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11. The first opera performances in Savonlinna

The song festival of the Society for Culture and Education would not have been possible without the rural tradition of neighbourly help. Many a present-day festival depends on this very spirit. Still, an imposing setting could not be provided without tickets sales. In the early years, tidy sums flowed into the coffers of the Society for Culture and Education, but things changed after the Viipuri event in 1908.

A.A. Granfelt wrote dejectedly:

“Since then, song festivals have no longer been a source of income for the Society. The arrangements were more splendid than ever, fortunes were spent on festival processions, opera and oratorio performances and other, mainly artistic, endeavours. This left nothing for the Society, which in fact had to make gigantic efforts to cover the deficits which arose from the festivals.”

The present-day festival organizer cannot help feeling sympathetic – Granfelt, if anyone, was genuinely a colleague and fellow sufferer.

Idealism, money and endless voluntary work was also needed in introducing a more specialized kind of festival. Our internationally most successful opera star, Aino Ackté (1876-1944) had the idea of arranging an opera festival in the courtyard of the mediaeval fortress of Olavinlinna in summer 1907. The plan met with difficulties, as one might expect; not even the Society for Culture and Education backed it. Pentti Savolainen has speculated that the reason was Heikki Klemetti’s aversion for the ‘elitist’ art form;  Klemetti was a member of the Society’s committee charged with modernizing the content of the song festivals and rising their artistic standard.

Ackté went on planning her festival, unperturbed. She had discovered that the castle courtyard had good acoustics, space for sufficient number of seats, and could be covered with a canopy in the event of rain. Electricity could be provided by running a cable from the adjacent town of Savonlinna along the lake bottom.

Ackté’s realistic view of the potential public was the crux of the matter. The local population would not fill up the seats, nor would Finns from other parts of the country. The regular boat service between Savonlinna and St. Petersburg, however, would bring the upper classes of the Russian capital to the festival: the border, after all, was open.

Ackté was accustomed to the world’s grand opera stages, and her visions extended far beyond the Finnish borders. In her mind’s eye, she saw a spectacular festival in the castle that would enchant foreigners and gather sympathy and friends for Finland. Every summer she would stage a new Finnish opera, starting with Melartin’s Aino. Ackté’s idea sprang directly from the cultural policy devised by Finns during the first period of Russian oppression: they felt that they must become international in all fields in order to preserve their national autonomy.

The first Savonlinna festival opened on July 3, 1912 in favourable weather. Ackté, who sang the lead role in Aino, reported that the opera was performed “to the accompaniment of the birds of the air”.

Oskar Merikanto, the festival’s general director and factotum, noted “the devoutness with which simply country men and women followed the performance”. Thus, the public did not consist exclusively of gentlefolk and foreign tourists, although many a fine lady had a shock when asked to remove her wide-brimmed hat before the performance. How many pins had been needed to fasten it in place!

The Savonlinna Opera Festival never would have got off the ground without a highly developed musical foundation. The major Finnish towns had orchestras and a lively concert season; nor was opera by any means unknown. The Finnish Theatre, founded by Kaarlo Bergbom, had had an opera section since the 1870s, though the first fully-fledged opera company, the Finnish National Opera, was not founded until 1911.

The cultural historian Hertta Tirronen pointed out that by the time that Finland gained independence (1917), the country had general music culture which most citizens, regardless of social status or education, recognized as their own. Popular art music and folk melodies were especially widespread. Operetta and opera tunes, marches, waltzes and folk songs could be heard in concert halls and parks at social entertainments and skating rinks.

Music had happened since Finland had been annexed by Russia in 1809, a time when art music could be heard mainly at country estates and parsonages, and the gentry spent their time “conversing, botanizing and musicking”.

Aino Ackté arranged four one-week opera festivals in Savonlinna between 1912 and 1916. Only once did she succeed in reviving the event, in the summer of 1930. This attempt came during the great depression, also a time of sharp political divisions. The organizers ran out of money, and the 1930 opera festival was the last in 37 years.

The festival director’s life is no bed of roses, as Aino Ackté too found out, for envious eyes see enormous riches even where the coffers are empty. It was rumoured that Ackté had used the festival for her own financial gain, though in fact she had quietly invested a considerable part of her own savings into the event.

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