Art, Life, Mayhem, Art: Opera About Massacre Blurs Lines Of Imitation

A scene from the San Francisco Opera U.S. premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s ‘Innocence’ (Photos by Cory Weaver)

SAN FRANCISCO — As I write this on June 2, it is exactly a year since we lost one of Finland’s great composers, Kaija Saariaho, at the age of 70 from glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. It was shocking because her illness had not been revealed publicly, and she was still very much in her creative prime.

What made this particularly poignant was that the night before, the San Francisco Opera had given the U.S. premiere of the last of Saariaho’s five operas, Innocence, which grapples with one of the soul-wrenching crises of her (and our) times — mass shootings. It is an amazing, at times harrowing, theatrical and musical experience, a summation of Saariaho’s achievements in her craft wedded to a remarkably communicative multilingual libretto by Aleksi Barrière (based on the original Finnish libretto by Sofi Oksanen) that aims right at the heart and the solar plexus.

Rod Gilfry as the father-in-law and Ruxandra Donose as the waitress

Rarely does one see and hear something so complex in its making and ambiguous in its meaning that is so easy to grasp upon a first hearing. Especially, I suspect, for an American audience living in the arms capital of the world that has to deal with this issue again and again and again with little hope of ever having something done about it.

The plot is supposed to take place in Helsinki sometime in the 2000s, but for this audience, that’s just a distancing device in the way that, say, the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto is really a stand-in for the King of France. 

There are two situations going on at the same time: a wedding reception in Helsinki for a bridegroom (Tuomas) who found his bride (Stela) on a vacation trip to Romania, and a group of six students and their teacher from an international high school remembering a massmurder shooting spree in the building from 10 years before. It turns out that the groom’s parents are caught in a dilemma, wondering whether or not to tell Stela that Tuomas’ brother was the mass murderer.

Gradually the rest of the story emerges, and it’s only part of what the mainstream media covering such a tragedy usually reveals. One passage that rings oh-so-true sums up how journalists, TV news anchors, and politicians mourn the dead with the usual thoughts and prayers –- and after nothing is done, they soon grow weary of the problem of guns until the next mass shooting occurs. Having the characters sing in nine different languages makes the international high school setting credible and also gives the opera a coating of universality that suggests something like this could happen anywhere.

Lucy Shelton as the teacher

The characters’ histories and emotions are explored, instances of bullying muddle the inexcusable motive for the killings, all lives are touched forever, and by the end, everything is masterfully tied together while leaving the audience with the uneasy sense that permanent damage has been done. No one is “innocent” anymore.

To this mix, stage director Simon Stone applies the remarkably consistent trappings of style that he displayed so effectively in productions of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt for Bayerische Staatsoper and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for the Metropolitan Opera and LA Opera — a revolving stage, a contemporary sensibility, and sets by Chloe Lamford to match.

There is a wedding reception table, a classroom, a mockup of a stairway within the high school building, a closet where a terrified female student hides from the killer, and a kitchen for the reception dinner where a Czech waitress, Tereza, whose daughter was one of the victims, happens to be working. The opera’s plot is designed to unfold in real time as the set revolves from scene to scene, and it proved to be a riveting, uninterrupted hour and 42-minutes in five continuous acts.

Saariaho’s masterful score of indefinite tonality contributes greatly to the tension that builds, eases, and builds again in the opera. You can sense that something special is happening from the opening notes of the Prelude, which growls quietly, slowly, and mysteriously in the bass register, gradually lightening in color while growing ever more complex and glistening.

The Teacher, now disillusioned after the shootings, is a Sprechstimme role; an offstage choir chimes in almost like a Greek chorus. Saariaho manages to find a specific musical language for each character, peppering the music with knocks and bursts of percussion. Unlike most of her operas, Innocence doesn’t use electronics per se, but her orchestra at times imitates their timbres. The opera ends in almost the same mood in which it began: A ghostly chorus launches an epilogue and an eloquent final orchestral passage that fades away into darkness seems to say nothing is resolved.

The production’s two-tiered set revolves from scene to scene.

There was a sizable cast of 21 singers and actors, with all but three of them making their San Francisco Opera debuts. Baritone Rod Gilfry sounded slightly worn at first but was soon in greatly improved voice as the father of the groom. Soprano Claire de Sévigné was an emotional mother of the groom, mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose contributed a nearly overwrought turn as Tereza, and the experienced soprano Lucy Shelton touchingly inhabited the Sprechstimme Teacher role. The roles of Tuomas (tenor Miles Mykkanen) and Stela (soprano Lilian Farahani) were inconspicuous at first, but their characters grew into a powerful confrontation scene in Act V. Clément Mao-Takacs, who has a lot of experience with Saariaho’s music, led the large pit orchestra with point and plenty of visceral impact.

A final bit of reportage: Opening night took place on the same evening in which a pop-up rave concert with Fred again.. and Skrillex was taking place only a block away from the War Memorial Opera House on the Civic Center Plaza, where more than 25,000 mostly young people gyrated to the loud music on the grounds and even from the windows overlooking the scene. If it wasn’t for the massive presence of law enforcement — including police dogs sniffing all cars entering the Civic Center parking garage looking for possible explosives — I would have worried about the unnerving possibility of life imitating art. Fortunately, nothing of the sort happened.