Eino Rautavaara launched into the Prologue of I pagliacci, and soon the vibrant music and exciting events captivated the full house. The audience felt for the artist as Wäinö Sola sang about Pagliaccio having to laugh through his tears, and at the end they were appropriately horrified when Sola killed Agnes Poschner. It was 2 October 1911, and the Domestic Opera established by Aino Ackté and Edvard Fazer had given its first performance. This marked the birth of what is now the Finnish National Opera.
In the beginning was I pagliacci
An opera company for a growing nation
To be sure, there had been an opera company in Finland back in the 1870s, but it had only survived for a few years. Now, 40 years later, the climate was much better: Helsinki was a rapidly growing city with a population of 140,000, Finland was on the way to becoming a modern industrialised country, railways and telephone lines were connecting the farthest corners of the country to its capital, and inventions such as cars, electric light and cinema were bringing the modern age to Finland’s cities. Finland had enjoyed flourishing literature, painting, theatre and music for quite some time, but now Finland had her very own opera company too.
The first dispute
The first performances were a huge success with every seat filled, but towards the spring the performances were no longer sold out, the money began to run out and tempers ran high. Aino Ackté, an internationally renowned soprano in her own right, stormed out of the Opera and left Edvard Fazer to fend for himself. Renamed the Finnish Opera, the company stayed afloat through the First World War and Finland’s Civil War and even staged its first performances of Finnish operas.
The photo is of Aino Ackté.
Temporary premises – for 70 years
As Finland gained her independence from Russia in 1917, ownership of Russian property in Finland was transferred to the Finns, including the lovely if smallish Alexander Theatre in Helsinki. This theatre was given to the Finnish Opera in 1919. This was to be a temporary solution, as there were plans to build a new Opera House, but it was feared that it might take as much as ten years to complete it. It was perhaps fortunate that the members of the Finnish Opera could not have known that their successors would still be performing major classic operas on the all too small stage of the Alexander Theatre more than 70 years later.
Taken in 1936, this photo shows the singers of the Chorus demonstrating how small the staff canteen at the old Opera House was. The company put up with the cramped conditions on stage, in the orchestra pit and in the rehearsal rooms because the plan was always to build a new Opera House. No one could know that it would take 70 years.
Ballet began with Swan Lake
Edvard Fazer had long been interested in dance, and in 1922 he decided to establish a ballet company in Finland. He invited George Gé, based in St Petersburg at the time, to become ballet master and selected Swan Lake as the first production. The Ballet upheld the Russian ballet tradition, as there were dancers among the emigrants who had fled to Helsinki from St Petersburg during the Revolution. In the following years, audiences were treated to great ballets such as Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker and Giselle.
Birth of Finnish opera classics
The operas performed were favourites in the core repertoire: La bohème, Tosca, Tannhäuser and The Magic Flute. A home-grown masterpiece emerged in 1924 with the premiere of Leevi Madetoja’s opera Pohjalaisia (The Ostrobothnians). Hailed as a national opera, it remains to this day the most frequently performed Finnish opera of all time. Another milestone work was completed around the same time, but Aarre Merikanto’s opera Juha was too demanding for its time, and it was not staged until 40 years later.
Operettas provided entertainment in the depression
As the global depression of the 1930s made itself felt in Finland, audience numbers began again to shrink alarmingly. Viewers were tempted with operettas, whose buoyant music and brilliant staging provided an escape from everyday life. Operetta productions were expensive, however, and there was talk of discontinuing them altogether. This would have put the Ballet out of a job too. A public uproar resulted, the Ballet survived, and operettas continued to be performed. At the same time, the Opera took artistic risks in producing new Finnish operas. An opera named Juha was staged in 1935, but this one was written by Leevi Madetoja. The modern and colourist operas of Väinö Raitio also made it to the stage.
Star singers from home and abroad
Low male voices have never been in short supply in Finland, but tenors are few and far between. In the 1930s, Alfons Almi became Finland’s leading tenor. He was the first Finn to perform Tristan, and he was soon followed by Jorma Huttunen. Several Finnish female singers had created a successful career abroad, beginning with Alma Fohström and Aino Ackté and followed in the 1930s by Hanna Granfelt and Lea Piltti. Foreign singers made guest appearances at the Opera, some of them truly huge stars such as the great bass Fyodor Shalyapin and the diminutive tenor Josef Schmidt.
Winter War took singers to the front
Towards the end of the 1930s, everything seemed fine. The country was picking itself up, the Olympics were coming to Helsinki, and the Opera had found its audience again. But there were dark clouds on the horizon that resolved themselves into bomber planes. In 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, and in the resulting bombardments even the Opera House was damaged. Singers and dancers were sent to the front, but performances resumed when the Winter War ended in armistice in March 1940.
FNO employees went to war just like other Finns. Memories of the war were revived with the very successful production of the opera Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) by Tauno Pylkkänen in 1967.
Stars kept coming during the war
The Continuation War broke out in summer in 1941, and Opera members went to the front again. Tenor Alfons Almi was in the artillery firing at the enemy, but every time he had a chance to take leave he would take a shot at the high C in Il trovatore instead. Star singers visited Finland even during the war, mainly from Germany, but the legendary Jussi Björling also paid a visit in 1942, charming the audience in La bohème. The war affected the repertoire, as Russian works were in disfavour for obvious reasons. This was a problem for the Ballet, since Swan Lake was a great favourite among audiences. During the war, the Ballet performed Les sylphides a lot, since it only has one male role, and Arvo Martikainen managed to get leave from the army every now and again.
Celebrated international stars visited the FNO from time to time, one of the brightest being Jussi Björling. The photo shows Björling on a visit at the home of acting opera director Oiva Soini during the war.
The Opera goes to the front
At times, the entire Opera went to war, so to speak. Outdoor stages were built in the wilderness of Karelia, a symphony orchestra was put together from soldiers at the front, and performances of Carmen and Gräfin Mariza given under these peculiar circumstances drew thousands of viewers. Russian bombers bombed Helsinki in February 1944, but thanks to effective anti-aircraft fire the Helsinki Opera House survived with minor damage and did not suffer the fate of its sisters in Vienna or Dresden.
Touring abroad, expenses be damned
In autumn 1944, the Opera gradually began to return to normal life, even though there was a shortage of everything. Audiences were plentiful, however, since after the dull war years they wanted entertainment. As early as in 1947 the Ballet went to Stockholm to perform Swan Lake, demonstrating that Finland had bounced back from the war. The Opera visited Leningrad in 1957, and part of the Ballet toured the USA towards the end of the decade. Finnish opera and ballet had thus demonstrably become an exportable item.
The Opera gets its own orchestra
An annexe to the Opera House was built in the 1950s, but this did nothing to alleviate the fact that the stage was much too small. Development was also hindered by the lack of an orchestra, since the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra was doing double duty as the orchestra of the Opera, and its timetable did not allow for sufficient rehearsals. In 1963, the Orchestra of the FNO was finally established, and young and skilled musicians recruited. Its conductors included the gentlemanly Jussi Jalas, the eccentric but talented Leo Funtek and Ulf Söderblom, who had studied in Vienna.
Autumn 1963 began with a flourish as audiences were introduced to the newly formed Orchestra of the FNO. Now that the Opera finally had an orchestra of its own, the standard of performances improved.
The quality of performances in the 1960s was high, the ensemble including such heavyweights of international stature as tenors Veikko Tyrväinen and Pekka Nuotio, baritone Usko Viitanen and soprano Anita Välkki. The Ballet had several talented young dancers such as Doris Laine, Elsa Sylvestersson, Margareta von Bahr and Matti Tikkanen. George Gé made a comeback as ballet master, and new ideas were found at the opera and ballet festival held each spring. At this festival, top companies from East and West met quite amicably, even though this was at the chilliest period of the Cold War.
Operas from real life
Juhani Raiskinen was appointed director of the FNO in 1973 and began to engage in social debate. The idea now was to create operas telling the stories of ordinary Finns, and Joonas Kokkonen’s Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptations) and Aulis Sallinen’s Punainen viiva (The Red Line) launched the Finnish opera boom. Finnish opera was boldly exported, and the Finnish psyche of the main character of Punainen viiva, powerfully performed by Jorma Hynninen, went over well in London and New York.
Punainen viiva (The Red Line) by Aulis Sallinen and Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptations) by Joonas Kokkonen demonstrated that an opera can tell a touching story of common people, thus reaching out to completely new audiences. Jorma Hynninen and Taru Valjakka played the leading roles – dirt-poor backwoods dwellers – in the production of Punainen viiva in 1978.
The eagerly awaited new Opera House
Alfons Almi, having retired as director of the FNO in 1971, focused his energies on getting a new Opera House built. After many troubles and delays, work began on a plot in the heart of Helsinki. But then Finland’s powerful economic boom collapsed into a recession of historical proportions, and the construction work was delayed. The new Opera House on Töölönlahti bay finally opened in 1993. Now for the first time Finland had the facilities to perform opera on a grand scale, and one of the first projects mooted was an entire Ring cycle, to be directed by Götz Friedrich.
After two decades of concentrated efforts, an Opera House of international calibre was erected on Töölönlahti bay.
A diverse arts institution
At the beginning of the new millennium, the FNO hosted celebrated directors such as Dario Fo and Peter Sellars. The steady stream of new Finnish operas was continued by Einojuhani Rautavaara and Kaija Saariaho. Today, the FNO is more diverse than ever, having broadened its range to musicals and tango concerts. The Ballet has won new audiences through its tours and performances on a grand scale at ice rinks.
Grand emotions for Finns
Over the past century, a relatively poor agricultural Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire evolved into a prosperous, technology-driven country. At the same time, a homeless opera company evolved into a national cultural institution. Yet the art has not really changed from that described by Pagliaccio a hundred-odd years ago: the show must go on whether we are amidst a destructive Civil War, in the buzz of an economic boom, in the depths of a recession, in the ruins of war, suffering from shortages, enduring massive social upheavals or cowed by financial difficulties. Whatever may happen, the job of the FNO is to give audiences the chance to experience grand emotions. Wäinö Sola would still be right on the money even today: “Sing, Pagliaccio, though your heart is breaking!”