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Uljas Pulkkis: No other art form gave me such chills as opera

Kuva: Karoliina Pirkkanen

Uljas Pulkkis (b.1975) is the composer of All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story. We met with him and talked about the start of the project and where did he find the musical inspiration for this opera.  

Little by little the music starts to evolve in my head and live the life of its own. Usually when I feel moved by my own music, then I know it’s the right choice for the scene.

Uljas Pulkkis Composer

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work that you do? How did you become an opera composer? Do you see yourself primarily as a composer of operas?  

I have been composing contemporary music for over 25 years now. I started from scratch at my 20’s with almost no musical background. Of course, I played piano as a child, but my family wasn’t musically oriented and not a one relative of mine is a professional musician.  
  The music that made the greatest impact on me was opera, especially Wagner, R.Strauss and Puccini. The combination of orchestral music, singing and acting seems the most effective type of drama there is. No other art form gave me such chills as opera, not even movie.  
  Therefore, my first composition was an opera – which is and should remain unperformed – composed using 12-tone technique. I hardly knew the ranges of instruments or voices, but still did a one-hour long work with a dramatic arch. I actually didn’t even want it to be performed, as I knew it wouldn’t sound the way I wanted. 
  Despite the interest on music, I started to study mathematics and computer science, but I somehow managed to get a price for one of my compositions. That gave me courage to try music as a profession. I got in to the Sibelius Academy at 2nd try and did my masters quite fast. Back then I also won several big international composition prices which gave me kick in my career. For about 10 years I hardly wrote any vocal music, since all I did was commissions for orchestras. After that I realized that opera is the art I really want to do. Counting this project, I have 5 works I count as operas and one dramatic cantata, which could be staged. Doing them I’ve also realized how heavy and demanding project an opera performance is. Depending the size of the work, there could be 100s of people involved, which I see as a huge pressure for an artist. The composer and the librettist make the original material, and everybody must work with that. If there are flaws in the material, 1000s of working hours are wasted. Thus composing an opera gives me unbelievable stress, but also the sense of achievement second to none. 

Can you talk about the process of creating All the Truths? How did the project start? 

All the truths -project started when Glenda Dawn Goss, who was an acquaintance of my wife, sent me an email with an attached sketch for a libretto. This is something that happens quite often. I get 3-4 libretto suggestions a year, usually from people I don’t know. Many times, as with Glenda, there are no production plans, which often means the work is never going to be performed. However, I got about Glenda’s text as there was a great potential in the drama. We decided to suggest the project to Siba’s opera department. Luckily, they happened just to seek an English opera for co-production with Thornton. At the same time, I was starting my doctorate at Siba, so I could even bind the opera with my artistic research. 

Where did you take the musical inspiration from for All the Truths 

The musical inspiration for this project comes from the plot. I’ve read tens of books about Chernobyl, Ukraine, Russia, even technical books about nuclear fission. I have tried to imagine how the main characters should sound, how they feel and what are their relations. During my composition work I even suggested Glenda to change certain people relations and personalities to match the music I have in mind. This all takes time, and I have lived with the musical material for months before I dare to write anything down. Little by little the music starts to evolve in my head and live the life of its own. Usually when I feel moved by my own music, then I know it’s the right choice for the scene. 

Why do you think that opera is a good medium to portray political/scientific messages?  What are the messages in All the Truths, and who do you hope will hear them?  

Opera is a good medium for any messages, because it is so immersive. People don’t hear opera by accident, or because they don’t have anything better to do. Opera is always a waited event, scheduled weeks or months in advance. When people come to opera they want to be emotionally moved and they usually do. Therefore, any message presented in an opera reach the audience easily. 

Can you tell us a bit about how you’re planning to work with the performers, as well as the director and the producers of the show? How involved will you be in this part of the production of the show?  

I have been quite much in contact with the performers. The music I’ve wrote is not necessarily optimal just for the singer that is going to do the role. It is usual that certain parts must be transposed or otherwise revised to fit the singer’s potential. This is also a good showcase for them, and if they have some specialties in their voice, I must give them a chance to shine. Of course, I have some ideas about the visualization of the work, but I’ve learned to keep them to myself, as it is not where I’m good at, my job is the music. 

Other projects that you are involved in at the moment?  

The opera takes the most of my composition time right now. This year I composed a commissioned work for Chelsea-festival in New York which was cancelled for Covid. I made also a choir work to be performed in autumn. Furthermore, I’m doing my doctoral thesis, which is unusually a computer program, which tells you from the score if the instrument is audible or not. I use the program also to compose this opera to ensure each soloist can be heard through the orchestration. Currently I’m coding a mobile/web-app of my program, which hopefully will be ready by the end of the summer, and usable for all the composers and conductors around the world. 

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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