Death of a poet

Issue 4/1989 | Archives online, Articles

Over the last two decades, contemporary Finnish opera has not only become popular at home but has emerged as a significant force on the international music scene. Aulis Sallinen’s The Horseman, The Red Line and The King Goes Forth to France, and Joonas Kokkonen’s The Last Temptations all had their premieres in the 1970s and 1980s and have already earned respected places in the repertory of the Finnish National Opera and the Savonlinna Opera Festival, where performances are sold out months in advance.

The visit by the National Opera to New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1983 attracted widespread attention from press and public alike, and its productions of The Red Line and The Last Temptations were for the most part enthusiastically received. Finnish opera earned further international prestige from the joint commissioning of Sallinen’s The King by the Royal Covent Garden Theatre in London and the Savonlinna Festival, and from later performances by companies in Germany and the United States.

In the midst of all this success, it is worth remembering that new Finnish operas have not always been so well received in Finland or abroad. Aarre Merikanto’s Juha had to wait forty years for its National Opera premiere in the 1960s. Even then, it did not fully catch the public’s imagination until 1970, when it was one of two operas performed at Savonlinna. After that breakthrough, however, the outpouring began: new operas not only by Sallinen and Kokkonen, but by Ilkka Kuusisto, Jorma Panula, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Paavo Heininen, and others. In the 1970s alone, twenty Finnish operas were composed, and fourteen were given stage performances.

Many explanations have been advanced for the popularity of contemporary Finnish opera. For one thing the music itself, particularly that of Kokkonen and Sallinen, is now seen as being modern but not aggressively so. The introduction to the libretto of The Red Line reassures the potentially anxious listener that Sallinen has turned away from atonality and note-row technique toward ‘tonal elements and melodic expression’, and an essay on The Horseman speaks of its ‘direct appeal to the emotions’ and compares Sallinen’s composition to ‘a small stream bubbling up over the ice, increasing in volume as the thaw sets in, until it becomes a surging force thrusting its way through the countryside’. Similar reassurances, of course, have been offered about the music of Sibelius for nearly a century, as Finnish and foreign critics have tried to persuade listeners that they were not experiencing a radically innovative musical composition (even with the remarkable Fourth Symphony) but were simply being put in touch with nature.

Another reason for the public appreciation of Finnish opera, especially at home, is surely its intimate connection with Finland’s history and literature. Oskar Merikanto’s The Maid of Pohja (1899), the first full-length opera in the Finnish language, won an opera competition organised not by the National Opera but by the Finnish Literature Society! As for contemporary operas, the libretto of The Red Line was written by Sallinen himself but was based on the novel of the same name by Ilmari Kianto, which drew its material from the political and social turmoil of 1907, a pivotal year in Finland’s history.

Sallinen’s other operas, The Horseman and The King, are also literary as well as musical events, for they feature libretti by Paavo Haavikko, one of Finland’s most brilliant contemporary poets and playwrights. While The King is more European than strictly Finnish in theme and subject matter, The Horseman, at least, is fully consistent with Sallinen’s belief that opera texts should be close to the hearts of the people and to their own history. Perhaps for this reason, contemporary Finnish opera has for the most part avoided alienating the public and has not been vulnerable to the charge of elitism often brought against opera as an art form and social institution, an attitude which led to violent demonstrations at the opening of the new opera house in Zurich just a few years ago. The choice of subject matter, together with the accessibility of the music itself, has attracted an audience in Finland that goes far beyond the usual coterie of opera lovers.

Although themes drawn from Finnish history may seem remote from the international audience, and were indeed baffling to some who attended the New York performances of The Red Line and The Last Temptations, there was enough universality in the problems and conflicts of the characters to have wide appeal even to those who knew little about Finland.

While the national and international success of Finnish opera depends in large part on its musical and literary merit, a very important factor over the last twenty years has also been that of cultural policy: the revitalisation of the Savonlinna Festival under the leadership of Martti Talvela (himself Finland’s best-­known opera singer; he died in summer 1989), the funding of opera competitions with their attendant publicity, and the decision to send the Finnish National Opera to perform abroad. A 1986 issue of the Finnish Music Quarterly showed recognition of this factor with its headline, ‘Opera: Finland’s latest export?’

Operatic controversy

With this in mind, we can perhaps have a better grasp of the most recent, and probably most controversial, Finnish opera: The Knife by Paavo Heininen, with a libretto by Veijo Meri. In 1984, the city of Savonlinna announced an opera competition in celebration of its 350th anniversary. Three prominent Finnish composers (Kalevi Aho, Paavo Heininen, and Einojuhani Rautavaara) were commissioned to submit works, with the winning opera to be performed during the festival summer of 1989. Speculation on the probable winner, and on the works being composed, was widespread in the press and among the music public for several years, and this sense of anticipation heightened interest in the opera that eventually would be selected.

When it was announced that The Knife by Heininen and Meri was the winning opera, many segments of the Finnish musical and literary world expressed shock, and it was clear that this decision indicated, to some extent, approval of a new direction for Finnish opera. It was not, however, a direction that had unanimous support, for Heininen’s one previous opera, The Damask Drum (1984), was already a radical departure from the themes and idiom of Kokkonen and Sallinen. Like Finnish composers before him, Heininen chose as his librettist a leading poet, Eeva-Liisa Manner, but her subject was far removed from Finnish history. Instead, the libretto of The Damask Drum is Manner’s and Heininen’s translation and adaptation of a classical Japanese Noh play by Zeami Motokiyo (1363–1443). The music, despite some critical acclaim, was widely regarded as avantgarde and ‘difficult’, though it has since entered the repertory of the National Opera and performances there have been generally well-attended.

For the text of The Knife, Heininen turned to the poet and novelist Veijo Meri, who has a strong international reputation and who, in the course of his work on the libretto, also published an independent book version of the story, Death of a Poet, in 1987. The title of the novella also serves as the subtitle of The Knife, for the Poet is the central figure of the opera, and the forces that kill the Poet (who is given no other name in the work) are stunningly and dramatically depicted in the music drama that unfolds.

My remarks on The Knife are based on several readings of the libretto, on attending the final performance at Savonlinna last July, and on listening to the Finnish radio broadcast of the opera a few days later. While it’s a truism to remark that one benefits more from seeing an opera on stage than from simply listening to it on the radio, the importance of attending an actual performance of The Knife cannot be overestimated. At times there was an eerie sense of being a spectator and a participant in the drama at the same time, especially during the literary matinée scene of Act Two, in which the on-stage ‘audience’ grows tired of listening to the Poet and begins to ridicule him and the whole spirit of contemporary poetry. This scene gained added power since it followed the reactions which the real audience had already expressed at the end of Act One: some enthusiastic cheers, much polite applause, and more than a few cries of ‘boo!’ Despite the imposing size of Olavinlinna, the medieval castle in which the performances took place, it was as though for a few minutes the boundary between audience and stage had been removed, or even as if the singer-actors had been listening to the spectators and picked up their cue.

In The Knife the audience response is not incidental to the work itself, as it would be in practically any other opera, for here one of the central themes is the public’s reaction to contemporary art, and what effect that reaction has upon the artist. Through the development of the plot to its tragic conclusion, the Poet’s suicide, Heininen and Meri make clear that the response to the Poet’s work is not mere gossip, pompous phrases, or superficial scandal; it is quite literally a matter of life and death.

Just as the Publisher in the opera makes pronouncements on the sublime mission of poetry and at the same time ignores or fails to grasp elemental experiences like birth and death, which the Poet is trying to put into words, the ‘real­life’ local and foreign press, with a barrage of articles, interviews, and photographs, worked hard to turn The Knife into an Event.

As early as February, the glossy American magazine, Connoisseur, ran a headline across two full pages of its feature on European music festivals: ‘Finland has plenty of exciting composers. The new opera this summer: Heininen’s The Knife.’ It would be an ungrateful artist who would spurn such publicity, and everyone knows that a large­scale opera would be impossible to pro­duce without government and/or corporate sponsorship, but Heininen and Meri have had the courage to confront directly the distance between the work of art itself and the cultural event which it becomes. This crucial theme has been dealt with all too seldom in literature and other art forms, a notable exception being Nathalie Sarraute’s ironic novel, Les fruits d’or (The Golden Fruits, 1963) which traces the rise, fall, and subsequent revival of the reputation of a new work of fiction.

Against the avant-garde

While professional critics and the public at large showed a remarkable degree of unity in their reactions to the operas of Kokkonen and Sallinen, reaction to The Knife revealed a striking split between critics and general audience. Critical appraisal was largely favourable, and at times laudatory, heralding this composition, quite correctly I believe, as an important new development in Finnish opera. While my survey of public reaction was in no way scientific or exhaustive, I did speak with a large number of people who had attended the opera, heard the radio broadcast, or had simply read about it in the press. From these people there seemed to be a largely negative response, amazement that so many critics had liked this work, and a strong feeling that Finnish opera had now turned away from the public which had loved and supported it. Once again the audience at the literary matinée has cried out against ‘avantgarde’ art.

Now that the organisers of the Savonlinna Festival have announced that The Knife will again be in the repertory for the summer of 1990, public and critics will both have an opportunity for re-evaluation. This is most fortunate, for I believe that when some of the stumbling-­blocks are removed, this opera can be just as moving an experience as The Red Line and The Last Temptations.

If one is going to make anything at all of The Knife, one cannot approach it as a traditional opera, with the expectation of arias and highlights that could well be extracted for concert performance. Rather, it is a seamless dramatic work which uses music as one method of conveying its story, a form that Wagner, a century ago, called ‘music-drama’. Here the music is simply one element, along with text, lighting, costumes, staging, etcetera, that depicts the central drama of the fate of the Poet.

Between worlds

It is that fate which takes center-stage throughout the opera and which must be the focal point of the audience’s attention if the work is to hold together. The Poet’s destiny is played out in contemporary Finland, in urban Helsinki, not in the distant past or the remote countryside. Like the protagonist of T.S. Eliot’s narrative poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the Poet moves in two worlds which typify a split in modern urban life the world over: the ‘lower’ world of criminals, drug dealers, and prostitutes, and the ‘higher’ one of fashion, affluence, and artistic pretension. Eliot’s Prufrock walks among the ‘muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels’ as well as elegant rooms where ‘women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’; the Poet frequents the Kabul Restaurant with its fights and drug sales, but he also reads at literary matinées and visits a fashionable department store.

Right at the start, in the opera Prologue, we are introduced to several of the conflicting elements which ultimately tear the Poet apart: his vision of love (Hildur, the beautiful saleswoman, standing on the ramparts of the Suomenlinna fortress in Helsinki); hashish smugglers; people talking about art exhibitions, fashion models, and the best place to stop for a glass of wine. Real place names are used here, and appropriately so, for the name of the actual restaurant, Valhalla, suggests not only contemporary Helsinki but the mythical world of Wagner’s Ring, with its own fortress Valhalla which was built to satisfy the gods’ pride and is eventually consumed by fire. Likewise, the very first words of the opera, aava aava meri (‘open open sea’) taken together with the Poet’s longing for the distant Hildur, carry overtones of the third act of Tristan und Isolde, in which the dying Tristan is waiting for the arrival of Isolde’s ship, and the Shepherd sings a melancholy report from the castle ramparts: Oed’ und leer das Meer (‘Empty and barren is the sea’).

But the sea in The Knife is not quite empty. In the distance there is a boat with a ‘sail like a knife-blade slicing the horizon’, and the image of the knife recurs in different contexts throughout the opera. In the scene following the Prologue, set in the Kabul Restaurant, there is sharp contrast to the elegant promenaders on Suomenlinna. Here drug dealers are gleefully rummaging through the pockets of a dead man’s jacket and slitting it open with a knife to look for dope. Later the knife gets more sinister uses, as the dealers threaten to kill the Poet, and the Turk sings a song of praise to the knife and the power it gives to the one who holds it.

The Poet’s method of saving his life in this situation is instructive: he argues not from a position of power but of impotence, assuring the criminals that nobody listens to a Poet anyway, and therefore they need not fear he will bear witness against them. The Girl, who keeps company with the criminals and who is also nameless in the opera, supports the Poet’s argument: ‘Let the poor guy be. He suffers most because no one will even touch him, no one’s scared of him at all.’ From the dim Kabul Restaurant the scene shifts to a fashionable store which is not named in the text but which, the set designer makes clear, is the very contemporary Stockmann’s, the largest and most famous department store in Helsinki. The scene is indeed up-to-date, for when I traveled to Helsinki soon after seeing the opera, I experienced a shock of recognition upon seeing Stockmann’s recently completed annex, which I had first seen depicted on The Knife stage set in Savonlinna. It is there, in the women’s fashions department, that the Poet lays a sheaf of his poems at Hildur’s feet and thus reveals that he has not completely lost faith in the power of poetry. Even if people ignore poetry, it can still be tendered as a love-offering. While the Girl at the Kabul assures her pals that no one is afraid of the Poet, Hildur looks over his poems and instantly remarks that paper can be very dangerous.

The Poet’s lyricism, however, is not confined to paper. He also expresses himself through music and dance. At the Kabul, he earns his living as a pianist, and is represented on stage by a character identified as the Piano-playing Poet. The freedom of this side of the Poet is suggested by the variety of musical styles he takes up in rapid succession, moving from classical barcarolle through blues, boogie-woogie, tango, and nocturne. The Dancing Poet, another on-stage representation of the main character, suggests feelings which cannot be given voice in words or music but which at the same time are the wellspring for both poetry and song.

For the Poet, the power of verse lies in its promise of liberation, not only for the person who has written it, but for those who will listen. At one point Hildur asks, ‘How will you set me free?’ He replies, ‘By publishing those poems.’ And when Hildur answers that he may liberate himself that way but implies that it will have no effect on her, the Poet can tell her only that he has the use of a knife with which he can cut himself free from everything. If creativity fails to have an impact, there is always suicide.

In the real world

It is relevant to one of the major themes of the opera that the Poet promises liberation not simply through the act of writing the poems but through their publication. He very much wants his works to go out into the world, even if it means pleasing a self-important Publisher and reading at literary matinées where his poems are ridiculed by the public. This is a far different era from that in which the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson remarked over a century ago, ‘Publication is not the business of poets.’ Despite the Publisher’s high-flown statements on the immortality of poetry, his scale of values is revealed by the expensive fur coat he lavishes on Hildur, a former lover; by his brutal parody of a poem; and by his wish to be ‘relieved of the burden’ of the Poet: ‘Toss him out the window. Today we’re celebrating the fur coat.’

The expensive coat is not the only symbol of luxury the Poet encounters. In these department store scenes, socialites and scantily clad fashion models try on dresses and examine bright-colored bolts of cloth. Here too the setting is contemporary but there are haunting echoes, again from the operas of Wagner. When one of the women has her body tightly wrapped in colorful dress material, there a suggestion (intentional or not) of the Chereau/Boulez production of Die Walküre at Bayreuth in 1982, which was widely released on television. In Act Two of that opera, Brünnhilde appears to tell Siegmund that the gods have marked him for death in a coming battle, and as she delivers this news she begins to wrap him in a white winding sheet, as for the grave. The colorful material in which the woman in the Helsinki department store is wrapped seems no less a winding sheet than the pure white cloth Brünnhilde brings for Siegmund. It too carries the aura of death.

There is another ironic parallel to Wagner in the department store scenes, when three women delightedly handle a long bolt of cloth which then flutters from their hands. In the opening of Die Gotterdämmerung, the three Norns are twisting the rope of Fate in a very similar way until it suddenly breaks, foretelling the destruction of their world. These parallels are not mere frivolities, not simply an intellectual game. Rather, they reinforce one of the basic themes of The Knife, that materialistic excess is in itself a kind of death, and in that air the Poet is unable breathe.

Although the Poet is a tragic figure, in a world that understands neither him nor his art, Heininen and Meri have taken care not to make him into an impossibly pure hero. Indeed, the Poet is difficult personally and artistically. When the cynical Girl at the Kabul tells him ‘You don’t understand women’, we know she is right. After she asks him to be kind to her whenever she wants to cry, the Poet replies that if she moves in with him she will be allowed to cry only at certain hours of the day. No love can rival his love for poetry and the need to write. Hildur, to whom he expresses his love most passionately, senses that he is more deeply in love with the image of her than with the person she really is, though she is ready to yield to him at the end.

This is a critical moment in the opera, for despite all that has been presented about how the Poet suffers from rejection and misunderstanding, it is precisely when Hildur has accepted him, promising to leave her husband and marry the Poet, that the young artist tells her it is impossible. After the experiences he has had, most recently at the literary matinée, he feels bereft of everything and has nothing to offer her but his death.

It is, in fact, at the literary matinée that the Poet’s alienation from the everyday world becomes strikingly clear. That scene, which comes toward the end of Act Two and is one of the most dramatic in the opera, shows the Poet trapped between the pomposity and commercialism of the Publisher (‘A publishing house is a stock exchange and a temple’) and the derisive shouts of the affluent middle­aged audience, which cries out for the classics and condemns the indecency and obscurity of contemporary poetry. As the Poet declaims his verses with ever­ increasing agitation, the crowd becomes more and more abusive, and here too there is an ironic parallel to a Wagnerian scene: the moment in Tannhäuser when the hero refuses to utter the hypocritical pieties his elegant audience expects and instead sings of the pleasures of Venus, sensuous love. His insistence on honesty and the refusal to follow convention eventually lead to the hero’s exile and a life of misery. In the matinée scene of The Knife, there is a similar pattern in the crowd’s disgust at the Poet’s lyrical depiction of Hildur on the ramparts covering ‘her nakedness with nakedness’.

Other poems which he recites at different moments of the opera are equally honest and unconventional. The poem on birth and death at the close of Act One presents no sentimental image of these often sentimentalised events but depicts them as bloody, painful, and tough. In another work, the Poet portrays himself unflinchingly as a fierce man who also trembles.

In contrast to the honesty and forthrightness of the poems, the smooth words of the Publisher as he concludes the matinée are particularly horrifying. While the Landgraf, true to his own vision of life, sends the offending Tannhäuser into exile and nearly sentences him to death, in Heininen’s and Meri’s opera the Publisher, and even the outraged matinée audience, pretend, and probably convince themselves, that nothing out of the way has happened. At the conclusion of the Poet’s reading, the Publisher announces that his matinée has demonstrated that poetry is still alive, a sentiment immediately echoed by the recently derisive crowd. The Poet, in despair, flees to Hildur, for not only have the Publisher and the audience denied the reality of his work but they have failed to acknowledge their own emotional reactions. At this point, the Poet feels so drained of meaning that he can only commit suicide.

The end of the opera thus brings us back to the paradox of success, of art and the artist making their way in the world. Without The Knife’s victory in a festival competition, few people, if any, would have been able to experience this work, which raises such important questions about the relationship between the poet as creator and as public figure, and between the work of art itself and the cultural event which it becomes.


Savonlinna Opera Festival 1989: Veitsi.
Conductor: Ulf Söderblom
Director: Jussi Tapola
Set designer: Hannu Lindholm
Costume designer: Riina Ahonen
Poet, tenor: Jorma Silvasti/Pentti Hietanen
Hildur, mezzo-soprano: Eeva-Liisa Saarinen
Onerva, soprano: Riikka Hakala
Publisher, baritone: Jorma Falck
Pamppu, tenor: Jyrki Niskanen
Havinen, tenor: Pertti Mäkelä
Vuori, tenor: Kimmo Lappalainen
Jyrinen, bass-baritone: Ilkka Vihavainen
Savonlinna Opera Festival Chorus and Orchestra

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