The Savonlinna Opera Festival has become one of the most illustrious fixtures in the Finnish cultural calendar, and an event of the greatest international significance.
WHEN the construction of the Olavinlinna Castle began in 1475, the castle’s founder Erik Axelsson Tott, a Danish-born knight, decided that a mighty fortress should be built to protect the strategically important area of Savonia.
Over the centuries the Olavinlinna Castle changed hands between Swedes and Russians. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century with the emerging Finnish identity and Finland’s quest for independence that the Finnish soprano Aino Ackté spotted the medieval castle as the venue for an opera festival in 1907.
The first opera festival was held in 1912. Despite the First World War, the Russian Revolution, Finland’s Civil War and the ensuing economic difficulties, news of the festival had already reached opera lovers in other parts of the world.
The Savonlinna Opera Festival has grown from a one-week event into an international festival that lasts a month. Each year 10 per cent of the estimated 60,000 that attend come from abroad.
Nine operas have been premiered at the Savonlinna Opera Festival since 1967. The 2008 season sees the premiere of the Festival’s tenth opera on 12 July, The Seven Dog Brothers by Markus Fagerudd. It is the third and last part of the trilogy based on the books by Mauri Kunnas, Finland’s premier children’s writer, on the Finnish lirerary classic by Aleksis Kivi.
The Savonlinna Opera Festival has also been hosting foreign opera companies since 1987. The guest for 2008 is the Shangai Opera House bringing along Verdi’s Otello, and a representative of contemporary Chinese opera, a tantalisingly mystical work called The Wager by Wen Deqing.
The unique festival will be held from 4 July to 2 August, and opens with Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, conducted by the festival’s new Artistic Director Jari Hämäläinen.