Lilli Paasikivi, the New Artistic Director of the Finnish National Opera Talks to Göran Forsling

”I prefer to walk to work!”
Lilli Paasikivi, the new Artistic Director of the Finnish National Opera talks to Göran Forsling

Lilli Paasikivi Copyright: Finnish National Opera & Karoliina Bärlund
Lilli Paasikivi
Copyright: Finnish National Opera & Karoliina Bärlund

Lilli Paasikivi took over the post as Artistic Director at the beginning of the 2013/2014 season, when Mikko Franck (see interview) stepped down after six years at the helm of the company. Having seen and heard her a number of times during the last few years in big roles at the National Opera, I was naturally curious to know more about her background and her visions for the future of the house.

“I had an ideal start since I grew up in Lahti, approximately 100 kilometres north of Helsinki”, she says. “In Lahti we had special music classes, where I had my first music education. We were taught music theory, sang in choirs, played the violin and we travelled a lot. Later I sang with a big band and had roles in musicals. Then I spent a year in USA as exchange student and it was during that time I was inspired to become fulltime professional musician.”

“Between 1986 and 1992 I studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm with Solwig Grippe (legendary singer and teacher, eventually professor at the Royal College of Music).  During this period I was awarded the Christina Nilsson Scholarship. 1990 – 1994 I studied in London, where I also took private lessons with Dame Janet Baker. Then in 1994 I was engaged at Norrlandsoperan in Umeå in Northern Sweden and then at the opera studio in Helsinki 1995.

“After these excursions I finally returned home to Finland in 1995 and a full-time employment at the Finnish National Opera. As a house-singer one must be able to adjust to a wide repertoire which broadens one’s mind. Bud parallel with the regular work at the FNO I could also embark on an international career. The first step was when Sakari Oramo brought me to Birmingham and since then I have been in demand around the world.”

A look at her CV reveals:  concert appearances in Vienna and Los Angeles (both with Esa-Pekka Salonen), New York with Lorin Maazel and Alan Gilbert, Boston with Christoph von Dohnanyi, Sydney with Vladimir Ashkenazy, to mention but a few; opera performances in Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, Salzburg and Aix-en Provence, including her compatriot Kaija Saariaho’s epoch-making L’amour de loin.

The solid base for her activities has of course been the Finnish National opera, where she has gone from lyrical repertoire towards the meatier dramatic roles, taking ‘goodies’ like Carmen, Octavian, Marina in Boris Godunov and Amneris in Aida in the stride.

Today when the administration takes much of her time she still finds time for guest appearances. Kullervo in Berlin in March, Kindertotenlieder in Bordeaux in April and then in May Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible at London’s Royal Festival Hall and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Bilbao are the most imminent assignments. “I prefer concerts to opera nowadays,” Lilli says. “For a concert you just pop over for a rehearsal and the performance, while an opera production often is a matter of several weeks away from home. I prefer to walk to work rather than flying.”

How did you get into the leadership business?

“I have always had an interest in the entirety, how things work in a wider perspective. I have been chairman of the soloists’ union at the National Opera and been involved in trade-union negotiations for several years. Five years ago I founded a music festival, the Pyhäniemi Manor Festival close to Lahti (read more here), where we arrange concerts in the beautiful manor as well as in churches. It has been quite a success and when I was asked, when Mikko called off, to take over here I felt I had enough in my backpack and thought: ‘This is a chance you are offered only once in a lifetime!’ I couldn’t resist. I know the house after more than fifteen years, I know the soloists, I know the staff, I know the repertoire.”

And what is it you want to do? What is your incentive?

“I want to work for Finland, for the Finnish Art of Opera! It is a heavy responsibility. I need to have a 360° overview of the house and we do have challenges, financial cut-downs for instance. And the choice of repertoire is a delicate task, find the right directors, the right composers …”

In a wider perspective – what are your visions?

On the side of being a leading National Opera stage, we also want to open our stage to other genres. We have the technical resources, we have a splendid ballet company. Ballet and opera should be a complement to each other – and I want to open up new channels, new connections between musical cultures – cross-over, if you like.”

I have seen about this Tango project at the end of April: From Buenos Aires to Seinäjoki. Argentinean and Finnish tunes uniting two distant milieus with the common denominator – tango rhythms.

“Yes, with the FNO Orchestra, dancers from the Finnish National Ballet and singers like Mika Pohjonen (did you know that he was the Finnish Tango King in 1992? Today he sings the big tenor roles, Canio, Don Carlo, Calaf), Matti Salminen and Angelika Klas, daughter of the conductor Eri Klas’ wife.”

“Another aim is to take opera productions on tour, outside the Helsinki area, cooperate with local orchestras. We have signed new labour-union agreements and, for the first time, a wide ranging media contract, running for four years, which will give us exposure nationwide.”

Talking repertoire: you want to widen the choice?

“I can see three levels of repertoire. Firstly we have the standard works, which should always be available. Some works need to brushed up, but we have wonderful productions that there is no need to tamper with. Take La traviata, a truly beautiful production that hasn’t aged a bit. Then we have great works that haven’t been performed before – or very long ago. They should be revived with longer intervals. We also have a responsibility to launch newly written works. There is a surge from composers to have their creations performed. At the same time we know the hazards of this. Very few new operas get a second run.”

Any highlights in the near future you can reveal?

“In the autumn 2016 we are scheduled to launch Richard Strauss’ Elektra, directed by Patrice Chéreau, after runs in Aix-en Provence and Metropolitan. Co-productions like that are invariably becoming more common. Jenufa (premiered the same evening as this interview took place) was a joint effort with Staatsoper Hamburg, last year’s Thais was originally put on in Gothenburg. I would like to get a closer relation with the Royal Stockholm Opera as well, but so far we haven’t found a suitable object.”

Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day either and of what we have heard we can look forward to a dynamic and thrilling development under the aegis of Lilli Paasikivi, who is contracted for a period of three years as Artistic Director, with an optional extension of another two years.

Göran Forsling


The Elektra production mentioned in the interview was first seen at the Aix-en-Provence festival in July 2013, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was to be Patrice Chéreau’s last production. He died in October 2013 from lung cancer, aged 68.

On 21 February the Finnish National Ballet launched a World Premiere, The Beauty and the Beast by choreographer Javier Torres with music by Ottorino Respighi.

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