Kaija Saariaho passed away this June at the age of seventy: the loss of a composer at the peak of her powers. In 2019, she was voted the Greatest Living Composer by BBC Music Magazine. Saariaho’s specialism was in creating musical other worlds – experiences that are rich and strange, emphasizing colour, slow movement, and shimmering texture.

Kaija Saariaho (1952–2023)
© Priska Ketterer

Known in her early career for instrumental and electronic music, Saariaho turned to drama from the late 1990s. Her first stage works focused on history. L’Amour de Loin concerns the medieval notion of courtly love; Adriana Mater, the ravages of war. Two other works, La Passion de Simone and Émilie, focus on neglected female figures: socialist mystic Simone Weil, and mathematician and physicist Marquise Émilie du Châtelet. These are musically expansive yet theatrically intimate pieces with small casts.

Saariaho’s most recent, and, as we now sadly know, final opera, Innocence, is different. It tackles decidedly topical subject matter, using the aftermath of a mass shooting at an international school in Finland to address issues of violence, mental illness and collective responsibility. This thematic urgency perhaps accounts for its success since its first staging in Aix in 2021.

The opera will be staged at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam from 7th–22nd October 2023, fresh from a run at the Royal Opera House in May. I spoke to Aleksi Barrière, the composer’s son and, with novelist Sofi Oksanen, the opera’s co-librettist, during the opera’s London run, before Saariaho’s death.

Commissioned by the ROH to write a work on a contemporary subject, Saariaho began from a musical starting point. “To her”, Barrière observes, “the world is crowded and noisy and full of its own kind of music, coming from the experience of living in big cities, and hearing multiple languages simultaneously. She wanted to make something that had this polyphonic quality.”

Saariaho, Barrière and Oksanen met for initial conversations over a period of two years. “We didn’t start with a story”, Barrière comments. “Instead, Kaija assembled a team of artists from three different generations to talk it over and see what could we create together.”

Aleksi Barrière and Kaija Saariaho
© Sakari Röyskö

The collaborators initially considered a courtroom setting, but instead settled on a wedding, where memories of a school shooting ten years before unexpectedly resurface. The Finnish groom, Tuomas, is to marry Stela, a Romanian orphan who thinks she’s finally found happiness in Finland, a country where people are neighbourly and trust the authorities. But caterer Teresa discovers that the groom’s brother murdered her daughter, Markéta, in the school shooting. A series of terrible revelations threatens to split the family apart.

As he explains, Barrière translated and rewrote Oksanen’s initial Finnish script into nine European languages. He also provided Saariaho with recordings of native speakers. Saariaho then analyzed their rhythms and pitches with computer software. “She used the differences between languages as a matrix for the orchestration and the general form of the whole opera.”

Innocence juxtaposes the main narrative with the ghostly recollections of murdered children, and of the survivors, ten years on, spoken in multiple European languages. In the opera, soliloquies are delivered in the characters’ native languages: the internal language of the emotions and of emotional trauma. In social contexts, they switch to English as a shared language.

Multilingualism has often been the condition of Europe and beyond, whose borders have been drawn and redrawn by politics and war. With its many-layered text, the opera acknowledges the multilingual and multicultural reality of Europe. Perhaps there’s a political message here, challenging the reactionary nationalism presently resurgent in Europe and its rejection of migration and plurality.

The Students in Innocence (Covent Garden staging)
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

Like Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, or Michael Haneke’s Happy End, Innocence is structured around the dramatic eruption of buried trauma, something which Barrière suggests, resonates within a specific Northern European psyche. “In Finland”, he comments, “we have a Protestant culture of close families who avoid discussion of such bad things. And then, these things explode. There’s a reason why a lot of stories from Scandinavia and Northern Europe play on that aspect.”

“The opera is saying: this is happening in Finland, an internationally praised social democracy. Perhaps we should stop saying how bad things are in other places, and look at how things are at home.” At the same time, “having multiple languages emphasizes that this story is happening in many different places and cultures. Violence not bound to one place or time.”

The opera’s title is, it seems, heavily ironic. Take the role of Markéta. Played by Finnish singer Vilma Jää, Markéta’s part is written in the style of Finno-Ugric herding calls: ethereal songs which might initially suggest a register of “innocence”. But those songs take on a very different character when it is revealed that Markéta was a bully who made up songs about other kids. Such bullying which may have contributed to the shooting itself.

“The boundary between guilt and innocence is not obvious,” Barrière explains. “People can be both perpetrators and victims of violence. Children can be cruel. They also experience the weight of violence in school or family environments.”

“We were interested in moving away from innocence in the legal sense towards a more complex idea of collective responsibility. Within any kind of human group, there’s a collective reproduction of violence. Too often, we can get stuck into loops of guilt, or of blaming others. But art can approach things in a more subtle way.”

“There are a lot of films that try to put you into the head of the shooter”, he observes. “But Kaija wanted to focus on the physical and psychological consequences of violence on the family and victims. We decided to show neither the violence nor the shooter himself.”

The opera, he notes, “is constructed via memories, through echoes of violence, through people’s bodies. In that sense, we tried to approach what trauma is, in and of itself, without relying on the dramatic allure of representing violence.”

Innocence, set design by Chloe Lamford (Covent Garden staging)
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

Having spoken to survivors of shootings, Barrière was very conscious of the opera’s potential for triggering traumatic memories. In the past, Barrière suggests, “opera used to be the place where you went for all the sex and blood and incest. But today, opera is not a mass medium. It shouldn’t be a place of triggering.

“Instead, it can be a space where your pulse really slows down. Recovering from PTSD, you’re coached to slow down your heartbeat. Similarly, opera is about stretching time, slowing it down. This is the kind of experience Kaija’s been trying to create for her entire career. It’s about breathing in a different dimension from everyday life, creating another kind of space.”

At the end of the opera, the survivors step forward: one recounts how they became a doctor; another outlines plans to move abroad and make a new start; the ghost of Markéta pleads to her mother to let her go at last. “These revelations have been made”, Barrière remarks, “and we understand that these people are more broken than they thought. Yet this might also be the beginning of another process of recovering and healing.”

Innocence, he continues, “wouldn’t be sincere if it only emphasized the toxicity of human groups. Instead we want to emphasize the importance of collective action, collective recovery, collective discussion. How do we achieve these things together? The opera doesn’t solve these problems, but it starts a process, and that’s conducive of community.”

This community that has grown over time. The production seen in Amsterdam will be the same seen in Aix and London. But the work has, Barrière suggests, “grown tremendously since the premiere. Some performers have done all of the runs and some have been recast. So there’s both continuity and a deepening of the process through the performances and through [director Simon Stone’s] work with them.”

Innocence’s innovative multi-layered set
© Tristram Kenton | ROH

“It was incredibly important to let Simon and his team create their response to the piece”, Barrière continues. “The realism of the sets and acting style really fits the grammar of what people are used to seeing, which is quite uncommon in opera.”

Stone and designer Chloe Lamford’s cleverly designed rotating set juxtaposes the wedding reception and the international school at the time of the school shooting. As the opera progresses, scenes of bodies lying in pools of blood come to dominate the staging. Stone’s representation of violence is more overt than the composer and librettists originally intended. But he has, Barrière continues, “created an object that a lot of people could relate to. So, for me, it’s a fertile tension.”

What does Barrière expect from the Amsterdam staging? “Each country has its own issues and traumas and forms of violence”, he says. “I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out in Amsterdam as compared to Aix or London.”

The work of an opera, Barrière suggests, should not just be confined to the stage. “I feel that it’s very difficult in the current news media environment to have these deeper conversations. Hopefully in Amsterdam, we can use the opera to stimulate a broader public discussion. ”

Kaija Saariaho
© Olivier Roller

It would be easy, given Saariaho’s passing, to view the opera through a mournfully retrospective light. But Innocence is very much an opera of our constantly changing times. The music opens with a bassoon motif that returns, transformed, throughout, a figure for the way the opera constantly challenges what we first thought we knew or heard. In its final seconds, the music moves from a chord of apparent resolution to an ambiguous held note in the low strings that refuses to cohere or complete. In this incompletion lies its power. Saariaho’s piece is not just tied to this moment. Instead, one feels, it will only deepen over time, looking not only backwards but ahead.

Innocence is at Dutch National Opera 7th–22nd October 2023.
This article was sponsored by Dutch National Opera.