Erika Sunnegårdh

Helsinki World Premiere Week, 4 September 2017

This week we run headlong into the World Premiere of Autumn Sonata – a new opera by Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund, adapted from the film of Ingmar Bergman.  This is only Fagerlund’s second opera, but I doubt it will be his last.  Already a very appreciated and experienced composer for orchestra (currently Composer in Residence at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam), he has given us a score to match this fantastic drama.  At once powerful, full-scale, extreme in his use of grand gesture and sonic envelopment, he also excels in transparency, spaciousness and delicate micro-moments.  It is a singing actor’s dream, really.

Enough arcs to soar inside the swell of the full orchestra, as well as graspable moments to carve out color and breathlessness with both voice and emotion.

Add the stage direction of an extraordinary director, whose objective is to use each artist’s instruments of expression to their fullest.  Always asking for greater distillation of intention, more organic use of extreme emotion – but never against the nature of the ingredients at hand.  This is so important to me.  Sometimes one is asked to “perform” into reality some vision the director has in their head, and while the vision might be valid, it is not always in step with the instruments of expression available.  Stéphane Braunschweig not only understands and LOVES the material, he gives himself in service to the deepest aspects of the thematic psychology being expressed – looking for the universal humanity in them – rather than holding to a personal version of those themes.  In other words, the themes have been allowed to take on their own life as the rehearsals have progressed – As expressed through the voices and sensibilities of the artists at hand.

Playing the role of Eva is truly a gift.  She holds within her experience several of the great human and female experiences of great consequence:  the loss of motherly love, both received and given; the too early bereavement of a carefree childhood; the all too young realization that love is as much a function of the capacity to put selfishness aside, as it is intent or the presence of actual loving feeling.  And she is smart and self-aware enough to put words to her emotions, while still feeling them…  She neither disconnects from the core source of the pivoting moments in her life, nor from the accumulation of her pain and upset.  And yet, she is infinitely tender and holds a admiring loving attitude to those she deems blameless and deserving.   And both composer and director have given the tools necessary to embody this touching and heartbreaking human fate.

Don’t even get me started on my lovely and miraculously gifted and wonderful colleagues…

Anne Sofie von Otter, in a role that she will define forever (if this beautiful opera lives the long healthy life is deserves).  There is an air of grace and greatness you simply can’t fake, hide, or manipulate into being (a lesson for generations of opera stars in the making!!)   While her voice promises many more years of beauty and strength, hearing and seeing her in this greater than life character is an opportunity not to be missed!

Tommi Hakkala, bringing life to a character of difficult accessibility, bringing us under the skin of his heartbreak, beauty, and dignity.

Helena Juntonen, the “baby bird” of our dysfunctional family, soaring to vocal heights and piercing our souls with her anguished broken wings.

I am such a fortunate woman.

Helsinki, 13 August 2017, Autumn Sonata

I’ve been thinking a lot about personal safety recently. Emotional and psychological personal safety, that is.
I have no doubt it has been triggered by world events;  feeling like the count-on-able factors in life are decreasing in number with every new day’s headlines, observing people turning away from eye-to-eye conversation in favor of the virtual world of sensory pacification and distraction, colleagues packing it in and going home amid feelings of overwhelm and senselessness.

A major theme when I teach workshops for young singers is the contention that we can only control our own response, reaction or attitude to anything or anyone we encounter. Nobody else will stand accountable or response-able for changing our experience of life, with all its’ circumstances or inherent challenges.  Nor is anyone or anything else responsible for our successes, or lack thereof.
This contention often upsets people. Most of us have heard it, as a meme or quotable, lodged safely between petitions to be signed and videos of hedgehogs cavorting with kittens. But rarely do we take this idea on and draw from it all its logical conclusions in real life situations.

Recently I taught a group of American singers studying in Europe at a Summer program. All young adults, all actively pursuing their dreams, trying to nurture their talents, yearning to know how they stack up in the “real” world. The pressure they put upon themselves to “make it” was palpable. Behind the professional friendliness between “colleagues” was a hierarchy of assessed potential and a crippling amount of judgment, both of others, as well as inwardly, towards the Self.

American Do-It-Yourself culture has raised us all to believe that we can be the Cause in the matter of our own lives. Not just choose to be kind, or honest, or honorable…. But actually “cause things to happen” (namely our impending stardom) through our actions and our positioning of ourselves on the market of life. It has become epidemic, this attitude. 
Young ones, barely out of college, are forcing their undeveloped artistic selves into glammy photo shoots, sound bites, and single word assessments of their potential, such as “ravishing”, “incandescent”, “powerful”….

Sorry!  But just because you put it on a website doesn’t make it true.
  And even if it were, could you live up to it in your next 5-minute audition?

And when you compare how insecure and often clueless you feel on the inside, with how everyone else is presenting themselves on the outside, you actually generate emotional and psychological problems and issues that not only stunt your own development, but also show up at the most inopportune moments, namely on stage and in the creative process with more experienced artists.

I’m not simply referring to a loss of nerve at a critical moment. I am talking about the distraction all this “causing” is to the real work of diving deeply into actual music, actual stories, actual philo-emotional (favorite new word!) exploration. And also, the deep and often discombobulating exploration of SELF that is necessary for becoming an interpreter worth his/her ticket price and full-length evening at the theater.

I would contend that trying to be the Cause of anything at all in Life is putting the cart in front of the horse. Or as Birgit Nilsson used to say about trying to interpret before having a solid technique, “frosting the cake before it’s baked”.

But somehow we have created a business that acknowledges the purpose of a strong physical technique, but has forgotten what it means, and the time it takes, to be technically worthy in the more subtle areas of self-knowledge and interpretation. The distinction I’ve been thinking a lot about is the difference between Cause and Source.

Cause refers almost exclusively to action, while sourcing something conjures up the realm of “being”, of having or being the access to a resource. In the face of someone who is really bringing something authentic and flowing to the surface, we all stand still and await the experiencing of that which is being sourced… or uncovered, of you prefer.

The other day in rehearsal, our director was looking for something; a missing sensibility in the scene. And everyone in the room, already convinced of the insightful, deep and wise awareness he brings to the work, literally just stopped. You could hear a pin drop. We waited. A long time. (really! – a very long time…!) Until what needed to surface IN HIM came forth.
In the presence of such deep intention, there is nothing but mutual respect and care for one another. Nothing but time and space afforded each other to bring “it” to the surface…   And some work requires nothing less.

A few days later I was rehearsing a particularly difficult scene. One, where my character’s childhood pain is finally expressed to her disconnected mother. The voice teeters between singing and speaking, whispering and crying, and then singing again. The stillness in the space, and the economy of movement, the disembodiment of feelings relived, from the retelling of events… it requires not acting, but being.
After being told for the fifth time that I was falling off the fine line between tension and bluntness that we had found so miraculously days earlier, I felt challenged. My private emotions and sense of inadequacy were riding closer to the surface, my concern for Self was rearing its ugly head. I started to perceive both director and composer as adversaries; as if I needed to prove my worth, and to some degree defend the scene and my character.

Then I caught myself and asked for what I needed. Namely a 15-minute break.
  I went to my room; cried for five, meditated for eight, went to the bathroom, refreshed my make-up, and went back into the rehearsal armed with Swedish chocolate for the team and my private source of courage, vulnerability and emotional authenticity RECONNECTED and WILLING to flow again. Willing, to be observed in free-fall of emotional uncertainty again… and that changed everything.

But here’s the crux. I’ve had a lot of training in singing, opera, career development. I’ve spent time and money on websites and photos and audition recordings. I’ve spent many a semi-sober evening with colleagues lamenting the changing landscape of the business, working conditions and the future of the art form.

Rarely, or never has anyone openly talked about, or taught (!), the core of self-development and inquiry required for not just survival, but flourishing, both onstage and off…

“Gotta be strong!”    
“Gotta want it!”     
“Gotta be able to cope with the lifestyle…”  “Gotta believe in yourself!”

But never:   Who are you?   What’s in your heart that is yours to share?   That you indeed must share…?  What is the sweet spot in your soul that resonates so perfectly that the room stops and waits?
   What music or characters tap into that?

This is the only question worth asking.  The only question that will survive the career business, and the business of life on the planet.

And the answer, or winding path towards that answer, is the only thing worth applying our voices to.