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Professor Markus Lehtinen: “Opera is a dangerous weapon

“Opera should wake you to think much broader and more deeply about the things that you are experiencing.”

On World Environment Day, it is important to recognize the ways in which classical music and art can be used to deliver messages about important changes in the world. All the Truths blog team sat down with Markus Lehtinen, professor, conductor and director of Sibelius Academy’s opera program, to talk about why modern opera is important, and opera’s role as an agent of change in society.

Listen to the interview on Soundcloud

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work that you do?

I’ve been for 15 years the professor of the opera program at the Sibelius Academy. During that time, we’ve made modernizations of different kinds of projects–the opera program has changed really radically. We make a new ensemble every second year, and on that basis, we make the whole program.

Modern opera has always been one of my main interests, because it’s an open field: you are able to do your own reading and your own interpretation, not knowing how it should be done. You are just doing something new and unique.

Was that part of the reason why you and the Sibelius Academy Opera Program chose to do something like All the Truths as a project?

I think it has something to do with that, and also that fact that quite many young singers starting their professional careers usually are asked to do modern operas: the rehearsal schedules are quite long, and they can be demanding, and you are needed for several months on the spot.

So, they always want to have young, talented, motivated singers for modern opera, and it’s good that students also have tools to work with modern and new scores.

What are the challenges of working with new music?

I would say that the benefits far outweigh the challenges. People think that the performance classical music involves ‘half-copying’ something that has been done earlier, or that you just adapt some things and some concepts having to do with how to understand certain music, or what the moods are inside the music of specific arias or ensembles.

But nobody knows the mood or how a situation turns out in a new score, which nobody has ever seen before; so, it’s revealing, and at the same time, it’s also the best opportunity for the art of opera to have new audiences–in a new opera, nobody knows ‘what it is’. They should just feel that this is right and this is honest, and it is done with good quality.

Can you briefly describe the plot of All the Truths and the message that this opera is trying to portray?

It’s set in Chernobyl during those critical weeks in that specific year, 1986. There are two kinds of people: those that are working with the environment and the quality of the life of the nature. At the same time, there’s this technical department with technical people who are organized and motivated by the ideology of the superiority of humankind and the superiority of the communist movement.

There’s also this element of nature itself; there are roles of animals on stage, singing and expressing themselves; there are also certain elements like the river, which is singing. Much of the plot centers around how after the accident, everything has changed.

There are also certain things that must be solved in order to find a way to go on – or then, not to go on.

A lot of opera-goers seem to see opera as something of an anachronism, and they like it that way. Why do you think that opera is a good medium for carrying political and scientific messages that are relevant to this moment in time?

I think that the best kind of art doesn’t show things ‘straight to your eyes’: good art makes you think. It brings something that happens on a deep, emotional level up to your skin, and to your awareness. Nowadays, opera should give that ‘complete’ feeling of all art forms combined together. At the same time, it should wake you to think much broader and much more deeply about the things that you are experiencing.

If opera would be just a political weapon (which it has been, actually, in Verdi’s time, and so on), that kind of opera wouldn’t live long. But the kind of opera that shows something emotionally deep, and at the same time points you towards some real issues – that combination is unmatched. In that sense, opera can be a dangerous weapon.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the messages that All the Truths is trying to portray? Or rather, the context of this opera?

I think that since we all know today that this virus is not a question or danger just for certain countries; it’s a danger that threatens everyone’s life everywhere in the world.

Similarly, from the beginning, I was quite definite in the idea that the possibility of nuclear accidents has become such a universal thing that it doesn’t look too narrow-minded and pointing just to Chernobyl; it’s a question of all the nuclear stations everywhere in the world.

Now, like this virus, this kind of nuclear accident could happen, and touch anybody in the whole world. This kind of thought that it’s happening far away, and that ‘it doesn’t really concern us at all’ – I don’t think people look at it like that anymore.

All the truths we cannot see – a Chernobyl story

ll the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story is an opera by Uljas Pulkkis and Glenda D. Goss. It is produced as a collaboration between Uniarts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy and the USC Thornton School of Music. Students from these institutions join forces in an opera production, which will premiere in Helsinki on 26 March 2021. The American premiere will take place in Los Angeles on 21 April 2021. All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story explores the explosion that happened at a power plant in Chernobyl, Soviet Union in 1986, as well as its reasons and consequences.

This blog reveals the background stories and people behind this project and also represents some expert articles discussing the relation between opera and the environment.

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