At ease with a darker vision of the world
By Shirley Apthorp
From the Financial Times - March 13 2006 17:56
Spot the composer. A shock of red hair, ethereal pallor, willowy fragility, fierce reticence: Kaija Saariaho is instantly identifiable amid the bustle of a busy orchestral rehearsal.
At 53, Saariaho is one of the most sought-after composers in the world. Her music speaks directly to its listeners without intellectual compromise, steeped in her own dream-like language of crystalline precision.
Eighteen years ago, Saariaho declared that she would never write an opera. She was wrong. L’amour de loin (Love from Afar) was the hit of the 2000 Salzburg Festival. When Gérard Mortier took the helm of the Paris Opera, he wasted little time in commissioning the enigmatic Finn and her Lebanese librettist Amin Maalouf to produce a second work.
Rehearsals of Adriana Mater are well under way in Paris, where Saariaho has lived for the past 20 years. Once again, Peter Sellars directs. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts; the world premiere is on March 30. But today, Saariaho has travelled to Berlin, for a performance of L’amour de loin by Berlin’s Deutsches Symphonie Orchester under Kent Nagano.
“Her voice is very individual,” says Nagano, who has known Saariaho for more than 20 years and conducted the world premiere of L’amour de loin. “It combines an immensely rich palette of colour with exotic textures, and her work with the natural overtone series gives the orchestration a brilliance that you don’t normally hear from traditional instruments. None of the techniques are new in themselves, but the way they are put together is unique.”
The rehearsal is a mesmerising affair, snatches of medieval polyphony shining like stained glass through Saariaho’s hypnotically beautiful score. Subtle electronic treatment extends the overtone range of the instruments, giving the impression of a space far more vast than Berlin’s Festival house. But the composer does not look happy.
“I cannot be relaxed about it,” she apologises. “There are all these beautiful people performing my music. Of course that is a pleasure. But to hear this opera today, when I have just come from rehearsals of my new opera, is very strange. You write music, but then you grow out of it. I know this opera so well, but I’m not there any more. Sometimes I have the feeling that I just have to get through it somehow . . . ”
Saariaho is self-critical to an almost pathological degree. Basking in success is not her style, and she struggles with the concept of curtain-calls. But it is certainly true that Adriana Mater represents a radical departure from her earlier opera. L’amour de loin was a luminous meditation on the interior landscapes of love, centred on the tale of the 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel and his unconsummated love for Clémence, Countess of Tripoli. Adriana Mater is set firmly in the present, and tackles brutal themes.
Maalouf’s libretto plays in a war zone. A young woman is raped, not by an enemy, but by a man from her own community. She bears his son, Yonas, and wonders whether the child will be Abel or Cain.
“I said to Amin that if we ever did a second opera, it would be great to do something about maternity,” says Saariaho. “We also wanted to address the problem of violence; Amin has many experiences of war. It was somehow natural that the two things came together.
“The text is less lyrical, and the music is much more dramatic. It’s more rhythmic, and it’s very dark. For the first time, I am not escaping reality through my music. During the three years that I worked on this opera, I felt happy to write it, while horrible things were happening in the world. That was a new feeling for me.”
Saariaho cites the influence of Sellars, whose work she has followed for 16 years. His dogged idealism is at odds with her own dark world view, but she is intrigued by it.
“Perhaps I came somewhere with this opera where he wanted me to come. Perhaps because I wrote it for him, it deals differently with reality. And I must say it’s true that if you are a mother, you need to have some kind of positive perspective, even if you don’t have it as an artist.”
With a cast of just four, the opera preserves an air of intimacy, returning to themes of love and family despite the turbulent events that shape the action.
“The piece is also about different perceptions of the same event, about how you can live side by side with somebody and yet have a completely different sense of reality. To call it a political opera would be [to oversimplify].”
Saariaho has a natural aversion to labels. “I think that’s so boring!” she says. “People call me their favourite woman composer, you know? It’s not much of a compliment. There are not so many of us. I’ve been called the most famous Finnish woman composer. I really don’t care.
“I don’t think about being a woman, or being Finnish. Does it reflect in my music? I don’t know. I’m left-handed. How does that reflect in my music? I don’t know. These are all things which define who I am, but I don’t know if it really has anything to do with my music.”
At the same time, Saariaho sees a direct relationship between what she experiences and how she composes. She would be unhappy if she could not compose, she says; writing music is her way of coming to terms with life.
Even so, many of her best ideas come at the working table. Rigorously self-disciplined, Saariaho has never yet been late in delivering a score (“The very idea is a nightmare!”), and derives great security from a regular working routine. “Quite often I start working with a sense that nothing will come, not today, not ever. But when I force myself into the material, somehow it starts working.”
A further source of inspiration, she says, is the story itself. Linear narrative is distinctly out of fashion in European opera circles, but Saariaho finds it the only way to work.
“I also started with very abstract ideas,” she concedes. “I thought that if I ever wrote an opera, it would be about voice and light and electronics. But then I thought, what was the point of writing an opera? I wanted to touch matters which are secret. I thought I would try to use music to invade some areas of perception about love and death that we don’t consciously know about. That’s why I wanted a story. To make it meaningful.”
Is she talking about the subconscious, or about spirituality?
“Both,” she answers. “In the arts we work a lot with the subconscious. Spirituality is something we badly need today, and I think the responsibility of artists is enormous. I’m not talking about religion. I think spirituality is something vast. Music is vast. And it can be an unbelievable form of communication, because there are no limits. The essence of music is like love.”
L’amour de loin has already been staged in Paris, Santa Fe, Bern, Darmstadt, and Helsinki. There is every chance that Adriana Mater will go on to make its way around the world. Saariaho seems to be writing works that will last.
Nagano is cautious. “It’s far too early to tell,” he counters. “What makes a significant composer? It takes the perspective of time and a consensus of people to be able to judge a masterpiece. It is very rare for a piece to enter the repertoire.
“The great composers of the past were not always linked to new techniques. After two or three years you may be able to glimpse a possible future for a piece. But the strongest thing you can really say at the time is that a voice is individual. Kaija’s voice is very personal to herself, and it’s supported with tremendous craftsmanship, and a beauty within itself. This is already saying a lot.”
‘Adriana Mater’ premieres at Opéra Bastille, Paris on March 30, with performances to April 18.