Lilli Paasikivi on functioning of the modern opera house

Lilli Paasikivi is a Finnish mezzo-soprano who since 2013 has been the Artistic Director of Finnish National Opera and Ballet. We met with Lilli towards the end of 2019 to talk about what the functioning of a contemporary opera house involves, how its repertoire is planned and what new projects are being developed to keep up-to-date with developments of moden technologies. Since the interview some FNOB plans have been disrupted, as they have been for so many art institutions in the world, with projects planned for spring 2020 now being rescheduled for the season 2020/2021.

Lilli, what does the role of Artistic Director of an opera involve?

The core task is of course to plan the opera repertoire – to choose the works, the corresponding teams and performers – and to supervise their quality. Artistic director in every opera house has different tasks or duties, but in Finnish National Opera and Ballet (FNOB) I also have budget responsibility together with the supervisors and within collective agreement negotiations. I am also involved in a lot of HR and management together with respective supervisors.

Do you plan the repertoire for the year alone, or do many people do it together with you?

Of course, planning involves many people. I make suggestions, and our general director has to approve them. When I suggest a title, we begin to investigate whether it can be done in this house. If it is a rental production, there are also many limitations involving the capacity of technical departments or measurements of the production – whether it will fit the stage. We also have to consider what alterations we will have to make before we could invite it to our house. So it is never one person saying ‘This is what we are going to do’, but the suggestions for possible productions and their teams come from me. Then we always have to make sure that they fit in with other repertoire and that they are reasonable cost-wise. It is always teamwork.

How much in advance do you have to plan the season at the opera?

At the moment [2019] we are planning the season 2022/2023, so it is usually 4-5 years in advance. Of course, premiere productions come first, and then the revivals that we have in our storage are fitted in. If we decide to do a large-scale premiere production, then we have to make sure what kind of ripple effect it has on the rest of the season in terms of the use of orchestra, the use of chorus, etc. We must always take into consideration the financial side of it. If we want to program a more risky title that is not a guaranteed box office hit, then we need to kind of surround it with safer choices.

Do you prioritize your own national artists – performers, directors, conductors, dancers – when you invite people to work at FNOB?

We have that Finnish saying that goes something like ‘There is no point bringing from outside something that you have at home’ but of course we have several duties here. Our first priority is top artistic quality. Therefore we always cast with the requirements of the role first. It is also important that the Finnish National Opera can highlight something unique – top quality Finnish choreographers, composers, performing artists, etc. We want to support vivid and strong Finnish opera life. We are not the sole employer for Finnish artists, but we are naturally a very important one. Then, on the other hand, we have duties towards the audiences, as they are also hungry to see new things and some variation in artists they see. Our audiences are also interested in seeing new performers, so side by side with the many wonderful Finnish artists, we also want to introduce some interesting international artists in the leading roles.

You are evidently travelling a lot to see other opera productions in the world. What is the position of Finnish National Opera as compared to other international opera houses? How it is perceived, is it known internationally as compared to its counterparts?

Certainly, I think that we are ranked quite highly – we are a national stage and we have fantastic quality in this house. Some of our productions clearly compare to those at any other international house, and we are an international opera house ourselves. We are a house of a big size and can do various repertoire. We naturally cannot compete financially with the wealthiest European opera houses that have much bigger budget than we do – these restrictions can be seen in the size of choruses, for instance. If you take the opera house in Amsterdam – they have a panoramic stage and can fit a hundred of chorists in one show. Or in another very wealthy opera house in Central Europe they can invite a very expensive international superstar to sing in a smaller role, as well. I am very content and happy to say that we have high artistic level in everything that we do – the choices of artists are not necessarily most expensive international names, but they are good singers and do justice to the work.

I have noticed that you have some productions that are done together with other opera houses of Festivals – like Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin or Sebastian Fagerlund’s Autumn Sonata.

Yes, indeed. Kaija’s L’Amour de Loin actually started in Salzburg, then went to Paris where I sang it, and then we had it here in Helsinki. With Kaija’s another opera Only the Sound Remains we were the second opera house after Amsterdam to host it. Kaija Saariaho’s productions are very often initiated elsewhere rather than here – the same is with her next opera Innocence that begins with Aix-en-Provence production [cancelled at the time of publishing this interview], but we are its co-producers. We will be the third place to take it and will show it in our next season in January 2021. So, yes, we cooperate a lot with other European houses and try to find new productions. There is also nation-specific repertoire that can then be taken on internationally – for instance, that was the case with ICE which is a Finnish story, but is also an international one that can be placed anywhere thematically. So, to sum it up – we are the only opera house in Finland, and we have to have a much wider spectrum of programming than a more local European house that can afford to specialize. Even in Berlin three opera houses – Staatsoper, Deutsches Oper and Komisches Oper – have very different profiles. Here we have to cater for the one and only audience we have.

I come from St Petersburg. It is a big neighbouring city that can potentially provide new audiences for your opera house, while Helsinki residents could also come to Mariinsky Theatre. How do you think their mutual interest could be fostered?

I think that Finnish audiences travel to Russia for cultural reasons quite a lot. It would be great to have more cooperation in this sphere. We have some singers and conductors who come from Russia here, and there had been some situations when a production had been saved by a singer who quickly came from St Petersburg. For instance, once I fell ill when singing Marina in Boris Godunov, and a Russian singer travelled by train in the last moment to stand in for me (laughs). So yes, it is a huge cultural metropolis near us, and it would be great if we could cooperate more.

Could you name other productions by Russian composers that have been staged here in Helsinki?

Well, during my time we had Shostakovich – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (done by a Norwegian director), The Nose. We had Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Eugene Onegin was planned for March-April 2020 with Boris Pinkhasovich singing the title role, I was very much looking forward to hearing him here. So yes, we have had some Russian productions here and have invited singers from Russia to sing with us.

Could you describe the big project – RING CYCLE – to be done at FNOB during the next couple of years? Its conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has said that it might probably be the first and last RING in his career. How did the project come along and fully develop?

I felt very stronlgy that now when we have a great generation of Wagnerian singers in Finland and we have technical possibilites to update and make a new Ring Cycle we have to do it. And when the opportunity presented itself, I suggested it to previous Artistic Director that we should do a Ring Cycle that would also be technically easier to integrate into our repertoire. The previous Ring had four productions but it took the space of eleven in our storage. It was so massive that you couldn’t perform anything in parallel with it – it blocked the whole house while it was running. So we needed a more flexible production – that was the purely technical side of it. Then of course it was important that we would start making a Finnish Ring with Finnish team. Starting with Das Rheingold we succeeded to have Finnish singers, with one exception. In the later parts we have some international artists coming, but we were successful in making it a truly Finnish initiative. And a small point to make here – it is massively successful – the packages and individual tickets are quickly sold out. Coming back to its creative team – for visuals we have Mikki Kunttu who has done many great productions, for instance, Kullervo with Tero Saarinen Company. His aesthetics is very strong and Wagnerian, in my opinion, and he was very stronlgy in my head for this project when I saw his Kullervo. And now he is coming back after working in Montreal for Cirque du Soleil and has many interesting ideas. Visually it will be a sensational RING. Anna Kelo, its director, knows the Ring like her own pocket – she was Gotz Friedrich’s assistant at the time and has lived with this project intensely for the last 30 years.

How do you create the democratic atmosphere that I strongly feel present in this opera house?

Naturally the operatic world is hierarchical. You can’t have democracy in arts in the usual way, but you can have democracy in meeting people and communicating with them. In arts you always have to have a conductor, a director, and inside an opera house you also have to have an hierarchy. That doesn’t mean that this fact takes away the necessity of listening to people and cooperating with them. I think that Esa-Pekka Salonen is a wonderful example of Finnish leader who is extremely down to earth and easily reachable, makes no fuss of himself and has such a natural authority with orchestras and performers.

Tickets to opera are usually expensive. How do you draw younger audiences and people with less money into watching your productions?

We have a very active outreach department where they annually do a lot of cooperation with special audiences. We have a lot of school audiences who come here to see main rehearsals. We also have Art Testers cooperation project with the Finnish Cultural Foundation where they bring all Finnish 8th graders to opera or another chosen theatre or organisation. It is a 5 year project, and we have matinees with just school children who prepare beforehand, learn a bit about the production and then come and see it. Some of them are restless and can’t keep away from their phones, while others are captivated by this experience. This is a very positive thing to be part of. Then we also have school operas where they decide on a theme, prepare everything and compose together and then make a production here. That can be done in individual schools every year. Then we have people with special needs or elderly audiences or immigrants – we have many specially curated projects like that.

Do you commission new works from modern composers?

I have commissioned several main stage productions: Indigo by members of of metal band Apocalyptica a few years ago, Sebastian Fagerlund’s Autumn Sonata and Jaakko Kuusisto’s Ice. For black box theatre Iiro Rantala composed a chamber opera Sanatorio Express for us. Also, our outreach department commissions regularly school operas where both librettos and scores are specifically tailored for those educational purposes. Some works have also been commissioned for your Youth programme Together with Masters.

Could you please talk more about the fascinating project Opera Beyond that you have started at FNOB?

When we started discussing the whole thing with Esa-Pekka Salonen who is a very forward-looking musician in the classical music field he said that he was very interested in Virtual Reality projects. He just said it and I thought that I’d look into this and would see what we could do together with him or other artists. So it was on my mind and then I thought that we indeed should investigate the possibility of integrating new technologies into a live performance. We are now aiming at doing a main stage production using new technologies in 2022 – not for the full three hours, but integrating technologies in it, and we have a great team for that production. We have received a fund of million euros to create this new project Opera Beyond that has its final target in 2022, but we also want to create a common learning ecosystem in opera houses. Everyone is learning something, but nobody is learning from each other. We should have a common platform where we can share ideas and experiences. I have been discussing it with Opera Europe and we will continue to do so. Then the idea emerged that we would do a short – maximum fifteen minutes – VR experience with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Paula Vesala, the famous Finnish pop artist. Esa-Pekka and Paula created a new piece for us, but we also wanted to be open to all new actors in this field and opened a competition in February 2019 to find a realizing team that would put to life the visual side of this experience. We got 195 concepts and we chose 8 according to certain criteria and these teams came to Helsinki to pitch their projects and workshop their concepts. We also invited many great specialists in this field like Gabo Arora, Sara Ellis from the RSC who has done The Tempest using VR, and others. They were mentoring visiting teams, and then the winner was chosen – The Echo Collective – that received a substantial fund to realize this project. And then the Opera Europe conference will happen in May 2020 [had to be cancelled at the time of publishing the article] where these new technologies will be our core theme with two hundred leaders from opera houses coming to visit, with Opera Beyond being one of its topics. So in May 2019 we had the first session of a longer project that will develop till 2022, and I hope that it won’t end there. I hope that by that time we will be more experienced and will have created an open dialogue in this field and will have taken the opera – literally – beyond (laughs). The curiosity is huge in this field, and the development of new things goes so fast – four years is a long time – for us to combine very stern and structurally defined production intrinsic for the opera house with this kind of innovative spirit would be something interesting and special. We have many leading computer games technology makers here in Finland, so in fact we do possess the needed knowledge locally, which I am very happy about. It will be also a new thing to write about and observe as we are busting a conservative classical form through this opening dialogue with developing art forms. We both conserve the existing art forms in this house and have a developing hub inside it at the same time so as not to make opera a museum of the past and to take things further. We as an organisation are curious and have the will to step outside the box, and I think it is super exciting.