Kaija Saariaho's new opera about 'ghosts of the past' premieres in July

"Innocence", the new opera by composer Kaija Saariaho and author Sofi Oksanen, will premiere this summer at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. In the next two years, the work will be also performed in Helsinki, London, San Francisco and Amsterdam. 

"Innocence" takes place at a wedding in present-day Helsinki, Finland, with an international guest list. It is a typical wedding for a cosmopolitan city: the fiancé is Finnish, the bride is Romanian, and the mother-in-law is French. But the groom’s family has a dark secret – ten years earlier, these characters were struck by a tragic event. When the events from long ago begin to unravel, the guests face a moment of truth. The ghosts of the past revive their memories of the trauma and there is a guilty haze, a lost innocence – which is apparently where the opera’s title stems from. 

The story takes place in two parallel periods of time. It deals with the wounds of the past, the passing of time, and the act of letting go.

In an interview with the Finnish News Agency STT, Kaija Saariaho described the composition work for her fifth opera as intense. The idea sparked after Saariaho and libretist, the famed Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen worked together in a project in 2011. She then introduced her idea to Oksanen, who had been a fan of Saariaho’s music since 2000. Oksanen completed her first version of the libretto in 2016.

Sofi Oksanen's first effort in libretto writing

In the STT interview, Saariaho says she chose Oksanen as the libretto because of her strong personality.

"Sofi has proven to be not only intelligent and sharp, but also a very warm person with a great sense of drama," said Saariaho. The conversation between the composer and the writer continued throughout the composition as all details were refined.

Sofi Oksanen's bestseller book "The Purge" was adapted into an opera in 2012, but the libretto was written by Estonian composer and writer Jüri Reinvere. Although "Innocence" is the first libretto in Oksanen's career, she has been an avid opera follower since childhood. 

The multilingual opera is sung in nine languages: English, Finnish, Czech, Romanian, French, Swedish, German, Spanish and Greek. In an interview with Finland's national public broadcasting company Yle, libretist Oksanen said that her starting point for the story was how multilingualism affects one's identity and the way one sees and experiences the world, as well as the impact of violence – at both societal and individual level.

Finnish premiere follows in one year 

The world premiere of "Innocence" will take place at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in July 2020. The Finnish premiere will take place at the Finnish National Opera from January 2021. The opera will be conducted by Susanna Mälkki and Clément Mao-Takacs and directed by Simon Stone. Soloists include a number of Finnish and international names, with Magdalena Kožená, Sandrine Piau, Anna Prohaska, Markus Nykänen, Jukka Rasilainen and Tuomas Pursio, among others. The orchestra at the Aix-en-Provence premiere will be London Symphony Orchestra and the chorus will be Estonian Philharmonic Choir. 

Sofi Oksanen has written the original libretto in Finnish and the international translations are handled by Saariaho's son, playwright Aleksi Barriere.

"Innocence" is a co-production of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, the Finnish National Opera, the Royal Opera House in London, the Dutch National Opera, and the San Francisco Opera, so the opera will also be seen on British, Dutch and North American stages.

Kaija Saariaho is one of the most internationally acclaimed Finnish composers of all time. In BBC Music Magazine's recent vote on 'greatest composers throughout history', Saariaho came in 17th place – higher than any other living composer today. Saariaho is considered one of the world’s most original contemporary composers, and her work is continually performed around the world. Saariaho’s earlier operas are “L’Amour de loin” (2000), “Adriana Mater” (2006), “Émilie” (2010) and “Only the Sound Remains” (2015).

Read Saariaho’s “On My Music and Beyond” column for FMQ magazine.