A conversation with Composer Kaija Saariaho 

On the U.S. premiere of Émilie

John Kennedy, Kaija Saariaho, Elizabeth Futral, and Marianne Weems

Shawn Weismiller

John Kennedy, Kaija Saariaho, Elizabeth Futral, and Marianne Weems

Kaija Saariaho is comfortable right where she is: one of the most successful composers of her generation, respected and honored, her music performed around the world by some of the most prestigious artists. Her new opera, Émilie is receiving its U.S. premiere on Sunday night at Spoleto. We caught up with her right after a very impressive dress rehearsal at Memminger Auditorium.

City Paper: Welcome to Charleston. What are your first impressions of Spoleto, and how do you feel about the second incarnation of Émilie, performed by an American soprano, American conductor, and director and a young orchestra?

Kaija Saariaho: It's fantastic. I cannot say I'm surprised. I'm very happy that the piece is having its second performance at Spoleto. I have experienced what richness additional performances bring to a new work with my other operas, and it's always interesting, yet not always successful. This one is very successful, and I love working with young musicians, because when they are well guided, they do precisely what you ask of them in the score, they really get behind it. Elizabeth (Futral) is fantastic; she brings the character to life in all its complexity in such a natural manner. She makes it look effortless, but it's extremely challenging physically and mentally.

CP: You seem to be everywhere these days; a true citizen of the world. Does that make its way into your music?

KS: It's true, by now I feel very much at home wherever I go. I think it's such a rich experience. I try to be receptive and appreciate all these different cultures. In a way it's surprising that they still exist, and that they remain so diverse. I used to think that living in a particular place did not affect my music, I mean music starts in my mind, and it is so abstract and personal, how can it have anything to do with something external, like locale? Then in 1997, I returned to Finland — my homeland — for a year, after having lived in Paris for some time, and I realized: of course it affects me, how could I be saying otherwise for all this time? Everything and everybody affects me. How, I can't tell you... It's not like the music comes out more refined or anything, because I live in Paris. It's something much deeper and more complex. What I did like at first in Paris was that I felt free there, in such a big and interesting city with so much going on. I felt relieved after Finland, which is so uniform. But that's just one thing.

CP: European audiences are more receptive to new music, and your music has been well established for many years. Yet your work has recently gained a lot of attention this side of the pond, where it is also received very well.

KS: I'm pleasantly surprised myself with how well my music is doing in the U.S. I don't understand how it has happened, but I've been getting fantastic concerts, and I find myself coming here more and more.

CP: Well, some pretty outstanding musicians have been championing your music.

KS: I've had lots of luck. Yes, musicians seem to really relate to my music. I don't know why, but once they get into it, they just don't stop...

CP: But you seem to value the musicians very much as well. You have nurtured close working relationships that have developed into long-lasting collaborations.

KS: You're referring to performers that are very close to me, like cellist Anssi Karttunen, flautist Camilla Hoitenga, sopranos Dawn Upshaw and, Karita Mattila, (the original Émilie). I always compose music while physically picturing the players, imagining their every move. It's very important to me.

CP: In 1984, you are rumored to have said: "I would never write an opera, let alone a classical symphony." What happened?

KS: I knew you'd ask me that! Yes, I did make that famous statement, which I hear about a lot now.... It's a matter of definition. At that time, opera to me meant what I remembered from Finland: over-the-top productions with overweight singers, standing in the middle of the stage showing off their fantastic high notes. I felt I had nothing to do with that. What changed my mind was a Don Giovanni production in 1989 by Peter Sellars in Bobigny. It was completely contemporary, and it spoke directly to me. Little by little, I realized that opera can be a meeting point for artists and disciplines, and that interested me personally. It really made me ask questions about my own life, and I thought that was quite special. Pretty soon, I found myself really interested in opera.

CP: Opera carries a lot of cultural baggage. How do you relate to the operatic past, and who are your favorite opera composers?

KS: Absolutely. I thought about these things a lot before I wrote my first opera, and I spent many years contemplating just that. If you asked me about my favorite operas at that time, I would have mentioned Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, Berg's Wozzeck, and Mozart's Don Giovanni. Later, I would have added to those Dallapiccola's Il Prigionero, and Janácek's Jenufa and From the House of the Dead.

CP: I can definitely detect a Wagnerian quality in your dramatic works: the vocal writing, the large scope, the lush orchestrations. Also, something in the themes you explore: L'Amour de Loin draws parallels to Tristan with the love/death subject matter. Are you as obsessed as he was with controlling every detail of his productions?

KS: Wagner was one-of-a-kind. He was a writer before he started composing, and I think he was the exception. The few contemporary composers that have tried to control all the elements of their operas, like Messiaen and Stockhausen — both fantastic composers otherwise — I don't think were convincing. I do plan a piece very carefully before I start composing. But there are elements I cannot control. Sometimes I have very strong visual ideas, but they have not always been realized. I'll put them in the score as suggestions, but I think there is a professional for everything, and I'm there to take care of the music.

CP: Your music is full of color, texture, with interesting sound surfaces and gradual change. Your vocal pieces retain these elements, but also bring in line that defines, coexists, and navigates through the texture.

KS: That sounds about right. When I felt ready to start working on an opera, I had to find a solution for the vocal writing, and it was not easy at the beginning. I'm working with singers of operatic background and training, and that brings in a dimension of line that I wanted to keep, but without losing the textural aspect.

CP: Or the continuous transformation and shifting that's characteristic of your music.

KS: Yes, although there are abrupt changes at times. I very much think about musical breathing and an organic way of advancing the musical narrative.

CP: Your operas are written in French. How do you treat the language musically?

KS: Every language invites different music and different orchestration. I like to write in French, because of the wide variety of "noisy" phonemes, which go well with my music.

CP: Let's talk about Émilie. How did you find her?

KS: A friend gave me a book about her (Émilie du Châtelet), which I read, but somehow didn't think it had anything to do with me. A couple of years later, I went to Covent Garden to listen to Karita Mattila sing Beethoven's Fidelio. During dinner, she mentioned how happy she was to be portraying a strong woman like Leonore. We had been discussing an idea for a monodrama, and on the train ride back to Paris I thought about Émilie. I read more about her with a new perspective, and then went to my librettist with the idea.

CP: Amin Maalouf has been the librettist for all four of your dramatic works. How do you work together?

KS: Our way of working with each other has been different with every piece. L'Amour de Loin was my idea, which we fleshed out together. For Adriana Mater we decided together on the subject matter; I brought in the idea of motherhood, and Amin the idea of violence. Émilie was my idea, but it was Amin who found the form.

CP: How did you develop Émilie as a character?

KS: I develop the character and the character's music together. There were several readings as we were finalizing the libretto, and they inspired musical ideas and made me think more about the character. Amin is flexible and open to my suggestions. Émilie was particular, because she's a historical character and we know a lot about her, unlike the character in L'Amour de Loin, who is fictional.

CP: Operatic characters tend to be clear and well defined: the hero, the villain, the love interest etc. Émilie is multi-dimensional and complex.

KS: That's how we are in real life; nobody is all good or all bad, and that variety and richness in human character is important. You can express all these little shifts with music. In Émilie it's through music that the audience looks into the different aspects of her personality. The Spoleto production works so well, because the visual aspect is also conceived as an extension of her mind, just like the music. I really dislike how storytelling has declined in mainstream Western culture. You know everything from the first two minutes in a movie.

CP: Émilie is a more intimate work than your other operas. It's a one-woman show, with reduced forces, almost like a chamber piece.

KS: Yes, it was an idea specifically for Karita, who was looking to do something different. It's an enormous challenge for the composer, but one always needs a challenge to do something interesting.

CP: You employ electronic sound processing on the harpsichord and Émilie's voice. The listener will be pleasantly surprised by how delicate, even poetic the electronic sounds are, and how they structurally tie into the drama of the piece.

KS: For me, they are part of the orchestration, like any other sound. I wanted to make the harpsichord come out from the orchestra at times, as if using a zoom lens. On the voice, electronic processing is used to introduce additional phantom characters into this one-woman show. It's a simple idea really, but it's quite hard to realize effectively.

CP: Though always very personal in nature, your music has evolved through a few stylistic shifts over the years. Do you think you're at a point where things have crystallized for you?

KS: I hope I never stop shifting; that's when one starts repeating oneself. We go on living, and I feel that our life is part of our music, the connection is very clear. When you're young, you need to have all the influences and study everything, and then little-by-little you shed certain things, you re-evaluate everything, and find your voice. I think my music now is clear, and I hope it continues to evolve.

CP: You are one of the most successful living composers. Does success create expectations on how you compose? How do you negotiate all this pressure?

KS: I resist. A lot. I don't feel I must produce a lot, and in fact, I now work much slower than I used to. I do get a lot of propositions now, and it's flattering, but I don't need to accept them all. People like a certain piece, and they want to commission another one just like that, only better and bigger. It's not in my interest. One needs to stay independent, and that's ultimately why we're interested in an artist: their independence, their individuality. It is stressful, but I don't see any other possibility.

CP: What's next? Another opera perhaps?

KS: I'm working on an orchestra piece for next year. I just finished a big violin piece with electronics. I took quite a lot of time to write that. Chamber music is very important to me, and I don't want it to be squeezed in-between big projects. I want to give it thought and time, and I make a conscious effort to prioritize it in my composing schedule. I'm not planning more operas right now. It's an enormous amount of work, and I need to have a feeling of necessity to carry it out.

Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is assistant professor of composition at the College of Charleston

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