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The Russian Link in the Finnish RING: GITIS Graduate Anna Kelo Directs Wagner's Tetralogy in Hel

Photo by Finnish National Opera/Ralph Larmann

Anna Kelo is a Finnish opera director who has graduated from GITIS (Russian State Unstitute of Theatre Arts) in Moscow in 1992 and has been working at Finnish National Opera (FNO) for 25 years since 1994, becoming its chief assistant director in 1998. She had been the assistant director for Götz Friedrich’s production of Richard Wagner ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ that ran on Finnish stage for many years and later was exported to Tokyo. She also directed Aarre Merikanto’s opera ‘Juha’ at FNO. Current production is a new Ring Cycle tetralogy that starts at Finnish National Opera with its first instalment, ‘Das Rheingold’, on 30 August 2019, and Anna Kelo is directing it, with Esa-Pekka Salonen at the helm of Finnish National Opera orchestra. Art Around the Globe has met with Anna to talk about how her Russian education has influenced her future work and about her vision and conception of current Ring Cycle which will run at FNO till autumn 2021.

Anna, it is fascinating that you, a Finnish opera director, have a connection with Russia. How did you decide to pursue your studies in theatre in Russia? What did the Russian education give you?

I didn’t really decide anything – my mother decided for me (laughs), because I was 19 when I finished school in Finland. I come from the opera family – my father was a conductor, and my mother was a pianist. So this was the world I’d been living in all my life, and that was very natural for me. But I wanted to be an actress. So after finishing school I went to London and tried to find work as an actress, doing all sorts of things (laughs), and then my mother came and said: ‘No, that is not real life, and this is not real studies, you have to do something better’. And she had some connections at the Soviet Ministry of Culture – because she is Lithuanian – so she got me a scholarship to go to Moscow. What I didn’t know was that half a year earlier there had been an agreement between the Finnish National Opera (FNO) and GITIS to take the first Western students – three singers and three directors – to study musical theatre. That was in 1989, just before the break-up of the Soviet Union. So I just left for Moscow and was placed in a dormitory (квартирное общежитие), and they thought that I was part of the group sent by the FNO even though I wasn’t. And so after half a year I came back to the FNO and asked if I could join that group – as I had already been there for half a year – and they said it was fine. So suddenly I was part of the group that studied in Moscow in the frame of the agreement between FNO and GITIS. The idea was conceived by Georgiy Pavlovich Ansimov who also then became my professor.

What was your training as musical director like – how it was different from studying to be a theatre director?

It was quite a unique training, because at that time we didn’t have anything like that in Finland. And it was more with a focus on opera, very classical, while I thought at first that it would be more about musical theatre proper. We studied the art of the opera. The training was fantastic, we had amazing professors. It was a very interesting time, because we witnessed the change that USSR (and Russia) underwent at that time – we started in 1989 and finished in 1992. So we really lived through all the turmoil. We didn’t have to study all the political subjects, only our profession (мастерство) and all the artistic subjects – so we graduated in three years’ time and got our diplomas in 1992.

Did you go to see productions at Bolshoi Theatre during your studies? Could you describe some that were really inspiring for you in your future career?

Unfortunately at that time Bolshoi Theatre wasn’t very good because it was just after perestroika period, Gorbachev was still the President, everything was opening up. So all the best people were leaving or had already left. What was left at Bolshoi Theatre was very old-fashioned, and it might have been musically beautiful, but from the point of direction those were the least interesting things. At that time independent opera groups started to appear, and those were much more interesting – we went to see a lot of student productions and they were very inspiring.

Photo by Finnish National Opera/Ralph Larmann

Was your course conservative? I expect you didn’t study modern operas there?

Yes, it was quite conservative, but I am actually very grateful for those conservative teachings, they gave me such a good base. We in Finland at that time had a problem in our theatre school – everything was too modern. People were not given basic tools, there was some kind of turmoil in theatre education at that time. And in Moscow we received real classical foundation, and it was so rare that to this day I really grateful for certain things, the real craft that I learned there. You need to know the rules before you start breaking them.

Could you give me the examples of the techniques that you still use in your work that come from your education in Moscow?

First – we were always given little assignments, they were called ‘studies’, ‘etudes’ (этюды). For example, you were given one phrase – say ‘Get away from here’. And then in two days you were supposed to build something around it – first without music, then with music. It really forced you to think. And then before you presented your result, you always had to tell the teacher why you did this and what you were trying to say. And then the teachers made a judgement as to whether you accomplished the task that you had given yourself. So it forced you to analyze and think and be critical about things, because otherwise there is a problem – how do you measure art? How can you say that something is good or bad? You can’t really, as it is a question of taste. But if an artist has explained what he or she was trying to accomplish and what story he or she wanted to tell, then it is a completely different thing. So I thought it was really good, and when I direct I still try to give all the explanations to myself first so that I really know what I am doing and what I want. And if people start questioning my solutions, I always have an answer.

In Russia theatre and opera directors are still those strong and powerful figures that everyone has to obey. Did you also learn that in GITIS?

(Laughs) Yes, we did learn that. I remember our professor telling us: ‘If you don’t know what you are doing, just fake it’. And this is something that I now have got away from, I don’t believe in it any more. Also nowadays singers that study in Finland or abroad – the younger generation – are not used to that kind of approach. They want to be part of an ensemble, they are thinking people, not puppets, they want to express how they feel and how they approach things, and it is wise for the director to acknowledge and respect that. So I no longer want to be that omni-present director who decides everything. Also, I remember that we never ever got good evaluation of our work – all feedback from our teachers was always negative. And that is also not working for me now, so I have learned to give positive feedback.

Could you describe the first opera that you directed and your first work experience in Finland?

My opera was Zimlinsky’s ‘Flörentinische Tragödie’, not a very well-known work. When I came to Finland it was recession, there was no work anywhere, and so after having been unemployed for half a year, I came to FNO. At that time the Finnish government gave benefits to young people after more than six months of unemployment if you found a working place, so I was a free employee. So I said to them: ‘I am free, I am educated, would you like to have me for half a year as assistant director?’ They agreed, and that is how I started in 1993 or 1994. And after half a year I had proved myself, and they actually employed me full time. And I really like my job as an assistant director, and this is still my title – now I am the head of Assistant Directors here, at FNO. I only started doing my own things about ten years ago. My first opera was in Savonlinna 10-11 years ago, and that was a new Finnish opera called ‘Daddy’s Girl’ (Kortekangas), I did it as a co-production with another director who had also written a libretto. And then I grew more confident in directing, and so when I was offered something in this house – also a Finnish piece – the opera of Aarre Merikanto ‘Juha’ – that was my first independent work here at FNO. And after that I hadn’t really done that much, because I still really enjoy my job as an assistant director, and I have no intention of changing, but I am grateful for the opportunities to do my own things sometimes.

Photo by Finnish National Opera/Veikko Kähkönen

Can you describe what your job as an assistant director involves?

When we prepare a new premiere, I assist the director – I sit next to him or her and write down everything that happens on stage. If I have worked with him or her long enough, I can propose something, otherwise I don’t say anything. I play by the ear – you have to find the right way of working with different directors. And then I am also the liaison between the production office, the technical offices and the artistic team. This job is great because you have to do a lot of things and you don’t have the artistic responsibility – until of course the production is revived. After the premiere we have 5-7 performances which I supervise – I’ll be there and if something goes wrong, I’ll give feedback after every performance. In the revival the opera might have new soloists, and then it is the assistant director’s job to re-direct them in their roles in the existing production. And that is very important to be able to transmit the idea clearly, even though it is not your creation. And you are doing it for singers, so you have to find motivation for their characters and you have to be able to personally direct people.

Had you been building your own director’s vision during these years for possible future productions of your own?

I don’t think I did it consciously. I think it is just something that happened on its own. I’ve seen so much – I’ve been working since I finished my degree, it is many, many years. You take in a lot of impressions from everywhere. And also – I am 51 – it’s a lot of life experience. You learn from everything – from reality TV and good drama, you learn from life.

Then my next questions will move to Richard Wagner’s Ring tetralogy. Could you please describe your first Ring Cycle at FNO – the one where you worked as an assistant director.

Yes, the director of that Ring was German, and his name was Götz Friedrich. He had already directed two Rings before, and he was already in his 70s when he came here. It was from 1997 to 2000, I think – 20 years ago. So one part was done every year – ‘Das Rheingold’ in 1997, ‘Die Walküre’ in 1998, ‘Siegfried’ in 1999, and ‘Die Götterdämmerung’ in 2000. And in autumn of 2000 we did the whole Ring. But after the ‘Die Götterdämmerung’ premiere he passed away. So it meant I had to do the whole Ring when we did it. I had been in all rehearsals of every opera, so I took the responsibility for the whole Ring. So it was the first time when I revived it. And then it was revived two or three times in the course of the next twelve years – so I did do it a lot! And I had to bring and revive Friedrich’s directing conception which was very good, but year by year it grew a little bit dated, including visually, and then FNO said that this was it, they were not going to perform it anymore. And then suddenly came the National Theatre of Tokyo in Japan and they bought the whole Ring. And then they needed somebody to go and do it there, and this is what I’ve been doing for the last three years.

In your opinion, in staging Wagner how to overcome the pressure of all the possibilities and previous directing decisions?

Just don’t take any pressure – I choose not to. I’ve also seen many Rings in my time, and I don’t think there is a wrong way of doing it. I think it is about so many things, and Wagner who himself was renewing the whole field of operatic work would not have minded that people have been renewing and re-doing his own operas. It is about what you want it to be about. The only thing you could do wrong is to try to somehow ignore the music because that’s not possible with Wagner. And it is written in such a way that if you just listen to the music and go along with it, it can’t go wrong. It doesn’t matter where it happens, at what time and which place – it’s just the surface. And I actually know that it wasn’t clear for Wagner himself either what his Ring was about, because he broke his work in the middle of ‘Siegfried’ and then stopped and rested for 7-8 years. He had all those philosophical struggles, and he started to be interested in Buddhism which is actually an important theme in my conception. And then he continued... So with whatever he started, he always finished with something else. So that’s why it is always a journey, and you have to see where it takes you. So even if the director has his/her vision and brings it on stage, you as a listener and viewer will always get something else, because it will always be a subjective thing – what you see and what you hear.

Could you describe Götz Friedrich’s directing vision so that we could compare it to yours?

He was from East Germany and he was in his 70s, so he very strongly identified himself with Wotan. And he wanted to defend him– that Wotan is not a bad guy, that he is trying his best, and although he is a bit power-struck, may be a maniac of a sort, he still has a point and you should empathize with him. And that was an important thing in his thinking – because it was somehow his testament. He finished the Ring and passed away. In his ‘Die Walküre’ there is a little scene where Wotan is riding on a small rocking horse, something that a child would do. And it is very touching, because it looks like he is going back to his childhood. And when I went to Götz Friedrich’s office in Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the exact rocking horse was there in his room.

That sounds almost like Tarkovsky or Bergman... all that nostalgia, self-referential reminiscences, childhood allusions... What did you like most about this production?

Yes, indeed. It is difficult to say what I liked most about it, because I was very young when I started working on it and I had never experienced anything like it. Götz Friedrich himself was a genius as a director, but as a man he was quite terrifying. Everybody was scared of him – he was very authoritative and could be quite cruel. I can’t remember anymore what working with him felt then, but I remember I was constantly in fear and fascination, and all that music was flooding in, and it was an extremely overwhelming journey through all those years. Of course, later on when I was reviving it, I could look at it more objectively, and I really liked the fact that he was telling the story. He was very good in individual directing, giving indications to singers to form their characters, and he also understood music deeply and gave a lot of meaning to it on stage. So he was a very good director, and the whole Ring was wonderful. But visually it started to be quite dated after a while...

Could you kindly describe how you were approached by FNO to do a new Ring Cycle and whether you already had your vision of Ring or you started to develop it after having been offered to direct it.

The thing is that it was somebody else who was initially supposed to do it. And I was supposed to be that man’s assistant director, which would have been perfect, and I was looking forward to working with him – Kari Heiskanen. I have worked with him in the past, and he is a great director and a great person, but then there was some kind of artistic disagreement. His conception and the vision of the artistic management of the FNO somehow didn’t coincide. So I was asked – as it is not in my job description to direct the Ring – if I would consider directing it. And I had to take my time and think about it. I had to listen to myself and my intuition and to see whether I have something to say. I didn’t have the ambition to stage the Ring, it wasn’t a power thing for me at all. But then I started to think about it – and I had never thought about it before – and then I started to come up with ideas. So it quickly became very clear to me what I wanted to say. So then I said yes. So of course then I had to pitch my idea, as I didn’t want it to be in disagreement with expectations of the artistic management. I had to pitch my idea before different people, and then the artistic management agreed that this might work and they gave me the job.

Photo by Finnish National Opera/Ralph Larmann

Could you describe your conception of the Ring?

I think that in the past the Ring has been treated too realistically: Gods are like people, and it’s about love and power and all these things. But I want to go a bit deeper, because I think that it is actually about more spiritual things than that. In my opinion, love between man and woman is fine, but it is not the essence of the Ring. So I want to tell a story which starts when the world was literally born and finishes with the destruction of the world. So it means that every single part will happen in a different era, with parallels of our visions of the Western human history, as it is initially a Western story. I also want to have this contrast between Western culture and Western timeframe and Eastern philosophy, as Wagner was also very interested in it, and to show how these two sides interact. Actually, the East is coming out quite powerfully in modern times: there is Eastern philosophy, yoga, wellness, meditation. The importance of China is also growing – so one can say that Western culture is really coming to its end. So my story will partly be within ‘the end of civilization’ discourse. The first part, ‘Das Rheingold’, will be in Gods’ world, so it will in an epoch resembling ancient Greece. The second part, ‘Die Walküre’, is so obviously about war, and I chose the Second World War for it. Then ‘Siegfried’ will be about our time, because this is time of contrasts, individualism and social media, everything is about ‘me’. However, we are also living in the time of new spiritualism, when people are more and more interested in Eastern philosophies and practices. And then ‘Die Götterdämmerung’ will be a dystopia, a horror picture of the future.

Would you be true to these times in terms of set and costume materials and realistic details?

The thing is that the set is very simple and it is always going to be the same. The set is very modern, and that’s the God’s world, the second level, (второй план). But in every opera we have extra additions, and there it looks as things look in the real world. I believe that there is always a second world existing in parallel to the first world of our lives. It is the world of Gods, the world of things that you can’t touch – specific energies of everything. So when it starts in the beginning of the world, all we have is the energy world, the strange Gods’ world. So yes, there will be togas and antique divans, and things like that. And then when we go to the Second World War, these things would still be there, but in the background. So there will be more naturalistic scenes with objects and clothes we associate with WWII, but then there would be places and scenes where we focus on another world: for example, when Siegmund and Sieglinde finally understand who they are, or when Brünhilde is coming to Siegmund to ask him to go to Valhalla. So we are always playing with these two levels: the reality and non-reality.

Photo by Finnish National Opera/Stefan Bremen

It reminds me of double layers of Homer’s Iliad – with its heroes and its Gods acting in parallel, where Gods invisibly influence heroes’ movements and decisions.

Yes and no, as here Gods are definitely not taking decisions for actors of another world, as they are almost idiots. Gods in ‘Das Rheingold’ are so arrogant and ignorant of everything, and they are so irresponsible. They are like Western world’s people today: they think that they can act in a certain way, and never have to pay any consequences.

So your Wagner’s world would not be deterministic where Gods know what will happen in future – as they have no clue themselves?

Exactly, yes, that’s right, as they don’t represent the highest level of knowledge – it is somewhere else. Consciousness is the highest level, and all is leading to ‘Die Götterdämmerung’ where we realize that Gods must die, and it is a good thing that they die, as they represent what we have created for ourselves during these several thousands of years without taking responsibility of where it will take us.

Photo by Finnish National Opera/Stefan Bremen

So it will be an apocalyptic vision of the world?

It will be apocalyptic, but hopeful. At some point Wagner composed the whole opera about Buddha, but it was never performed. His letters to Liszt reveal that he was very intrigued by buddhism. So he took some parts from that opera and put them in ‘Siegfried’ and ‘Die Götterdämmerung’. So there are themes in both of these operas from that initial ‘Buddha’ opera. So Wotan in the scene with Erda in the third act, first scene of ‘Siegfried’ mentions the wheel of life, which is a buddhist concept. And originally in the last aria of Brünhilde in ‘Die Götterdämmerung’ the words were different: he had written about reincarnation, but his wife Cosima had persuaded him to take them out.

So in a way you introduce some potential decisions that could have been in the Ring?

Yes, exactly, and of course I don’t want to twist it to suit my vision, but I want our viewers to know that these concepts were there – so yes, it develops towards the apocalypse, but also towards spiritual enlightment. Brünhilde becomes a Buddha, she steps into fire for possible reincarnation, and then when everything finishes, it could all start over again. In the beginning of ‘Das Rheingold’ there will be darkness, just nothing, and then comes a little dot of light, and this is where the Tree of Life starts to grow. Then the music starts and we see the bottom of Rhein and all that. And then in the very end, after all infernal actions are finished and everything is crushed down, the same spec of light appears and goes down, indicating the never-ending life cycle.

Photo by Finnish National Opera/Stefan Bremen

How far has the preparation for operas been developing in terms of the set, costumes, etc.?

It is obviously all ready for ‘Das Rheingold’, then for ‘Die Walküre’ we already had a presentation of the set and costumes in May 2019, but as we use the same sets, it will be just some elements that we add on top, and I have planned ‘Siegfried’ but they will start working on costumes and additions to the set during the autumn of 2019.

Can you describe your collaboration with the conductor of the Ring Cycle, Esa-Pekka Salonen? Did you present your concept to him? Did you analyze some aspects of music together? How did you correspond during the preparation of the whole tetralogy and of its first instalment?

Esa-Pekka is not only the conductor of the Ring Cycle, but also the Artistic Partner of the Finnish National Opera, so he was in the group of people I had to convince about my concept before I got the contract some years ago. I described my concept to him, and he said ‘Yes, that’s fine, let’s start it’. And then afterwards we haven’t been much in contact, although I sometimes wrote to him and asked about some technical things, such as whether he thought that would work musically. We actually sat together in the middle of May 2019 and I took him through the whole direction, showing it on a model, as he wanted to know exactly how it would develop.

Photo by Finnish National Opera/Veikko Kähkönen

As I understand, the director rehearses things with singers, the conductor begins working with the orchestra at some later stage, and then they present the results of their work and from that moment two processes blend together. I am correct in this vision?

There is obviously a lot of involvement of the conductor at many stages of the preparation of an opera. We had been rehearsing the Ring for one week before Esa-Pekka joined us, then there were some musical rehearsals he led with the orchestra and many others where singers were also involved, with the orchestra or (at a piano dress rehearsal) without it. But of course in many aspects it was also work in parallel, it is separate and then it comes together, but this is the way it always works in opera. I can’t really affect his work much, and he can’t affect mine. But then when we come together and there is a certain problem, we solve it together.