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Aikalisä, an Opera, a new Art form?

Aikalisä, (”Timeout”), a fully-staged, one-act Opera with chamber orchestra, was presented in six performances 12-15 April, 2016 by the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki. The libretto was written, the music composed and orchestrated, entirely by 10 kids ages 12-17 from the Kuule, Minä Sävellän (our Finnish VYC) and by 4 from the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers/Bridge program.

A statement from the presentors in Finland:

The project Kuule, minä sävellän! (Hear this, I’m a composer!), is based on the Very Young Composers educational programme of the New York Philharmonic, and has just reached a new level. To date, nearly 100 Finnish children and adolescents have been introduced to musical composition in this project, jointly run by the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Music Centre, the Finnish National Opera and Ballet and the New York Philharmonic. There have been 12 composition concerts. Now, the project has for the first time generated an entire opera.
* * *

How did Aikalisä come about, and why was it such a success?
What significance, if any, does it hold for the future?

To begin with, I had my doubts about this monster project, bigger than any we’d ever attempted with the VYC. True, the Finns had achieved remarkable scope and ever-growing results with their Kuule, Minä Sävellän in the five years since we introduced it to Riitta Tikkanen and Tuula Jukola-Nuorteva, of the Helsinki Music Centre/Sibelius Academy and Finnish National Opera and Ballet, respectively.

But – an Opera, written by a group of kids? An Opera written by any group of professional composers would seem at best an ungainly undertaking. To expect a bunch of adolescents, who were fresh in the process of mastering their own views of orchestration and notation, to produce anything like a coherent and serious work of operatic Art, seemed on the surface . . a bit much.

However, after 20 years of experience with the VYC process, and having seen some incredible results from children who are empowered to release their natural creativity, I thought, well why not: Let’s give it a try. Riitta and Tuula, with their brilliant energy and commitment, were able to gather funding from the Alfred Kordelin Foundation, the Consulate General of Finland in New York, and the Finnish National Opera and Ballet.

Starting in earnest in August, 2015, the ten Finnish composers were selected, mostly by volunteer, and the workshops began that September. The four VYC composers of New York were chosen a bit later. In Helsinki, nationally prominent professional composers and grad students were assigned as Teaching Artists, in the best tradition of VYC Teaching Artistry: To empower, encourage and help with notation, but not to lead or edit. Still, we make no claims of absolute ’purity.’ Opera in any case is not a purely individual artform; usually the libretto is a collaboration, and the staging, costumes, lighting, etc, are a community production.

However, there is no question that the Kuule kids felt in full artistic control.
In fact, a perceptive audience member commented:
”The libretto really felt like it was written by the kids, for the kids, not something a grownup has made up trying to ’reach the young audience’ . . ”

The opening workshops may have seemed a bit random at first, but in retrospect were absolutely crucial: Group and solo improvisations in music, visual art and drama were the main technique. Through free improv, a libretto gradually took shape. Disagreements which arose among the kids apparently were subsumed into an overall spirit of adventure. For this spirit I credit both TA benign support (who are Master’s Degree students in music education) and the creative drive of several of the Kuule composers, whose energy infected everyone involved. I say this because in all our work over the years we have always tried to create an atmosphere whereby no one student dominates at the expense of the others.

To me a remarkable aspect of the workshops was the fact that ’Libretto’ was never conceived as separate from ’Music.’ In other words, even the first play-acting involved singing and movement as inseparable from the verbal material. Here we note a famous difference between Finnish and American school systems: Finnish kids all go through extensive work/play in early grades dedicated to the arts, particularly music. They sing and dance from an early age, so that melody and movement are never far from the surface. This does not necessarily make them any more creative, but it nurtures that ability and provides them with tools and vocabulary.

In orchestration, too, as we do in VYC, the sounds coalesce into specific tone colors early on in the process. Yes, the computer was used, but the Kuule composers had heard and consulted on every instrument in a live process. In fact, one person involved in the production commented: ”When I first heard the computer rendering, and even the piano reduction during the early rehearsals, I thought the music sounded a lot like Video Game stuff, but when I heard the Orchestra, it was a revelation!!”

Now, here we come to a crucial point and a defining hallmark of this project: The emotional and dramatic depth of the Libretto. I doubt if any of the composers writing the it realized the scope of what they were naturally creating together. (Many of us artists create in a state of spiritual flow, unable to recognize and articulate the meaning of what we are doing.) In fact, on first reading the libretto, I thought it quite good, but I missed the profound impact and the transcendent quality of it that became apparent only much later in the process when all elements were brought together.

Let me illustrate with just one example out of many possible:
Early in the Opera, the teenage protagonist Joel (pron: Yo-El) has just been severely excoriated by his father, a widower, for not trying hard enough; not coming up to his expectations. The father’s aria is stentorian, strident. Joel, however, wants to be an artist, a painter. He slinks off, later joining a ”Graffiti Gang,” which accepts him. At one point, he archly criticizes their art, and begins to repeat his father’s scathing aria. He realizes he is taking on the very quality he loathes in his father, and breaks down, sobbing. The father even appears, mystically, repeating Joel’s scornful words to himself. The music supports this transformative moment eloquently and with strength.

All right, let’s look at this: Is this a typical teenage example of self-awareness? Can we easily imagine a group of adolescents coming up with such a libretto? Hardly – at least according to what we commonly think of teenage self-absorption and self-righteousness. But here it is, presented by kids themselves, and not only clearly, but richly and with music that moves it to another level altogether.

Well, OK, one more example: As the opera builds to its climax, the father and Joel’s friend, Aino, are looking frantically for him, fearful that he is going to hurt himself – or worse. The father stumbles into Joel’s room, and when he sees Joel’s art work, he understands it in a new way. He holds one of Joel’s drawings to his chest. Out of the air comes the disconnected voice of his deceased wife. In a staging stroke, her live image is projected by video onto the back of the drawing against his chest. Instead of thrashing him for being so hard on his children, in the most touching aria inaginable, she tells him how much they love him. She wants to help him so that he may be a better father. (There is hardly a dry eye in the audience at this point.)
Imagine that! In this day of vengeance and self-victimizing rage, we have a clear message of forgiveness.

This is not the only reality of the success of this production. Two key elements of the whole process were the professional singers selected for the leading roles and the Tapiola High School Chorus, led by Tuula Tikkanen, who were brought in to carry the main action of the Opera. At various point in the process, The Kuule composers were able to hear their vocal lines actually sung by the soloists and by the Tapiola High School chorus. They were able to make adjustments face-to-face, and of course this involved the performers and even musicians in the creative process, just as it should be.

The 10 composers had, since the beginning, decided that each one would write a scene. This was, to me, a crucial and most risky part of the undertaking. How could this sound like a coherent work without sacrificing each composer’s individual style and precious ”Voice?”

So the answer turned out to be this: Aikalisä has many voices, many viewpoints – And a unity of spirit. Since the composers had access to each other’s work in progress, they were able to use some common thematic material, yet maintain their own harmonic, rhythmic and orchestral styles. Even the New York composers, who wrote the four interludes, were informed of the music preceeding and succeeding their entry. (Although the process was a bit rushed on our end, and I wish I’d spent more time in communication overseas.)

The styles, for the record, ranged from quasi-pop and jazzy, to atonal and classical. The vocal writing was superb throughout and the soloists magnificent in voice and character portrayal. The orchestra, a 10-player ensemble with conductor, was sometimes treated conventionally by the composers, but more often quite colorfully. After the first performance, we insisted on the musicians being called onstage along with the conductor, they performed so beautifully. They were from the Nat’l Radio Symphony, the Helsinki Phil, and the Opera orchestra, a wonderful example of the kind of collaboration the production was accorded. In fact the entire team of stage direction, sound, lighting costumes and sets were stunning and first-class.

But returning to the issue of style and individual ’voice’ of each composer relating to the whole, we all found ourselves unable to categorize the production in any traditional way: Aikalisä is neither a Musical, nor a Classical Opera. It is not a Pastiche, a Singspiel, a Crazy-Quilt, an Oratorio, and certainly not a ’Children’s Opera.’ It is perhaps most closely related to what might be called a ’Contemporary Opera,’ but its manner of organization is unique – not to mention the tender age of the composer/librettists!

Therefore it is tempting to call Aikalisä a new Art Form. If this is overstating the case, then perhaps it may be termed a new variation on a traditional artform.

As to the ”seams” in the music: Even though common thematic material appeared throughout, the music clearly changed style and harmonic language from scene to scene. Rather than detracting from the whole, many of us perceived this contrast as if the plot and characters were a 3-dimensional sculpture, viewed from contrasting angles – a bit like the teens onstage themselves.

VYC, Kuule Minä Sävellän, and International work

What of the artistic/personal relationships formed of these Kuule composers and their New York counterparts? VYC has always tended toward cross-cultural and international work. In fact, one of the defining moments of growth for us was when one of our valued Teaching Artists uttered the words ”Musical Postcards.”

The potential for realizing a sort of ’United Nations’ of children and young people all over the world communicating through the language of music and art is compelling, but has yet to be fully realized. (Recently, our partners in the Netherlands have added new scope and energy toward this end.)
Could the correspondence between the Finnish kids and the New Yorkers be considered as part of this idea of Musical Postcards? Perhaps.

Satu Sopanen of the Helsinki Philharmonic has been supportive of this activity from the start. I was able to bring one of the New York composers over with me to Helsinki, Cassandra Stevens, and she stayed with Satu’s family, which included one of the Kuule composers. Not only was this a fun and happy homestay arangement, and not only did the two girls bond in friendship along with the other 10 composers, but a personal mutual growth happened which was hard to miss. In other words, a life-transforming experience for a girl who had seldom been out of New York.

To be sure, personal travel can often be transformative. But here, the transformations seem to have a direct and broad social effect. The potential is vast, and again, hard to miss.
Out of the specific, small-group, labor-intensive activity comes the far-reaching effect: So many kids are capable of doing this!

Thus the VYC is solidly democratic. In those immortal words of Picasso and others: ”Every child is born an artist. The only problem is remaining one.”

Visions for the Future

If Aikalisä is such a successful opera, and if so many children are capable of doing this kind of work, it would only stand to reason that this process, adapted and replicated, could have enormous impact over a wide range of young lives, artistic programs and social issues.

In this present commentary, I can’t even begin to consider how this could be done. Admittedly, the circumstances and the people involved here were certainly exceptional.
And yet I cannot imagine letting the richness of Aikalisä lie fallow; without progeny. This project is of major international importance.
There must be a way.

– Jon Deak, April, 2016
Founder and Artistic Director, Very Young Composers/ New York Philharmonic

”I can not express how much these Kuule, minä sävellän projects have meant to me. They have been simply life changing experiences! Thank you for calling Riitta five years ago and bringing VYC to Finland!”
-Elsi Sloan, Aikalisä composer