A young pastor and his family settle on a remote Finnish island. Life is wonderful by the glistening sea, but winter is coming and the newcomers know nothing of its perils.
Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s Ice was awarded the 2012 Finlandia prize and has become the most cherished Finnish novel of the decade. It has attracted much interest from theatres, but the Finnish National Opera is the first to get permission to adapt it for the stage. Juhani Koivisto’s libretto follows the key events and characters of the novel, with music by Jaakko Kuusisto that rings with the changing seasons and the ever-present threat of ice.
Master of the House of Mourning
Nelli Ojapalo, Sini Siipola, Heidi Suur-Hamari, TeemuKyytinen, Joonas Luomala
Eden Sarkkinen, Lauri Luostarinen, Pyry Laita, Mitro Kutvonen
The new priest Petter Kummel, his wife Mona and their little daughter Sanna arrive on the island on Post Anton’s boat. Once at the parsonage, there is a discussion about building a bridge. It turns out that the west and east villagers disagree about everything. Petter and Mona, however, are happy and believe they will stay on the island.
Petter agonises over his first sermon and eventually decides to use his sermon from the year before, found in his briefcase. The bells toll and the organ plays, the church is full of people, and Petter’s first sermon is a success. The parishioners seem to like him – young women in particular, which Mona observes in anger.
Petter is at sea with Post Anton. Anton tells him that he is told where to go at sea by supernatural guides, dead people whom others can’t see.
The winter has arrived and the sea has frozen over. Everyone finally has access to the mainland. At the same time, there’s talk about the parish being divided into two separate islands, and a bridge-building committee is set up.
The ice melts, the chorus sings about daily life on the island, and the summer visitors arrive. In the autumn, Post Anton sets off in his boat to the mainland to take Petter to his pastoral exam.
Having returned to the island, Petter says he did poorly in his exam, though he still passed. He had been tired because their former servant, Hilda, had visited him at his hotel and wanted to talk late into the night. Mona is jealous and asks what she wanted, as she knows about a teenage tryst Petter had with Hilda.
It’s Christmas, the weather is stormy, and a ship has sunk off the island of Utö. At Mass, Petter prays for the crew and the islanders discuss the fate of the ship.
It is summer. Petter is installed as a vicar, the chorus sings about the ice breaking, and everyone is in good spirits. Post Anton, however, has bad forebodings.
Petter goes to hold a memorial service in a house where a child has died. On his way back, he falls through the ice and doesn’t hear the advice of the guides. He almost manages to pull himself up, but after he reaches back for his briefcase he has no strength left.
Petter’s body is found and brought into the parsonage. Mona doesn’t immediately realise that he is dead and wants to be alone with him. She simultaneously misses him and feels anger towards him for leaving her alone. She turns her mind to practicalities and begins to organise the funeral feast.
The islanders congregate to say farewell to Mona and Sanna, who are leaving the island. The bridge is ready and there is a new priest on the island. Post Anton and the chorus sing about memories becoming more distant. Soon the priest and his fate are nothing but a story to be told on the island.
Music rings with the power of nature
Composer Jaakko Kuusisto reflects on how life in Finland’s outer archipelago informed his latest opera.
To me, reading Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s novel Ice was a ravishing experience. It left me with an idea of a vast landscape, as if I had been looking at a picture. The story evoked intense emotions and thoughts. There was something very familiar about the picture that the book had painted. As a child, I grew up by the sea, and as an adult I’ve lived in Finland’s outer archipelago.
The eventual outcome of the story cemented my opinion that Ice would make a powerful opera. It fulfils all the criteria of a great opera. On the outside, very little happens, but there’s extreme drama hidden under the delicate surface. It inspired me as a composer and opened up a world of possibilities.
Nature is full of forces that we cannot grasp, and that are so strong that we are powerless against them. The sea in all its guises enables sequences of events that are totally beyond our control. In the end, we can’t fight their power. This conflict between nature and humanity became particularly evident to me while living in the outer archipelago.
The composition of an opera begins from the libretto. You get the text and hope that it awakens ideas, which in turn become melodies. When it comes to Ice, the novel had already given me a sense of how the opera would sound. When I got my hands on Juhani Koivisto’s libretto, the text really began to speak to me.
When you’re composing music for a libretto, you often tend to start from the beginning of the story. With Ice it was different. Mona’s aria towards the end is such a powerful piece of text that I took it as a starting point. That aria was the first scene that I completed, and I began to create the music around it. Mona’s aria gave me certain themes for the rest of the work, as the leading light of my composing process.
The music of Ice adheres to opera traditions with its arias, choral scenes and intermezzos. It’s a strong orchestral opus, but the chorus is crucial to its tonal landscape. The chorus plays a double role. It’s an element depicting natural forces, like a distant, mystical sound, but also a small church choir singing hymns. I spent a lot of time working out the relationship between music that tells the story and more static, figurative music that creates a sense of the landscape.
The atmosphere of the music revolves around very basic ideas. Just like the islanders in their daily interaction, the music shies away from direct conflict, focusing on everyday life. On the other hand, when nature shows its power, the intense, almost violent orchestral music crashes into you as it carries the story forward. I relied very much on these two components. Not all the events of the opera are evident in our visible reality. The scenes involving another dimension have more modern elements. The sound is subtly processed and there is the quiet yet ominous background noise of howling wind. It’s not a roar but a sinister rumbling.
The fact that we’re creating world premieres here in Finland is important in itself. It’s the only way in which we can concretely advance the cause of the art of Finnish opera. With such a fine Finnish novel chosen as the subject, the combination is near perfect. A lot of people can truly relate to the story of Ice. The fact that this novel has touched so many Finns makes it a great subject for an opera.
There’s much of the old truth in it, that an individual’s life is merely a speck within the bigger picture. Anything can happen at any time, and anyone’s story can end at any moment. When an individual’s story comes to an end, the rest of the world carries on, almost as if nothing had happened. While looking at life from your own personal perspective, it’s easy to over-inflate your role. More than anything, the novel left me conscious of how small we really are in the big picture.
Working with music in general is very important to me. Music has been a key part of my life as long as I remember. I’d say this is a lifestyle that takes a lot but gives even more. I’m lucky that, while working on Ice, I get to experience what’s best about my work: as a composer, I can start making something new, sit at my desk and create music. As a conductor, I can also get on the stage with the rest of the artists. I have the chance to enjoy someone else adapting my work and producing their own unique interpretation. That is a wonderful experience for a composer.
Conductor, composer and violinist Jaakko Kuusisto started his extensive music career in the 1990s, after being successful in several international violin competitions. As one of the most recorded Finnish instrumentalists, his recordings include many essential works of Finnish music.
Besides regularly giving solo and chamber music performances, Kuusisto has conducted artistic planning for a variety of festivals and orchestras. Currently he is the Chief Conductor of the Kuopio Symphony Orchestra. Kuusisto’s compositions include approximately 30 opuses and spans chamber, vocal and orchestral and film music as well as operas.