Even as an observer, the 2014 Mirjam Helin Competition was an intense, almost disorienting experience. Once I came back to London from Helsinki, my six days in Finland were still very much alive in my head. If the competition was undoubtedly the focus of my time there – and occasioned my (live) debut on Finnish TV with an interval interview during the fourth session of the semi-finals – it was not the only flagship of Finnish culture that took me aboard. My stay also included an illuminating trip to Hämeenlinna, Sibelius’ hometown (ahead of his 150th anniversary next year), a fascinating guided tour of the Finnish National Opera, and an absorbing visit to the Ateneum, Finland’s national gallery, for an exhibition to mark 100 years since the birth of the artist and author Tove Jansson, whose Moomin books were very much part of my childhood. No wonder that it took me a few days to acclimatise to my usual British routine!
In the course of the competition, all I had to do was get to the venues on time, watch, listen and write some blog entries. The organisers, judges and, of course, the competitors had an awful lot more to think about and do. For them, the competition represented the culmination of months, or even years of work. I imagine that, as we enter September and the summer is consigned to the past, life for them is only now getting back to normal.
For many of the young singers – not just the winners – it will have been a life-changing experience, opening new personal and professional vistas. The semi-finalists all rose to the substantial challenge of presenting a concentrated recital programme in the large – 1,200 seat – hall of the Helsinki Music Centre, while the eight finalists had the thrilling experience of singing two arias each to a packed house, accompanied by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hannu Lintu. To add to the excitement, this was all televised live on national TV. The finalists then went on to repeat the show a couple of days later at the similarly sized hall in Tampere. Between the semi-finals and the finals the competitors attended masterclasses with members of the jury, all of them singers of major international stature with significant wisdom to share. That is all quite something for even a young, highly energetic and receptive person to squeeze into the space of a week or so.
After such a concentrated and heightened burst of activity, it is strange to think that the next Mirjam Helin competition won’t take place until 2019. I was also lucky enough to attend the 2009 competition, so I have some kind of insider’s perspective on what has happened to some of the participants since. The female winner from 2009, the Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva, has acquired an international reputation and a recording contract with Decca. Her runner-up, the American soprano Nadine Sierra, is a Facebook friend of mine, and it has been gratifying to see how her career (and, via videos) her voice and artistry have grown. It so happened that, during my visit to the Finnish National Opera, I eavesdropped on a rehearsal of the new production of Le nozze di Figaro, and it turned out that the Cherubino was the delightful Finnish mezzo Melis Jaatinen, who was one of the semi-finalists in 2009.
Let’s see what becomes of the 2014 competitors and winners over the next five years. There are several whose futures I shall follow with particular interest. They have chosen a tough career, but it is always a joy to see talented and hard-working people succeed, and we should all join in wishing them all the best. The five years between 2009 and 2014 passed by with astonishing speed, and the world’s top opera houses are probably already planning their casts for 2019, so the next Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition is probably closer than we might imagine…
Yehuda Shapiro, based in London, is active as an opera critic and journalist, contributing to leading specialist magazines such as Opera and Classical Music, and to the website Sinfini. He has a special interest in the development of young vocal talent. In 2009, he reported on the Mirjam Helin Competition for Opera Now magazine and was delighted to be back in Helsinki for the 2014 edition, writing this time for Classical Music. His special report will appear in a dedicated competitions supplement in early 2015.