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Hearing Opera Season Finnish Style

May 31, 1987|BERNICE CARTON | Carton is a New York City free-lance writer. and

SAVONLINNA, Finland — On a balmy summer evening when the midnight sun gilds the land, a hush falls over the ancient castle. Two thousand people seated in the rock-hewn courtyard wait. The conductor raises his baton.

Then the orchestra strikes the first notes of the overture, signaling the start of the monthlong Savonlinna Opera Festival.

Savonlinna, set in a far corner of Finland, is hardly a household name. Yet thanks to the burgeoning popularity of the music festivals that dot its summer calendar, this low-key little city 200 miles from Helsinki is gaining popularity as a tourist attraction.

The annual Savonlinna Opera Festival, once virtually unknown except to opera buffs, is now an internationally acclaimed event.

"We had several hundred Americans here last year," says Pertti Mutka, head of the Savonlinna Tourist Service, native son and enthusiastic booster of eastern Finland. At the beginning, though, the cynics sneered. "An opera festival in Finland? A joke!"

But today, Mutka says, "This is the most important of the many Scandinavian music festivals, the one that attracts people from all over the world."

An Annual Change

Savonlinna, a mere stone's throw from the Soviet Union but a million light years away in ambiance and attitude, is, for 11 months of the year, a quiet backwater. Each July the population swells from a modest 28,000 to a packed-in 100,000. Hotels are full, rooms in private homes are rented and holiday makers flock to campsites and cottages and commute from Helsinki, 30 minutes away by plane.

Savonlinna is in the midst of Finland's Great Saimaa Lake District, a huge expanse of serene waters dotted with tens of thousands of forested islands. The islands come in all sizes. Some shelter simple summer homes, beloved of all Finns. On others are found only deer and bear, fox, elk and moose.

Savonlinna spreads its urban mantle over several islands. On one small and rocky isle stands Olavlinna Castle, dating to 1475. Over the centuries the castle grew, adding towers and bastions and secret passages to the original fortifications.

Supernatural Tradition

In true castle tradition it has its share of legends, ghosts and supernatural happenings. It has withstood siege and fire, famine and pestilence. This mighty medieval fortress, now used as the opera house, looms over the town, its battlements providing a stunning backdrop for the performances.

When, in the early 1900s, the castle's value as a historic site was recognized, the Finnish opera star Aino Ackte also realized its potential as a theater. From 1912 to 1916 this redoutable woman, with almost single-handed dedication, staged the first four opera festivals.

Her aim was simple, if ambitious: to present Finnish music to both domestic and international audiences. Such was the singer's presence that she did, indeed, attract audiences to this remote place.

The first of the festivals lasted only five days, but it ran to fulsome praise. World War I put a stop to the festivals, which resumed only in 1967. The festivals attract artists from outside Finalnd, such as Osceola Davis and Tom Krause, as well as Finnish greats such as Martti Talvela and Matti Salminen.

On the first weekend of July, the medieval stone walls of Olavlinna Castle are transformed into a 20th-Century theater, a dramatic setting for the fantasy of opera.

Rain or Shine

Overhead, the courtyard is protected by a plastic canvas, insurance against a possible shower, and reminder of the flood that inundated the unprotected audience at the opening opera in 1968. Locals still shudder at the memory.

The audience filling the monumental court walks across the pontoon footbridge that joins the tiny island to the larger islands of Savonlinna city. Some arrive by boat, the locally acknowledged status way to get to and from the opera.

They come from all over the world. Russian visitors applaud in unison with American tourists.

Dress is casual and comfort is the operative word. Sweaters and wraps are advised, for the nights grow cool even in July when the sun dips, albeit briefly, below the horizon.

The opera unfolds, and when the last strains die away, the festivities move into high gear. "People come out of a cultural event very hungry. They must eat," Mutka says.

Finns, who during the rest of the year tend to dine early, take advantage of the lingering daylight and the lengthy performance to have a late supper. At this time of year, private parties cap the social season. Banquets are set up in the various chambers of the castle. The restaurants in Savonlinna will stay open until 3 in the morning, a concession to the festival.

Many throng to the restaurants to dine on the wide variety of foods, always presented artistically. Finns take pride in being masters of design. Be it reindeer or the lake fish, chicken or pork, the typical meat- and rice-filled pastries, or the many salads so popular in summer, all will be washed down by quantities of vodka and beer, mineral water and the always strong, dark coffee.

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