“You know, I have lived my whole life in opera.” Finnish director Jere Erkkilä is talking about his storied career in opera and music. Although Erkkilä might not be a household name in the rest of the opera world, he is a mainstay of his native Finland, having worked as a dancer, a singer, a production assistant and, more recently, a director, in a career spanning over three decades. In July, his new production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades is opening this year’s Savonlinna Opera Festival.

<i>The Queen of Spades</i> at Olavinlinna © Savonlinna opera festival
The Queen of Spades at Olavinlinna
© Savonlinna opera festival

Erkkilä is no newcomer to directing or opera, though – his father is the Finnish tenor and composer Eero Erkkilä. This summer’s production isn’t his first stint at Savonlinna, either. “I produced a Finnish opera there in 1989, Paavo Heininen’s Veitsi (The Knife). Then I sang there in 1996 and 1997, as the tenor role in Rautavaara’s Aleksis Kivi. Then in 2008, I revived an old production of Aïda, and finally, in 2012 I did Aïda again and Opera by You.” Counting the times in his childhood when he accompanied his father to the festival, Erkkilä brings the total of his appearances there up to 14. Opera by You, his last project at Savonlinna, marked his directing debut, an opera written with the help of online crowdsourcing and hundreds of collaborators all around the world.  

The Savonlinna Opera Festival takes place in the 15th-century castle of Olavinlinna (St Olaf’s Castle), built on an island which is part of the south-eastern town of Savonlinna. Last year marked the festival’s 50th anniversary, but its history stretches back another half-century to 1912, when the Finnish star soprano Aino Ackté – an influential early interpreter of the title role of Strauss’ Salome who also sang the première performance of Sibelius’ Luonnotar – organised a festival there for the performance of Finnish operas. The imposing walls of Olavinlinna make a particularly distinctive backdrop for an opera festival. “It’s the whole package,” Erkkilä exclaims. “There’s the beautiful lake, the castle, the atmosphere… It’s not only the performance, but also everything happening around there as well!”

Even though he has directed opera before – including the aforementioned Opera by You and Time Out, written by young composers and librettists taking part in a youth programme in New York and at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki – this summer’s Queen of Spades marks Erkkilä’s first foray into directing a piece firmly ensconced in the classical music canon. Unlike Tchaikovsky’s most popular opera – the gently melancholic Eugene OneginQueen of Spades is full-on tragedy. “It is the most operatic of Tchaikovsky’s operas – there are so many things going on. There are those big choral parts, the ballet Pastorale, the huge party, the scene at the gambling parlour, and then the scene with Lisa, and the great scene with the Countess. It’s dark and it’s heavy, and Tchaikovsky composed it at the end of his life, lonely and an outcast.”

When I ask Erkkilä if an opera with the size and scope of Queen of Spades isn’t a rather ambitious undertaking, he sounds remarkably confident: “It is, but you know, it’s opera. I have done a lot of operas before, so I think it will work. When Jorma [Silvasti, the artistic director of Savonlinna] asked me, I said OK, and I have lot of ideas of how to use the stage of Olavinlinna.” For Erkkilä, making opera is not about individual contributions: “It’s a team effort. Nowadays it’s not a solo work. You cannot win an ice hockey match on your own, you need a team.” His team includes scenographer Jani Uljas and costume designer Erika Turunen, the former head of costumes at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. Turunen has also designed the costumes for a variety of opera and ballet productions, including last year’s Savonlinna production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. Judging from the production presentation Erkkilä and his team did last summer, Turunen’s costumes will be intricately constructed, with no shortage of intriguing details.

Working at Savonlinna presents many challenges to someone used to working at a more permanent and modern opera house: “The main thing, of course, is that there is no stage technology. But luckily, we can do a lot of things with lights. It was a wish from Jorma that we do it in a traditional way, yet we won’t set it in the original late 18th century, but rather around the time of the opera’s première in 1890. Of course, we respect the original, so we will do the ballet Pastorale of the second act in 18th-century costumes, with a nod to Mozart. We will do this with lights and other effects, and of course, an element of surprise appropriate to the 21st century.”

Jere Erkkilä © Savonlinna Opera Festival
Jere Erkkilä
© Savonlinna Opera Festival
Talking about the opera itself, Erkkilä seems to have a remarkably optimistic view of the story. “Queen of Spades is a love story. It’s not only about gambling and playing cards, but it’s a love story, and I want an ending where Lisa and Herman could have gotten each other, so the ending will be one of love.” Still, the opera is very much a tragedy, ending in the death of two of the three main characters. Even though the production will be about love, Erkkilä has not forgotten the tragic outcome. “With our three main characters, Lisa, Herman and the Countess, all the choices they make lead them closer to death. That’s why we are bringing an extra role on stage – and that will be Death. At some point, Herman is going to be talking to it. Death can be beautiful, but most importantly, it is a release. And it releases Herman from the darkness inside of himself when he shoots himself, and gives him freedom. Death can be freedom, too.”

Erkkilä also works as a director at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet (FNOB), where he seems to have a penchant for ambitious concert performances. Most recently, last December he directed the gala celebrating the centenary of Finland’s independence, headlined by soprano Camilla Nylund and conducted by Pietari Inkinen. He is also responsible for a gala of choral excerpts, getting its first revival next May. “Someone came up to me afterwards, telling me they had expected just a normal concert with the opera chorus, but instead, it was a whole production.” Erkkilä has even put on shows with singers, dancers, a full orchestra and skaters in ice hockey arenas – a Finnish operatic undertaking if ever there was.

Erkkilä grows increasingly excited as he talks about his concert productions. They seem to suit his artistic temperament, wanting to turn the performance into a visceral experience for the audience. Of all of his previous productions, CircOpera, which premiered in 2016, is probably the most impressive. In it, circus performers, opera singers and ballet dancers were put on the same stage, with operatic and orchestral excerpts framing a central love story and jaw-dropping stunts. “We really wanted to present something for the audience to really feel. That’s circus: when you’re scared and screaming and laughing, feeling all the emotions. In opera, that can happen too, but in this production it happened all the time. There was so much emotion in the air.”

This summer’s Queen of Spades may not have circus performers juggling or suspended from the ceiling with only a rope to hold on to, but Erkkilä hopes that Tchaikovsky’s music, with its choruses and its ballet divertissement, as well as the intense drama at its core will still move the audience: “With my work, I want to give the audience an experience.”

 

This article was sponsored by Savonlinna Opera Festival.