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The ideal of equality makes opera thrive in Finland

University of the Arts Helsinki

In many countries, opera is equated with works that are hundreds of years old and performed in esteemed opera houses. In fact, many people regard opera as art of the elite, with very little connection to equality.

In Finland, this is not the case at all. Opera is performed across the country in all kinds of environments and sub-genres. Opera-goers have plenty of styles to choose from, including church operas, rock operas and disco operas, and works may incorporate ethno singers and touches of pop music. It is also no longer the norm to think that operas are only written by creative geniuses completely independently. In today's world, operas have been composed even by anonymous groups on the internet.

According to opera researcher Liisamaija Hautsalo at the University of the Arts Helsinki, the Finnish opera scene is thriving like never before now in the 21st century. Between 1990 and 2017, over 300 operas were composed in Finland. The number of operas composed during the 21st century is higher than during the 150-years of previous Finnish music history.

Surprisingly, this unique phenomenon hasn't been studied by almost anyone - except for Hautsalo. She is currently delving into the topic of the opera boom thanks to funding from the Academy of Finland. The five-year project titled The Politics of Equality in Finnish opera is, in many respects, doing pioneering work.

'Often when something big has happened in Finland, it has been composed into an opera', says Hautsalo.

During the building phase of the Finnish nation state at the end of the 19th century, Finnish nationalism, Fennomania, had a strong link to opera. It was also during that period when the first opera institutions were established.

Opera began its journey of becoming the entire nation's art form in the 1970s, when the welfare state was being built.

'The notion that all culture belongs to everybody was closely connected to the welfare state. For example, ever since the 1970s, we have produced a large volume of children's operas. Nowadays, at least a fifth of the new opera productions are aimed at children. This is due to the welfare state ethos and the fact that the audience is valued, regardless of whether it's made up of children or adults. On a global scale, however, this phenomenon is quite unique.'

According to Hautsalo, opera's status as a long-standing, respected art form adds to the value and gravitas of the themes, making it possible to bring up topics that otherwise wouldn't necessarily receive attention.

A good example of this is an opera produced in 2011 in Lohja, a town in Southern Finland, on something that was a burning issue to the locals at the time: municipal merger. The opera was produced on a minimal budget.

'It spoke directly into the hearts of the people who were affected by the matter and was extremely popular.'

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