By Sara Nyberg, February 2011
The Finnish National Opera, founded in 1911, opened its 100-year anniversary celebrations with a Robin Hood world premiere, and continues throughout 2011 with more premieres, guest performances in other regions and two exhibitions.
Colourful costumes greet operagoers in the foyer of the Finnish National Opera. A hedgehog, a hare and a lynx smile as people enter.
This is a great start to a year-long celebration of music and dance. The exhibition of opera design offers a rare closer look at the painstakingly prepared dresses and costumes, while videos show how backstage professionals create the magic.
A timeline from 1911 to the present displays programmes, tickets, letters and memorabilia, including glamorous evening gowns from Il viaggio a Reims (2003), which was directed and partly designed by Dario Fo.
Pianist and impresario Edvard Fazer, composer Oskar Merikanto and opera singer Aino Ackté put their heads together in 1911 and started an opera house called the Domestic Opera. They dreamed of a permanent opera that would interest the intelligentsia – both Finnish and Swedish speakers – of the rising nation, which eventually became independent from Russia in 1917.
Despite years of persistent financial worries, the opera survived and gradually grew into the Finnish National Opera as we know it today. The first-ever performance took place on November 2, 1911. The double bill included I Pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, in Swedish, and La Navarraise by Jules Massenet, in Finnish.
About two years after Finland achieved its independence, the former Russian Theatre was bequeathed to the Opera Company. The National Opera made its home in what is now called the Alexander Theatre (on Bulevardi in Helsinki) until 1993, when a new, 1,300-seat opera house was built on the shore of Helsinki’s Töölö Bay.
The 2011 celebratory year opened with a brand new version of Robin Hood in January. The story, which has been told over and over since the 13th century, is back with new music by Finnish composer Jukka Linkola.
"For me, Robin Hood is a sentimental rascal, with a lot of humour in him," says Linkola. This forms his eighth opera; he is also known for composing jazzy big-band music.
The libretto comes from Jukka Virtanen, a well-known writer and humorist whose career extends from the 1960s to today. There are new aspects in the story, such as an Arabian girl named Jemila who joins forces with Robin Hood. Another new lady in the male-filled story is the Sheriff of Nottingham’s strong-minded mother.
The narrative runs fast, punctuated by plenty of swordfights, and the music is wild. This opera really offers something for everyone in the family. "It was almost too scary, but not too much," says seven-year-old Max, who watched Robin Hood with his parents. "I wasn't bored at all."
The centennial brings extra concerts and performances to the Opera House and to other towns in Finland. In June, for instance, Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring can be seen at Muurame Cultural Centre near the central Finnish city of Jyväskylä.
In the autumn a series of lectures and talks, open to all audiences, takes place in Almi Hall, the Opera House’s smaller second stage. A commemorative seminar led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari crowns the programme. Discussion topics include national ideals and the concept of nationalism, subjects that were strikingly relevant in 1911 and still are today.
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