What do René Pape, Elīna Garanča, Olaf Bär, Julia Lezhneva and Nadine Sierra all have in common? Apart from being stars of the operatic firmament, they are all former prizewinners at the prestigious Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition, held every five years in Helsinki since 1984. “The best competition in the world!” enthuses Lezhneva, a winner in 2009. “A wonderful, warm atmosphere. Fantastic organisation.” What prompts such enthusiasm? And what makes it stand out from all the other many and varied singing competitions out there vying for the attention of young singers? Executive Director Marja-Leena Pétas-Arjava is the great-niece of the founder, Mirjam Helin, and her reflections on “the Helin way” and the background to the competition help explain its unique position.

Marja-Leena Pétas-Arjava © Heikki Tuuli
Marja-Leena Pétas-Arjava
© Heikki Tuuli

Mirjam Helin was born in St Petersburg in 1911 to a musical Finnish family which fled back to Finland shortly after the Russian Revolution. She studied singing at the Helsinki Conservatory of Music and later became a professor at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy. Pétas-Arjava remembers how her great-aunt held her lessons in a ground floor studio of the house they shared, built by her great grandfather. “Even though acoustical panels were installed,” she recalls, “the beautiful voices of Mirjam and her students carried out to the lobby, the flats and the courtyard.”

As a teacher, Helin saw the effects of singing competitions which did anything but serve the needs of the singers taking part. This spurred her into action. In 1981, for her 70th birthday, Mirjam Helin donated a notable sum to the Finnish Cultural Foundation which was used to create a competition in her name. Helin wanted it to be for young singers who had already reached a high standard, but was a true believer that talent and charisma comes from within. “Star quality can't be manufactured,” Helin explained in a 2004 interview. Pétas-Arjava recalls Helin’s motto ‘Everything has to be prime’, which meant standards were set as high as possible: “Only the best prizes and a prestigious jury of singers will attract the best young singers to take part in this competition,” she declares.

The key difference about Mirjam Helin’s competition has always been that the jury is made up entirely of singers. The jury of the first competition, in 1984, was chaired by the great Finnish bass Kim Borg. It also contained, among others, Sena Jurinac, Irmgard Seefried, Birgit Nilsson and Evgeny Nesterenko… any opera house casting department would drool to have fielded such a cast! Over the years, Tom Krause, Ileana Cotrubas, Joan Sutherland, Grace Bumbry, Teresa Berganza and Deborah Voigt have all served on the jury. The line-up for 2019, recently announced, is just as celebrated; chaired by Jorma Silvasti, it comprises Olaf Bär, Ben Heppner, Vesselina Kasarova, François Le Roux, Waltraud Meier, Deborah Polaski and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. The opportunity to perform for such luminaries of the opera world must alone attract a plethora of applications from young singers eager for their feedback about technique, interpretation and repertoire. Jury members also give masterclasses to some of the semi-finalists who do not proceed to the final.

Pétas-Arjava, who also trained at the Sibelius Academy, maintains that the competition should be more than a single performance. “It should be a learning and supporting experience,” she explains. Beyond the generous prize money (the total awarded amounts to 173,000€) being a participant should offer something wider, “maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everybody. Think of some traits of which the Finnish are proud and internationally known for: perfection, openness and friendliness. These are the values we cherish. Running a competition requires devotion. Everybody has to be involved in order to live up to our founder’s legacy.”

Creating a level playing field, jury members are not permitted to vote for their own students. From 2014, the competition also has a “shadow jury” to provide insights to the public, to demystify the process, voting independently to produce its own rankings, although its results are not official and it awards no prize.

But the supportive atmosphere extends beyond the jury. The well-being of the competitors was Mirjam Helin’s main priority for the competition which bears her name. The competition offers bursaries to help spread the cost of travelling to Finland. Competitors are provided with free accommodation with local families during their stay; they also receive a daily allowance and access to free travel on public transport. Social evenings are arranged during the fortnight and in 2014 there was a new initiative, the Singers’ Studio, an interview and question time with a member of the jury (also open to the public). It’s a chance for young singers to listen to a jury member explain the philosophy behind their craft and take part in a discussion about the art of singing.

The 2019 Mirjam Helin Competition is open, regardless of nationality, to women born in 1989 or later and men born in 1987 or later (to allow for the fact that basses' and baritones’ voices tend to mature later). Competitors must present a broad repertoire. In the preliminary round, they must offer an aria composed before 1760, two solo songs (at least one a German Lied) and an opera or concert aria. Semi-finalists must perform a song by a Finnish composer (in translation if desired), a group of solo songs, and an opera/concert aria. For the final, where the singers are accompanied by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hannu Lintu, competitors offer two works (of up to 20 minutes) of which at least one must be an aria. All repertoire must be sung from memory.

As in previous editions, the 2019 competition should deliver some unforgettable moments, perhaps even leading to the discovery of new stars to join the likes of Elina Garanča on the world’s great operatic stages. “From her very first steps onto the stage,” says Pétas-Arjava, recalling the Latvian mezzo’s performance in 1999, “everybody held their breath, captivated by her sheer presence. And when she started… well, the rest is history.” And operatic history is set to be created again in Helsinki next summer.

 

This article was sponsored by the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition.