From Gershwin to Mozart: Jazz pianist Iiro Rantala turns to opera
While Iiro Rantala started out as a jazz pianist, he has recorded classical works and many film scores. This all comes together in his latest project "Die Zaubermelodika", an opera that’s a hit in Germany and headed to Australia.
Jazz and opera have occasionally partnered since 1935, when George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess introduced perennial favourites such as Summertime and It Ain't Necessarily So.
Since then, others have mingled the genres, from Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein to Terence Blanchard, whose latest opened at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in September.
A few weeks later, another venerable opera house, nearly as old as the Met, premiered a lighter opera with tinges of jazz, composed by Iiro Rantala.
The children’s opera die Zaubermelodika (The Magic Melodica) opened at the Komische Oper Berlin in October, earning enthusiastic reactions from critics, and more importantly, kids. Nearly all performances scheduled through February are sold out.
In late 2022 it will be staged by the Australian Contemporary Opera in Melbourne.
Jazz, classical and cinema
Rantala, arguably Finland’s most successful jazz pianist, began his career with Trio Töykeät in the late 80s. They bowed out with a 2005 album on Blue Note that featured an Ellington tune from the same year as Porgy. He’s gone on to record Gershwin with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, as well as Bach, Weill and many originals for the German label ACT.
At home, Rantala is familiar as a media personality and composer of scores for TV shows and films, including eight kiddie comedies featuring Risto Räppääjä (Ricky Rapper), which have set Finnish box-office records since 2008.
Rantala drew on all this experience for his first opera in 2018.
Contemporary opera has always been very strong in Finland, since our history both as an independent state and with opera is quite short – Minna Lindgren
He teamed up with librettist Minna Lindgren, known for her humorous books and classical music programmes, for Pikaparantola (Sanatorio Express), which premiered at the Finnish National Opera.
Starring soprano Johanna Rusanen, it was a darkly satirical look at the wellness industry and contemporary neuroses, with a minimum age of 7 due to adult themes.
Now the two have collaborated on a new opera, aimed at the audience segment excluded from their last work.
The Magic Melodica, a sequel to The Magic Flute, takes a wacky, contemporary look at the 18th-century characters, with an egalitarian streak as Pamina gets tired of cleaning up after Tamino's dragons, the Queen of the Night is played by a bearded bass-baritone, and ageing Sarastro may be replaced by a female monarch.
Opera for the whole family
There are parallels to Jaakko Kuusisto’s opera The Canine Kalevala, based on children’s author Mauri Kunnas’ whimsical retelling of the Finnish national epic. It premiered at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in 2004.
“The Komische Oper commissioned an opera for the mystical ‘whole family,’ which often means a granny with a grandchild,” explains Lindgren.
There’s absolutely zero difference from composing an adult opera. I would’ve written it the same way if this was for grown-ups – Iiro Rantala
“For adults, we may provide some pleasurable moments connected to the original Magic Flute, while the kids are just watching a fairy tale without any background. I hope they’ll insist on seeing Mozart’s version after ours – their grannies will thank us!”
“I don’t actually see much difference when writing for adults or kids,” she adds.
“I assume that humour is more acceptable with kids, which makes it more convenient for me.”
While The Magic Melodica is Rantala’s first venture into children’s opera, he insists that “there’s absolutely zero difference from composing an adult opera. I would’ve written it the same way if this was for grown-ups.”
Keeping things light
The opera is billed as “a mixture of Mozartian lightness, Rossinian effervescence, and jazz, characterised by the catchy melodic lines typical of Rantala” – but the composer downplays the jazz element.
“I’m heavily inspired by Gershwin and Bernstein,” he says.
“In Zaubermelodika the biggest influence is Mozart, of course. There’s not so much jazz in my operas. Sometimes there’s a walking bass and some swing. But Porgy & Bess is much more jazz-oriented than either of mine.”
Both librettist and composer emphasise that they aim to keep things light.
“I hope to bring little more fun to the opera,” says Rantala.
There’s not so much jazz in my operas. Sometimes there’s a walking bass and some swing. But Porgy & Bess is much more jazz-oriented than either of mine – Iiro Rantala
“I think there are enough serious operas, but the comic repertoire is quite thin.”
“We tend to take opera very seriously in this country, and that’s why Iiro and I have been concentrating on comic opera,” adds Lindgren.
“There’s a lot of space for us!”
A funny opera for kids is quite a contrast to another Finnish opera that premiered in Europe this year. Kaija Saariaho’s tragic Innocence, based on a school shooting, opened to rapturous reviews in France in July.
Lindgren calls the timing “an interesting coincidence,” but declines to speculate on whether new Finnish operas are particularly in demand at the moment.
“Contemporary opera has always been very strong in Finland, since our history both as an independent state and with opera is quite short,” she points out.
In search of the Finnish trials
Is there anything distinctive that characterises Finnish contemporary opera?
“Not really, if you take a glance at Saariaho and Rantala, for instance,” replies Lindgren.
“There are a lot of realistic operas here, with quite heavy subjects.”
How about The Magic Melodica, is there anything uniquely Finnish about it? Lindgren points to a series of trials the main characters must undergo.
“The Komische Oper insisted we use some Finnish elements,” she says.
“The trials are very Finnish: who can stay the longest in the sauna, in a swimming hole in the ice or sitting on an anthill – just typical Finnish ways of having fun!”
Rantala remains mum about any future opera projects, but Lindgren reveals that they have more in the works.
“We have two in progress, but we need to know whether someone is interested in performing them before we finish them,” she says.
“Writing an opera is a lot of work, so we don’t want to just hope that somebody finds and produces our masterpieces in 2137. We want to get on stage to accept the huge applause!”