Opera is a city in Finland
In the great operas, there is always someone who has to go through the mud. There must be something to sing about. It's only been one night since the big and noisy rock and pop event Roskilde Festival, and my shoes are ravaged after four days of musical FOMO in a Danish field. Through the window of the small plane from Helsinki to Savonlinna, the mainland dissolves into islands. The silence resounds, but Finnish star sopranos are already home in my tired head. The first thing that catches the eye in Savonlinna, a small town in south-eastern Finland, are the many shoe brushes, often three brushes from brooms combined into one brush, in front of the houses on the street leading to Olavinlinna Castle, the epicenter of the Savonlinna Opera Festival. It was here – in the middle of the endless Finnish nature – that in 1912, i.e. 111 years ago, the Finnish soprano Aino Ackté succeeded in performing opera for the first time.
Savonlinna has 35,000 inhabitants, but like Roskilde, the city grows every summer with 70,000 guests. They come to experience great dramas. Tonight it is the romantic Charles Gounod’s one smash hit, Roméo et Juliette. The love between the young couple flows easily and passionately in the well-turned duets. Amy Lane's staging is like a fiery film set in New York at the end of the 19th century. The Capulet and Montagues families feud, forbidden love blossoms, birds chirp, the orchestra paints with the brush strokes of great emotions, and Sarastro, the high priest, rages. The tragedy is sensed already in the overture.
A cold Nordic full moon on the stage witnesses the warm Mediterranean events. It lights up all the time – beautiful and gloomy. The moon knows everything. Life is exchanged for death. The melody never stops. Only at the end, when the poison in a small green bottle hits. Just under 2,500 members of the public are included in one listener. »Bravo«, shouts the man next to me twice, staccato and rolls on the r. Finnish is made to express excitement.
People who have driven seven hours from one Finnish island to the next have no regrets and would do the same trip again
The lavish costumes are debated during the break. Samppanja-terassi is closed, but the castle has many other terraces where you can enjoy champagne. There is a lot of Marimekko, it is predictable and we also know how the story of Romeo and Juliet ends. But people who have driven seven hours from one Finnish island to the next have no regrets and would do the same trip again. Opera doesn't exist without long journeys.
Johan Carlsson fights with his cello between the many people on their way out of the castle. »There is a battle to join the festival orchestra. Musicians from over 10 Finnish orchestras are handpicked. They must be able to withstand playing under the difficult conditions in the old castle. Wasn't the acoustic fantastic?« asks Carlsson. Yes! »Tomorrow it’s Die Zauberflöte. We play it in Finnish.«
Old operas in big castles
Also in reality – right outside the hotel next to the ocean – the Finnish moon was shining. It was difficult to sleep. Opera is hip, I have read. Opera can still be modern pessimistic satires on human nature. People go on opera tours on TV and in reality – and in Bayreuth, a place between dream and reality.
So is the opera destination Savonlinna. A few hours before today's opera, the streets suddenly fill up with people. All those people have not come to visit the world's largest wooden church in the nearby town of Kerimäki or Sulkavan Suursoudut, the world's largest rowing competition. They have landed in a kind of opera paradise 332 kilometers from Helsinki and 316 kilometers from St. Petersburg.
Small palm trees grow there on Satamapuistonkatu, which with a little hard Finnish willpower can be called a riviera
The receptionist at the hotel first of all informs the guests that the sauna is open from 5 to10 pm – five hours, the same length as a proper opera, then she tells you that you can borrow Jopo bikes, and finally that there is breakfast. This is how a drama is built. She does not know how many of the hotel guests come for the operas. Proper hosts do not interfere whether you are into Wagner, operetta or have other virtues. But others in the city say: »Look at the many expensive cars«. Maybe they are parked outside the city. I haven't spotted them. The town is so small, so everybody hangs out in the same places. The couple in the restaurant by the castle, eating a deer burger just like mine, could be Papageno and Papagena, who are on stage tonight. We are all opera fans here. Cosi fan tutte.
Small palm trees grow there on Satamapuistonkatu, which with a little hard Finnish willpower can be called a riviera. Opera fans live at Villa Aria, and you can park at the bus stop and be taken to the castle by the Opera bus. In the marketplace they sell strawberries, Makea Polka, and Sibelius board games with places where the great Finn lived. Jean Sibelius taught the Finns to practice opera, says the seller, who will go and watch The Barber of Seville in a few days. Kaija Saariaho is difficult, but she would also buy a ticket for Saariaho. She must experience at least one opera. Otherwise it's not summer.
1000 lakes and Finnish flute
Savonlinna was founded in 1639 based on Olavinlinna Castle (Saint Olaf's Castle). The castle was built by Erik Axelsson Tott in 1475 in an attempt to protect Savonia and control the volatile border between the Kingdom of Sweden and its Russian adversary. In winter this place must be the opera version of the Disney hit Elsa Frost.
The season ends when the fat Finnish lady sings for the last time
Today, nobody in their right mind would think of doing an opera festival in an old castle on a tiny island. Right now, the technicians are fighting against the strong wind, which will disturb the sound in the castle courtyard, which is only covered by a huge tarpaulin. Backstage, the singers in the festival choir – which Australian-born Jan Schweiger puts together one year at a time – must walk around as if on scaffolding; up and down small steep steps. The rooms are like caves in an adventure film. Here hang meters of clothes and a huge several meters long green snake, which will be on stage tonight. I'm seriously afraid of getting stuck in a small window in the castle wall, but it's the quick way out to the most sumptuous nature-created »terrace« with a view of water, rocks and small islands. The wildest backstage area for opera singers you can imagine. And some guests come by boat and jump in to watch opera.
This is the land of 1000 lakes – actually 168,000 lakes. The relationship between utopia and reality is difficult to calculate in the country which is said to have the world's best democracy. But tonight the weather plays tricks. The strong wind delays The Magic Flute – or Taikahuilu, as Mozart's Singspiel is called in Finnish – by half an hour. This means a little more time in the hotel's sauna. I prepare for the opera by going through a cleansing process. I walk straight from the sauna to the opera.
The Finnish phrases of the bird catcher Papageno create laughter. He is radiant in blood orange fishnet stockings and a white dress. Children in animal costumes are popular. And there it is, the green snake I saw in the wardrobe earlier. Once the flute plays, everyone seems to be having fun in August Everding's staging, which is playing for the 50th year in a row (!). However, with few innovations. But The Magic Flute is also mysterious like Ingmar Bergman's TV production from 1975. An icy Nordic adventure with singers in white coats and black masks. Surrounded by deep Finnish voices, the flute sounds unearthly light. The Queen of the Night sings her power aria in the second act. When it's all over, the singer who played Juliette the night before walks out of the castle humming the last aria from The Magic Flute. In the summer in Savonlinna, everyone is part of the bel canto family.
When it's July again
The opera festival driver has come to drive me to the small plane to Helsinki. A few days ago he drove with Roméo. His new car has already driven 5000 kilometers in a month, transporting singers and musicians to and from the festival. Many of them will not leave Savonlinna. Last year the driver heard his first opera. Tosca. Now he watches all the costume rehearsals and, by the way, has moved to Savonlinna. A vibrant city throughout July, but in August the city becomes empty. The season ends when the fat Finnish lady sings for the last time. Life here is like a ring.
In the small plane sits a young Japanese couple from a suburb of Osaka. They were there too for Taikahuilu, the Finnish Magic Flute last night
When it is July again in 2024, a special work lands in Savonlinna, says festival director Ville Matvejeff: »It is a great honor to finally present Kaija Saariaho's opera Adriana Mater for the first time. It is surprising that the works of such a central Finnish composer have not been in the repertoire before. Adriana Mater is one of the great masterpieces of our time,« says Matvejeff about the opera, which is a story about life during a war. What does a woman do when she has to give birth to a child caused by a rape. »I believe that this production, its dramatic story and soundscape are perfectly suited to the castle and the magical location by the lakes.« The director also believes that the acoustics in the castle are the most spectacular in the world. At least it is certain that there will be people from all over the world to experience something that you can only experience here.
Rolling suitcases and new beginnings
In the small plane sits a young Japanese couple from a suburb of Osaka. They were there too for Taikahuilu, the Finnish Magic Flute last night. My Japanese is non existent, we meet at a few English glosses. They once read about this Finnish opera festival that it is paradisiacal and had to go.
In the small plane there is also a woman with whom I believe I saw on the stage two days ago. As I muster up the courage to walk over to her, she disappears with her small suitcase in the throng of people at the airport. Was it really Juliette?
The escalator down to the train towards Helsinki seems so unbelievably small in the huge concrete space. The people look like busy ants on their way down to the underground. The architect MUST have intended it as a stage for an opera. Or the perfect backdrop for Johan Julius Christian Sibelius's Seventh Symphony. It's a pretty wild and huge container for human longings, wanderlust, rolling baggage, new beginnings or endings.
Gentle ambient music sounds on the train platform (Helsinki-Vantaa Airport is obviously working very consciously to welcome new visitors to Finland with sound). This is not Hades. The speaker's voice does not sing dreams with her excellent soprano, but slowly spells out too many practical details and irrelevant delays. No drama. Life goes on.
It is the voluntary Underworld – we know we will come out on the other side, but changed
The big journey – everyone does it
When visiting any city in Finland, it is difficult not to come across the name Alvar Aalto (1889-1976), the architect and designer behind the functionalist furniture and – perhaps – opera lover, because how else to explain that Aalto once said the following: »Human life is a combination of tragedy and comedy. The shapes and designs that surround us are the music accompanying this tragedy and this comedy.«
When you take the trip to Savonlinna, you cannot avoid experiencing ordinary life. Transition from life to death. The journey. The general and the special in moving. Everyone does it… It is harsh and full of pleasure at the same time. The small life seen through the magnifying glass of art – shaped as gigantic, abstract and sweaty bel canto arias in a steamy room.
When it's July again, the Finns at the Elsa Frost Castle will throw themselves confidently into the magic again. The underworld will be calling us again. We will voluntarily go down into it. The same will happen at Roskilde next summer. It is the voluntary Underworld – we know we will come out on the other side, but changed.
I was infected by the transitions, which take place in Savonlinna. A small town in the very young country of Finland, which regards very old operas as gold. Next year the Japanese young couple and other art tourists can experience music by a modern composer, the very recently deceased Kaija Saariaho, which made connections between music and nature. Now Kaija Saariaho is a precious inheritance.
Savonlinna Opera Festival takes place July 5 – August 4 in Savonlinna, Finland.