Hardworking Maestro Temporarily Winding Down

FinlandFinland Göran Forsling talks to Mikko Franck

Born in Helsinki in 1979, Mikko Franck started playing the violin at the age of 5 but within a couple of years he found out that orchestral scores were by far the most interesting reading and he used to conduct while listening to CD recordings. He continued his violin studies at the Sibelius Academy and while there he got the opportunity to conduct an orchestra under the supervision of Jorma Panula, legendary conductor and conductors’ trainer. He immediately saw the potential in young Mikko – 16 at the time – and enlisted him as his private student. The year after he continued his training in the conducting class at the Academy and finished his studies in 1998, without receiving a diploma. The reason was that his international career was already in full swing and within a few years he had conducted all the leading orchestras in Scandinavia, a lot of others as well and from 2002 he was artistic director of the National orchestra of Belgium.

In 2004 he was appointed General Music Director of the Finnish National Opera, a post that he took up in 2006 but half a year later he suddenly announced his resignation, due to difficulty in cooperation with the management. Since his contract was for two years he continued his job and before the time ran out there had been changes of personnel and Mikko was offered the dual post of Artistic Director and General Music Director, effective from 1 January 2008 and running until 31 July 2011. The contract was renewed for a further period of two years and in May 2011 Mikko Franck announced that he would not be available for another two-year-period and thus will leave his posts on 31 July 2013. Since this spring season will be his last at the head of the FNO I found it appropriate to meet him for a little retrospective conversation and a brief look in the crystal ball.

If you look back at your time as Artistic Director and General Manager, what have these years been like?

They have been very rewarding but also very tough. We got into a financial crisis very early during my reign and had to cut down on staff, which was terribly frustrating. However, well through this we were able to step by step raise the artistic standard and I’m proud of what we have achieved.

We have very good Finnish singers, a good ensemble, but we also need some extra attractions, for the quality of the performances but also to give our audiences that little extra. One aim has been to get our international stars back for guest appearances, which has resulted in Matti Salminen returning for several guest appearances, Camilla Nylund was engaged for Die tote Stadt two years ago and then returned in Merikanto’s Juha. And after several years’ absence we managed to sign Karita Mattila last autumn for Janacek’s The Makropulos Affair, which was great. She will be back next January as Jenufa.

You also engage other international stars. I’m thinking of tenors like Zoran Todorovich and Klaus Florian Vogt.

Primarily we need guests of that quality for roles that we can’t cast with our own singers, but again it’s also to give our regular visitors that little extra, a golden edge if you like.

But it must be expensive.

Well, not necessarily if you can make a good deal – and I’m a quite good negotiator, says Mikko Franck with a wry smile.

What about repertoire? You play quite a lot of Finnish opera. We talked about Juha, quite recently I saw Rautavaara’s Alexis Kivi in the Almi Hall and before that also Madetoja’s The Ostrobothnians, all this within a couple of years. In Stockholm, for instance, there have been very few Swedish operas. Sandström’s Batseba some five years ago, but that’s it.

It’s a matter of take and give. We have many good opera composers in Finland and when they get their works performed that’s also an inspiration for further efforts.

Besides the home grown repertoire you have staged several French operas lately, Carmen of course, but everybody plays Carmen, but also Pelleas et Melisande last year and now it’s Thais, which is a rather rare opera today. Are you particularly fond of French opera?

I would rather say that I’m fond of French music in general. It is close to my heart. (See him conducting Ravel in Paris: But of course it was quite a stir to do Thais, which hasn’t been seen in Helsinki for 79 years. Another thing that has been overlooked for many years is the baroque repertoire. When we put on Handel’s Giulio Cesare last year it was the first baroque opera in the new opera house – and it opened twenty years ago.

One thing that has struck me during my many visits to the Finnish National Opera is the high percentage of young visitors. What is the secret behind this phenomenon?

The secret is that we have worked very single-mindedly to attract young people. Today, to begin with, it is a must to be seen on social media, so we work a lot on that. Then we arrange special events with special tickets for the age group 18 – 24. Actually we have amended it to 33. Maybe it will be 34 next season, which means that I can still attend myself. (Isn’t it amazing for an opera house to have a General Manager, who after seven years in office still belongs to the youngest age category?) Yes, that has been a wonderful way to communicate with the young visitors. He’s the boss and he is my age! We often arrange gatherings after performances where we eat and drink and discuss what we have seen. These young people realize that opera is no strange thing for a certain category of people with special knowledge, special codes. Yes, we have been successful.

Returning to yourself now. You have had some busy years in your dual positions. What will happen now? What are your plans?

Yes, it has been tough years with lots of responsibilities, you never know when you go to your office in the morning what will happen during the day, what problems that will pop up and that you have to solve. It has been fantastic years but now I need to wind down a bit, take care of myself. I want to do things I never had time to do before. Study languages for instance.

And musically. What’s in the pipeline?

I have plans but they are not official yet. Now I will spend two years in a more relaxed manner, on free-lance basis, working something like half-time. I’ll be doing Der fliegende Holländer at Orange this year, for instance.

And a year ago you also made your debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The MET is a wonderful house. Everything works so beautifully. I would very much return there but as yet nothing is settled.

Mikko Franck didn’t mention this, but in October 2012 he scored tremendous success at Salle Pleyel in Paris when he stood in at very short notice for an ailing colleague and conducted Tristan und Isolde (a work he had never conducted before) with an international cast headed by the world’s reigning Isolde Nina Stemme. Frank Cadenhead, Musicalamerica, wrote in his review: ‘He has the Orchestre National de Radio France and the Radio France choir playing as if their lives depended on the outcome and regulars know that this is not always the case. The sheer passion of this score has never been so clearly revealed except when Furtwängler, and a few others, have took up the baton.’ The world seems to lie wide open for Mikko Franck and it will be very interesting to see what he road he chooses to travel when his well-deserved period of relative relaxation is over.

Göran Forsling