By Salla Korpela, March 2009
Rigoletto with pizza and wine for young adults, La fanciulla del West for crowds at provincial marketplaces: The Finnish National Opera is systematically shaking off opera's elitist image.
"I consider it my job to make sure that an evening at the opera house is an overall pleasure," says the Finnish National Opera's general director, Päivi Kärkkäinen. "The art is high-quality, the setting is uplifting, the service and refreshments and even the parking – everything must run smoothly."
Since the end of 2007, she has been the head of Finland's only combined ballet and opera house. It has traditionally been windy at the top in this field, as anything related to opera tends to arouse passionate feelings in cultural circles. Kärkkäinen, however, takes a calm, practical view of her job as overseer of this large organisation.
"I can't sing, play an instrument or dance myself, but I enjoy working with talented artists," says Kärkkäinen, who joined the National Opera after a stint as a senior manager at the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. "My job is to make sure they have peaceful working conditions."
By international standards, the white building on the shore of Helsinki's Töölö Bay is a medium-sized player, with a permanent staff of about 550. The building's two stages host about 250 performances a year, including four opera premieres annually and three ballet premieres. The wide-ranging programme combines perennial favourites, performed in both traditional and innovative styles, as well as a new domestic opera every season. Finland boasts the world's highest proportion of new operas per capita annually.
Kärkkäinen sees gaining new audiences as a key part of her development work with the opera company. A cultural institution cannot survive if it is seen a merely an expensive, elitist hobby.
The Ministry of Education has decided that most of the National Opera's funding should come from proceeds of the state lottery and subsidies from municipalities in the Helsinki region. Ticket revenues only account for a fraction of the opera's budget. On the other hand, opera tickets are much cheaper in Helsinki than in many other opera cities around the world. In order to flourish, opera needs broad public support.
To this end, the National Opera is taking its show on the road out into the provinces, while trying to attract new audiences in the capital region. In the early autumn of 2008 it began a pilot project, broadcasting Giacomo Puccini's opera La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) live onto big outdoor screens in Helsinki's Senate Square and market squares in the cities of Jyväskylä and Rovaniemi. The experiment was a success, attracting 5,000 viewers around the country along with a sold-out crowd at the Opera House.
"I was very nervous ahead of time about how the outdoor screenings would work," recalls Kärkkäinen. "I watched it in Rovaniemi and was pleased to see that although the weather was chilly, most of the audience stayed for the second act." As a native of the southern central city of Tampere, Kärkkäinen knows from personal experience how much hassle it can be to travel to Helsinki for cultural events.
More experiments are forthcoming. The number of matinee performances will be increased, so that visitors from further away can make it home at a decent hour. In 2010, the opera will also begin touring.
In December 2008, the opera attracted young viewers with a pizza dinner. For one performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto, 150 tickets were offered to people under the age of 30 at a special price of 30 euros with pizza and wine served afterwards by a corporate sponsor. The event was marketed through Facebook. The opera's chief conductor and artistic director Mikko Franck, 29, spent the evening hanging out with the young visitors.
"There were 1,500 people who wanted to attend," says Kärkkäinen. "Who says that young people are not interested in opera?"
Another sign of the opera house's open-minded attitude was that the final events of the 2008 Finnish Idols competition were held on the opera's main stage. The television broadcasts were scheduled around the normal opera and ballet schedule – after all, the core business always comes first.
In 2011, the National Opera celebrates its 100th anniversary. In honour of the centennial, composer Jukka Linkola has been commissioned to write an opera about Robin Hood. The commission has an ambitious goal, to attract the most challenging audience of all: young boys. Girls are often seen in the audience, and there are productions aimed at children during every season. The opera troupe also regularly shares projects with schools all over the country.
Although the opera company is developing new ways of bringing in audiences, its most important goal is to create high-quality art. The National Opera holds firmly to its position among Europe's top rank of opera and ballet companies. In August 2008, Danish dancer Kenneth Greve took over as artistic director of the National Ballet.
"Since many opera tourists attend our performances, we provide services such as supertitling the operas in English," Kärkkäinen notes. "We also tour and exchange productions with opera houses such as London's Covent Garden and Venice's Fenice Opera."
However, the National Opera's most unique offering is distinctive Finnish opera.
"The formal language of Finnish music tends to be simple, unpretentious and close to nature," she says. "The themes of opera spring up from deep within the human experience. Come and listen, and you'll hear what I mean!"
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