The Finnish art music world has faith in soprano Tuuli Lindeberg. If it didn’t, she would not be the new artistic director of Musica nova Helsinki, the leading contemporary music festival in Finland. Still, an international festival guest could be excused for wondering how come Lindeberg is not a familiar name from the world’s opera stages, unlike other Finnish stars. The reason is not a lack of talent but versatility which refuses to be confined into the pigeonholes of the world of opera and, instead, covers all the bases from early to modern and leading from the stage.
“I don’t have an opera singer’s identity,” says Tuuli Lindeberg, despite being in the middle of the rehearsal period of Pergolesi’s opera Lo frate ’nnamorato. “I am at ease with being on stage, but my identity is that of a musician whose instrument just happens to be her voice.”
Ordinarily, singers and instrumentalists are two different breeds. But then, Lindeberg is far from ordinary. She started to discover her own identity as a teenager, when her piano teacher managed to get her into the youth programme of Sibelius Academy, majoring in musical theory. It was unprecedented, but having perfect pitch and an intellectual approach to music guided her path.
“Singing kind of came out of the blue,” says Lindeberg. “I had a precise and natural voice and I ended up in umpteen different vocal ensembles, but I was a bit closeted with it: oh no, singing is so much fun!”
"As a singer, my job is to move the audience, and it is irrelevant whether I find it embarrassing or not.”
She changed her main subject to singing even though, initially, she had a difficult relationship with performing. Lindeberg thinks back to a master course where her teacher tried using physicality to get the introverted budding star to embrace the role of the seductive and playful Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale:
“I felt like I never wanted to do something so embarrassing ever again – which is absurd, really, considering all the things I’ve ended up doing on stage. As a singer, my job is to move the audience, and it is irrelevant whether I find it embarrassing or not.”
And yet, young Lindeberg did not unearth this attitude in standard roles but in period music:
“One of my teachers, Evelyn Tubb, realised that the way to get a cognitively oriented singer like me go wild on stage was through lyrics and the rhetoric expression of the baroque.”
Early in her career, Lindeberg was known as an expressive singer of early music. This, however, was just the beginning as far as the versatile performer was concerned.
“Early music provides you with rhetoric tools you can use in music from any period,” claims Lindeberg. “By rhetoric, I mean everything you can do to convey your message so convincingly that the audience goes away transformed.”
At the heart of music, just differently
At present, the audience and musical colleagues in Finland appreciate Tuuli Lindeberg as a performer of early as well as modern music. Even as a teenager, Lindeberg read everything about modern music she could lay her hands on, full of curiosity and without prejudice. A useful attitude because, these days, she is asked to perform in the most sophisticated modern music productions in Finland – she’s got the voice and the work ethic, and the way of working suits her to a tee. But why is she not interested in the basic Romantic repertoire?
“Early and modern music allow me to hide in the margins and experience the freedom of art outside the box,” says Lindeberg, and adds: “In Classical and Romantic music, someone will tell you how something ought be performed, without giving the reasons for it. But when it comes to early music, I can look for the reasons in historical sources, whilst in the case of modern music, I can ask the composer. And this empowers me to back my interpretation.”
Of course, in Tuuli Lindeberg’s case, hiding in the margins really means being at the heart of musical life, just differently. A case in point, in 2022, the Finnish art music turned its attention to Innocence, an opera by composer Kaija Saariaho and author Sofi Oksanen, which was performed at the Finnish National Opera. A little bit earlier, Lindeberg had already performed a libretto by Oksanen, but in Baby Jane, an opera composed by Markus Kärki whose background is in game music. It goes without saying that she had also performed Saariaho’s music, but in Between, a production of the musical theatre group La Chambre aux échos.
“I am not interesting to mainstream opera, because the world is full of good singers with the same voice type"
Besides independent modern and period music productions, Lindeberg’s freelance career includes some teaching at the Sibelius Academy as well as the current arrangement with Musica nova Helsinki. As everyone who has worked with Lindeberg can testify, she has the voice and skill for an international career. But Lindeberg enjoys working with familiar musicians of quality in Finland and likes to focus on the essence of creating art instead of travelling.
“It dawned on me at an early age that, at auditions or competitions, I would always be forced to perform Pamina’s aria, and that would reveal nothing about me as an artist,” says Lindeberg. “Now, half by accident, I have managed to create a job description that screams ME.”
That job description is not a comfortable fit with opera‘s international marketing machine, which likes to lump singers into voice types already at a young age and applies the categorisation even to repertoires to which it should not apply it.
“I am not interesting to mainstream opera, because the world is full of good singers with the same voice type,” claims Lindeberg. “What’s more, in Classical and Romantic opera, the roles available to that voice type largely entails kindly princesses and subservience to male roles, and that kind of thing is obsolete.”
Facilitating music at the helm of Musica nova Helsinki
Still, Lindeberg’s new role as the artistic director of Musica nova Helsinki would seem to suit her well, if the enthusiasm with which she describes the challenges of the job is anything to judge by: How to strike a balance between Finnishness and internationality? How to identify what is currently relevant in the interpretation of contemporary music? How to bring together the major main organisers of a festival and agile, small-scale operators?
“Musica nova Helsinki will not be a spectacle as envisioned by Tuuli. I see myself more as a diplomat and a facilitator,” says Lindeberg. That said, the end result might just reflect the artistic director’s identity as a musician and growth in the freedom of living in the margins:
“Even in terms of the festival’s Emotions and Sensations theme, I want the resources to be allocated to music instead of, say, a light show. And because, spiritually, I belong to the non-institutional field of music, I have consciously tried to support people operating in it through meaningful co-productions.”
“Musica nova Helsinki will not be a spectacle as envisioned by Tuuli. I see myself more as a diplomat and a facilitator"
The list of composers in this year’s Musica nova Helsinki is the most substantial in years. However, upon request, Lindeberg agrees to single out a couple of names:
“Composer-in-residence Clara Iannotta’s music is like musical, physical sculptures. Plus Avanti! and Juliet Fraser will perform Rebecca Saunders’s vocal concerto Skin, which is the finest piece of work of the 2000s composed for human voices and an ensemble. Within the theme, it makes your skin tingle! We will also be graced by the presence of Helmut Lachenmann, who will be there not as a thematic composer but to train students of the Sibelius Academy in the extended performance techniques of his work. They must be studied hands-on, which is why his music is so rarely performed.”