Anu Komsi
© Maarit Kytoharju
Finnish soprano Anu Komsi started her musical career by playing both the flute and the violin in the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. Today her vocal repertoire includes over 60 operatic roles and she has performed all over the world with orchestras such as the BBC Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the La Scala Theatre, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France and many more.

We caught up with her ahead of this month's concert with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

On the 26th of September you are performing Magnus Lindberg’s Accused: three interrogations for soprano and orchestra with the GSO
. Can you tell us more about this work?

This magnificent work is one of the greatest compositions by Magnus Lindberg. In my opinion it's the most important work ever as it's very political and as relevant as ever today because of its texts, which are inspired by real life. All three interrogation texts are extracts from three different interrogations in different times, locations and languages – French, German and English. The first interrogation is from the French revolution era and it's inspired by “Les Confessions de Théroigne de Méricourt” where Mademoiselle de Méricourt – a singer, orator and Revolution organiser – is questioned and admits to being a feminist and a human rights fighter. She was not sentenced to death, but was sent instead to a mental asylum, which at the end of the 18th century was a horrible fate indeed. The second part of Accused is the most dramatic and emotional, especially for the singer: Lindberg's music writing reaches the painful moments in a Stasi interrogation, set during the years of the German Democratic Republic, between 1968-1970, in the former East Germany, when even reading Spiegel magazine – which was printed in West Germany – was a crime. In the third part of Accused, the interrogation takes place in USA and it's the exact dialogue between witness Adrian Lamo and the lawyer of Bradley Manning, today known as Chelsea Manning. Chelsea Manning has since been released from jail but was rearrested recently in order to testify in the Wikileaks case, so her fight for her rights still goes on in our present time.

For opera it’s easy to slip into a role. Are you doing the same for the three interrogations in Accused?

Mostly my role in Accused is the one of the narrator, reading the texts to the audience – similar to the Evangelist in Bach ́s Passions – but this does not stop me from expressing emotions and interpret the feelings of the people involved in the interrogations.

The programme also includes Sibelius’ tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter and Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony. In what ways are contemporary Scandinavian composers influenced by Sibelius and Nielsen, who are probably the best known Nordic composers?

I can't speak on behalf of the composers, of course, but what I've experienced through performing their music – both of Sibelius, Nielsen and contemporary composers such as Tiensuu, Saariaho, Lindberg, Salonen, Fagerlund, Heinz-Juhani Hofmann, Wallin, Andersson and so on – is how well the composers today are writing melodies that simultaneously reflect the past but also have bright and exciting orchestral sounds.

Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu wrote Voice Verser specially for your voice. What did the composing process look like?

In my whole career I have had only two composers who have wanted to have a private session with me in order to get to know my voice perfectly, even if they had heard me a lot and knew my voice beforehand. The first composer to do that was Sir George Benjamin, who invited me to his London house before he started writing his first opera Into the little Hill in 2006. I introduced him to my most popular tones, my overall range and my favourite ways of singing and my favourite repertoires, and the result was absolutely marvellous! The second time this happened was with Jukka Tiensuu, before he started to write Voice Verser for me in 2011-2012. I was so happy that he was so totally committed to my voice. He came to our house and sat in our armchair, closed his eyes and asked me to sing whatever I had in my mind. All our three cats climbed on his arm and they were purring loudly together with my singing: what an unforgettable memory! And Voice Verser is truly the concert piece of our time!

What are the challenges of preparing contemporary works?

Even when I prepare older repertoire I always try to start working from a blank canvas, as if I were doing a premiere. Of course, one must know the different styles belonging to the different musical traditions, but I still have to create my own interpretation of it, regardless of the fact that it's old or new music. My mind is endlessly curious: I have always been interested in contemporary music since I was a child, and that has not changed. The preparation of a new piece itself is often not easy, especially at the beginning. I do kick myself, shouting at myself in my piano room and telling myself to concentrate! Many times, if it does not sound nice, I do swear a lot, but we have really powerful words in Finnish, so they do help me!

You have such a versatile repertoire from Renaissance to contemporary music, with a big focus on the Scandinavian concert repertoire. How would you characterise Nordic music?

It's difficult to generalise about what Nordic music is overall, but there is something special in the tradition of writing classical works for symphony orchestras and voices in a way that is influenced by each Scandinavian country's folk music. This tradition has been an inspiration, or at least a respected influence, for composers such as Sibelius, Nielsen, Grieg and Stenhammar.

Where do you see the future of Scandinavian music?

All will depend from how much classical music education in our schools will be valued. I don't know exactly what is the situation in other Nordic countries, but I have heard excellent children and young people's choirs from Norway and Sweden, and choral culture is always a good sign and a good measure for the level of music in a country. So many of our most talented Finnish young composers have been growing their musical skills since childhood in choirs, for example in the Tapiola Choir and the Cantores Minores and all around Finland. As per the bigger picture, the question of the future is political: how much funding the state will be budgeting for music schools, for young children first and then further, for university students. In Finland our professional studies education is free, but since lately there have been severe cuts in the primary schools' arts departments, our duty is to endorse those politicians that value the results of good education, especially in music.

Click here to see all of Anu Komsi's upcoming performances.