Sallinen’s operas have been been successfully performed abroad, but I agree. Finnish is a very good language for singers and after all, Janacek’s operas get performed worldwide and not that many people speak Czech. But it certainly took a few years before that started to happen. Perhaps Finnish opera will begin to travel more in time. I certainly hope so.

Having read that many young Finnish composers in the 1970s – Kortekangas among them - felt that Finnish music was ‘small and stale’ and that they wanted to ‘open the windows to Europe’ at the time, I was reminded that a contemporary derisory comment referring to earlier Finnish opera was to call it ‘Fur Hat Opera’ because of its  preoccupation with Finnish history.  I asked if Olli Kortekangas himself thought that Finland had changed much over the past ten years or so, and particularly whether Finnish people were as  proud of their nationality as I had thought they were when I first visited the country. (My own impression is that Finland has changed, although differently from the UK and I had noticed a newspaper article that morning for instance about  the restructuring of  the University of Turku in which all departments were to become part of three new faculties: science, pedagogy and theology.) . 

OK: I think people are still proud of being Finnish and having Finnish traditions, but we have had our share of external influences in recent years, not quite as massive as in other countries perhaps, but still quite a few, including our own economic collapse in the beginning of the 90s.

And although it is true that that you see the same shops, same advertisements and same television programmes in many different parts of the world these days, I like to think that it’s partly only surface, and there’s a lot of the essential Finnishness left underneath. But we cannot escape globalisation, and instead of whining about it, we should do our share in making the world a bit better.
Daddy’s Girl, for instance, is about the contrast between successive generations in one Finnish family spanning sixty years and is an attempt to express what is really important about human values, for nationality, politics and for changing ideologies. In the end, these are universal issues. Commentary like this is a very important reason for making operas, especially if you can portray real people with real emotions reacting to the kind of events which affect us all. Describing the world through “the big emotions of the little human being”, conveyed by the human voice – that’s opera at its best!

But what about the music?  Olli Kortekangas’s own ideas about music in general must have developed a lot over more than 30 years as a composer, so did the music in ‘Daddy’s Girl’ also change to reflect the episodes in the opera?

OK:
It does change.  In my music I am referring to different musical styles and genres, but I’ve still wanted to make sure that it sounds consequent all the time, that it’s my music from beginning to end. Much of it is built on Leitmotiven. (He sings the motif for the main character Anna, ‘Daddy’s Girl’ herself.)  I like to write music that is rewarding for the singers involved, so that they can enjoy themselves on stage. (Murmurs of deep approval and relief from me.) And there is music for children in this opera, two soloists and a children’s chorus. I enjoy writing music for children although it can be surprisingly difficult. But there is also a big fugue-like section and several choruses, and it is scored for a standard orchestra with double brass and woodwind and a synthesiser. The music is melodic although it is built on a fairly complex harmonic structure.

I say that he must have mellowed quite a lot since his early days and he laughs and says ‘Well, I’m still the same guy, just a better composer.’ We part thanking each other for making time for the meeting and I say that in UK theatres we think it is bad luck to wish artists good luck on a first night, so I won’t.

As we leave the Opera House and walk into the Helsinki snow, I am pleased to have met such a thoughtful, articulate and indeed kindly man. I look forward to the evening performance, quietly confident that I will not be disappointed. As it turns out, my confidence is particularly well-founded (see review.)

Bill Kenny

Note: Both 'The Hunt of King Charles' and 'The Ostrobothnians' will be performed by Finnish National Opera in 2009. For more details, please see the FNO's web site.


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