The arrival of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin in New York is a big deal. As Zachary Woolfe informed us last Saturday in his New York Times guide to the opera’s staging at the Metropolitan Opera this December, it’s “one of the most important events of the fall season.” This is certainly true for the Met, for New York City’s cultural denizens, and for audiences in about 2,000 movie theaters around the world who will attend the HD live broadcast on December 10. But many of us—composers, performers, musicians, and academics—already knew this to be the case, given the growing interest in Saariaho’s work, including in the United States. In 1999, the New York Philharmonic commissioned from Saariaho her Oltra Mar: Seven Preludes for the New Millennium. Last fall, the University of Berkeley invited her for a semester to deliver the prestigious Bloch Lectures, accompanied by performances of her works. She was also featured at the 2015 Louisville New Music Festival. This fall, she is in residence at the Mannes School of Music and, last month, the New York Philharmonic celebrated her 64th birthday on October 14 with two all-Saariaho programs conducted by her favorite conductor, colleague, and compatriot, Esa Pekka Salonen. This year will culminate with the performance of her opera at the Met throughout the month of December.
But in the 1980s, it was not clear—not even to her—that she could compose a compelling opera. It took her almost a decade, throughout the 1990s, to conceive what would become her first opera. She then composed L’Amour de loin over eighteen months in 1999 and 2000. The premiere took place in 2000, in Salzburg—before the productions that took place in her native Helsinki, or in her adoptive city of Paris, where she has lived most of the last three decades. After more than ten productions in Europe and America, L’Amour de loin was chosen to be the first opera composed by a woman to be presented at the Met in more than a century, following Ethel Smyth’s 1903 Der Wald.
Saariaho’s professional beginnings were not easy. Born in Helsinki in 1952, she had to struggle with her education in a male-dominated culture, like most female composers of her generation. Two professors refused to teach her composition because she was, in her own words, a “pretty girl, getting soon married, and, you know, they have more important things to do”—an attitude that, at least during the initial stages of her career, compelled her to disavow any label or commentary about her as a “female composer.” Her meetings with spectralist composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail in the early-1980s in Darmstadt seem to have released her from the new complexity of the avant-garde at the time (and perhaps her teacher, Brian Ferneyhough), and she soon settled in Paris, the only woman composer to work with electronic music at IRCAM. Motherhood—and not only the revelation of listening to two heartbeats within her own body that she later incorporated in her music—led her to the themes in her music of the last two decades, especially her other theatrical-vocal works, Adriana Mater (2005), La Passion de Simone (2006), and Emilie (2008).
Given this evolution and after years of composing what might have been construed as “masculine music,” Saariaho has become more inclined to talk about the feminine sides of her profession and in her music. In my interview with her during the 2015 Louisville New Music Festival, she candidly disclosed her struggles as a young woman and her new openness with her femininity. Her initial interaction with performers was not much different than what she experienced with her first teachers. When she approached her favorite cellist to perform her Im Traume, the response was far from what she had expected:
I called him and asked if he would like to make the recording for the Finnish radio, and he found it so funny—that a girl would call him up and ask him to play her music—that he was just laughing. He was just laughing. He was so surprised that so finally he never played my music. So I already then realized that it was not completely their fault. It’s the cultural situation, and that has evolved a lot, and yet, of course, we all know that there is no equality.
Perhaps this formative experience taught her to lead her career with more deliberation regarding contact with performers, even much later in her career when “compliments” about her music—which did not sound as if it were “written by a woman”—had become an old memory. In order to prepare methodically to compose L’Amour de loin and to secure its success, Saariaho preceded it with three works—Château de l’âme (1995), Lonh (1996), and Oltra mar (1998-99)—and she concluded her work on the opera’s themes with a symphonic poem with soloists and choir, consisting of five lieder/chansons encapsulating the whole opera: Cinq reflects de L’Amour de loin (2001). These were not merely experiments with moods and concepts for the opera, but also a way to initiate contact with her ideal partners through relatively smaller projects. The first was soprano Dawn Upshaw, for whom Saariaho composed her Château de l’âme (The Castle of Soul, also dedicated to the composer’s daughter, Aliisa) for soprano, eight female voices, and orchestra, setting texts from the Hindu and ancient Egyptian traditions. Since she had previously composed almost exclusively for instruments and stayed away from melody as a core element in her music (during the 1980s, she had focused on timbre and structure), Château de l’âme was a milestone in her music, now re-embracing vocal melody, which had inspired her very early works. In Lonh (Afar, also dedicated to Upshaw), her experiment focused on the vocal lines against the electronic background, initially planned for the prologue of the opera.
The profound skill and beauty of Saariaho’s work resonated in her third work, which was later used in the opera, mostly in the fourth act: Oltra Mar: Seven Preludes for the New Millennium for large orchestra and mixed choir. Here, expressions of spectralist techniques are clearly audible not only through her seas of shimmering noises-turning-into-songs but also in their melodic ornamentations and the heterophonically consonant (listen; this is not an oxymoron in Oltra Mar) waves, clearly following the harmonics with the fundamental perfect fifths repeating as a natural ostinato, more like ocean waves crashing on the shore than metronome-mechanic pulsating musical ostinati. The sixth prelude of Oltra Mar, “Mort: in memory of Gérard Grisey”—he passed away during its composition—evokes death through the stillness of the texture, repeating almost the same cluster about fifteen times and then turning chillingly to an arresting climax. Its stasis, however, is imbued with the richness she extracted from Grisey’s style, which inspired her to transform her own two decades earlier.
L’Amour de loin (literally “love from afar”) is inspired by the poem “Lanquan li jorn lonc en mai” by the 12th-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel. Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf worked on the libretto with Saariaho, creating a captivating, highly poetic text which materialized into an opera that conveys beauty, first and foremost. It is a work about an emotional and spiritual journey—about the eternal themes of love and death embodied in a medieval troubadour. He is a character tired of the life of a Lothario and longing for a real love, but who dies at the moment he finally attains his desire. As such, it could well be tagged (dangerously, of course) as anti-masculine: it lacks the common “action” that we might expect from some operas. No wars, no fights, no murder or mayhem, no violence. Indeed, L’Amour de loin has been described as an opera with no drama—a misnomer. The opera’s dramatic elements are almost entirely internal, occurring within the minds of its three protagonists: Jaufré, who yearns for his real love, Clémence, his love from afar, from Tripoli, and the mediating Pilgrim between them, all supported by their respective quasi-Greek choruses. The chorus of the Tripolese women, Clémence’s friends, tries to ground her while she gradually falls in love with Jaufré; his chorus of companions does the same, balancing his unrealistic yearning. Both choruses seem to give voice to the inner dialog of the lovers’ minds. Often, there is only the one character on stage—and audiences are mesmerized throughout.
Beauty in contemporary opera might be seen as rather rare. Saariaho’s sweet dissonances dissolve into simple, pure sounds again and again, creating the desired sense of tension and release—leaning on minimalist techniques for temporal stasis and spectralist idioms for the beauty of her sound. She does cite (her interpretation of the original notation of) Rudel’s original medieval songs. Her syntheses of the medieval style, minimalism, and spectralism—with touches of Debussy’s vocal style from his Pelléas et Mélisende and echoes of Wagner’s Tristan (the latter, clear at the end of the opera)—are just that, compelling syntheses; the seams are unseen, making us blind to yet transfixed by the stylistic transitions, a Saariaho hallmark. All that said, it is not this, or the stirring beauty of Maalouf’s poetry or of the troubadour singing, that gives L’Amour de loin its unique sound. It is the charm of Saariaho’s orchestral music, the musical echo of the inner drama that has captivated audiences and critics. At the foundation of her skillful, rich timbres lies a thin but iridescent fabric woven out of a handful of harmonic threads which span the entire opera. She might also mean to take us back to classical concepts of harmony, where three main functions are sufficient for creating powerful harmonic drive and structural coherence—both of which also characterize L’Amour de loin. In his search for his real love, Jaufré is yearning for a woman who is “beautiful without the arrogance of beauty, noble without the arrogance of nobility, pious without the arrogance of piety”—characteristics it would not be far-fetched to attribute to L’Amour de loin as well.
Ronit Seter studies 20th-century music and specializes in Israeli art music. She served on the faculties of the Peabody Conservatory, the George Washington University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and American University (DC). A contributor to the Grove Music Online, she has published in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Jewish Women Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Judaica, Tempo, Notes, Min-Ad, Journal of the American Musicological Society, and Musical Quarterly. Her book in progress on Israeli composers is under contract with Oxford University Press.