On December 1, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City will perform its first opera by a female composer since 1903. Kaija Saariaho’s 2000 opera “L’Amour de Loin” is a haunting tale of love transcending the bounds of distance and death, adapted from a medieval troubadour’s fictionalized life story. There are only three characters: Jaufre the troubadour, Clémence the Countess of Tripoli, whom he falls in love with sight unseen, and the Pilgrim, a trouser role who carries the couple’s messages and songs back and forth across the ocean.

“L’Amour de Loin” unfolds a diaphanous harmonic landscape, in powerful but not overbearing orchestral undulations, unearthly choral ripples, and enchanting, brief melodies, some of which take inspiration from ancient troubadour songs. Like the Pilgrim’s skiff, the whole opera seems to float on a vast, rolling sea of sound.Saariaho spoke with VAN from New York, where she is in residence at the New School and preparing for a performance of her oratorio, “La Passion de Simone,” which took place last weekend.

Photo © Priska Ketterer
Photo © Priska Ketterer

VAN: What would you have been if you hadn’t been a composer?

Kaija Saariaho: I’m not very sure. I really needed to be a composer. I was very unhappy before I dared to take this path, so maybe I would have been an unhappy organist in a small village in Finland. I don’t know.

When “La Passion de Simone” was performed at Ojai this year, you talked about how you’d found a Finnish translation of Simone Weil’s “Gravity and Grace” in a used bookstore when you were 17, and it deeply affected you. Where did you find “La vida breve,” the story of the troubadour that inspired “L’Amour de Loin”?

I was actively looking for a story that would be rather linear and simple so there could be a lot of music and a lot of detail, and I found this story in a book by a medievalist French poet. His name is Jacques Roubaud. In just a couple of lines, there was the vida, or so they say, the life story of this troubadour called Jaufre Rudel. I first contacted Jacques Roubaud to see if he could work on a libretto with me, but it was not really in his world. He had never done things like that and didn’t feel that he would be able to. So I did develop the story myself, a little bit, and then, when it was already clear that the Salzburg Festival would make the world premiere and commission his work, they helped me. Peter Sellars brought me together with Amin Maalouf, who did the libretto.

"I really needed to be a composer. I was very unhappy before I dared to take this path, so maybe I would have been an unhappy organist in a small village in Finland." — Kaija Saariaho in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

Besides the fact that it was linear, and you could introduce these elements into it, what appealed to you about this particular love story?

It’s funny. I spent a long time before I was sure about my subject matter. I was asking myself, “What are the most important things that I would like to handle in my opera?” And then I realized that the most universal and secret things in human life are love and death. Then I started looking for a story, and of course, love and death are the main subjects of most operas so it’s not very original.

I wanted to handle them not in the usual dramatic way, but find a story in which I could somehow zoom in on the minds of the people. For this, this simple story seemed good for me. There were not so many details, so we could create the details. I was interested in finding all different kinds of feelings, and ideas around the mystery of love—what is it and what different kinds of feelings we connect to it. When we fall in love, who do we love really? Do we love our own image, or the image of the other? How much can we really love the other person? Similarly, to death, I wanted to go with my music into that space, the shock when we lose somebody we love, the feelings next to that loss, and the realization when we understand that even when we lost a person their love can continue. So I had these kind of ideas in my mind.

Kaija Saariaho, “La Passion de Simone” (excerpt); Dawn Upshaw (Soprano), Dominique Blanc (Speaker), Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor), Tapiola Chamber Choir, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Something that was affecting for me when I saw “L’Amour de Loin” was that in your work—both that opera, and “Passion de Simone”—there are some religious themes that come up again and again, that blur the boundary between the divine and people on earth. Especially in the final scene, after Jaufre dies where Clémence repeats “Seigneur, Seigneur” [my lord, my lord] and it’s ambiguous who she’s talking about. Was religion and religious drama a big part of your life growing up, or is it still?

No, I’m not a religious person. I think religion and spirituality are two different things, and, no, I did not think about it that way. Yes, in Amin’s libretto there’s of course “Mon Dieu” and all these things, but they’re not my personal expressions. What was important for me is this feeling of love surviving, in the final scene.

What comes to “La Passion de Simone” is something very different, because Simone Weil herself had a very ambiguous, ambitious relationship to spirituality and religion. She really wanted to find the common denominators of different religions, and yet she had a very mystical and strong admiration of Christ.

There’s this other moment, in Act 2, where up until that point the texture has been more speechlike until the Pilgrim sings Jaufre’s song, and the texture of the music shifts, and it’s the first real “song” in the opera. Where was the genesis of that moment? Was it intended to be such a critical point?

In a way. The magical thing in the opera that travels back and forth across the sea is the song of Jaufre. Clémence falls in love with that song, and Jaufre falls in love with Clémence when composing that song. It’s really a central element in this opera, so I wanted it to be as strong as possible.

It’s a very distinctive moment. Is the audience supposed to fall in love as well, in that moment?

It’s not in my control, you know. I’m telling a story but I’m not trying to manipulate the audience. I think all people have their own perception of the work and the music.

On a very superficial level, the end of the opera, where Clémence finds this sort of transcendent love in death, has some similarity to “Tristan and Isolde,” which is based on another ancient story. When you were a young composer, were there certain influences that were held up to you that you were told to emulate, or did your teachers encourage you to make your own path?

I don’t remember that kind of discussion. I think in my case, it was quite clear that I was on my own path, but what I needed was advice for the realization of the music. I don’t think they needed to especially encourage me to go on my way, because I was going on my way. I needed help in being able to create the compositional techniques I needed.

Of course I loved “Tristan.” I don’t know if there’s a young person who doesn’t love “Tristan.” I adored it, and listened to it by myself many times when I was a young girl. Because I loved it, surely it has left traces on me as a person and maybe a composer, but consciously, I did not compare my ideas to “Tristan,” or “Pelleas and Melisande,” which was sometimes also mentioned.

Principal singers Eric Owens and Susanna Phillips are new to this production. Have they brought anything to your music that you didn’t expect, that you hadn’t thought of before?

I think every singer always brings something new for them and that’s what makes it interesting, just like every stage director makes his or her own world. I think Eric’s troubadour is very human, and a deep person: maybe different than some of them before. And Susanna is an absolutely splendid and beautiful Clémence.

Well, I just find it so boring! No, I shouldn’t say boring. I should just say it’s shocking that it still needs to be discussed, and therefore boring. But if it really is so that we waited a hundred years for it to happen, then maybe it should be mentioned. Maybe it would make people more conscious of the absurdity of that.

Yes, I understand how it would grow tiresome after a while! But for young women, for musicians and composers and writers and creatives, or even just young women trying to make their way in fields dominated by men, your work and other work of women who are breaking in is important both because it’s great work and as a symbol of progress. Especially last week in America, when a female candidate who had years of political experience, who was projected all over the place to win the election, didn’t win—I, and women like me, constantly see that no matter how hard you try a man can still replace you. So, to see you there at the Met is heartening and important.

That’s fantastic. I agree with you, of course. Even in Western countries, these limits for women to advance in many kind of lifestyles and careers are still very difficult. There is another version of “La Passion de Simone” next week in New York. Just last night we had a discussion with philosophers and sociologists called Empathy and Action. There were some philosophers speaking about Simone Weil, and being very tough and criticizing her, and then there was a young woman that stood up and said “Think about it. This woman was 30 years old. All that she could do, and how many ideas she gave us that we were discussing today.” At her time, in the ‘30s, in France, it was so much more rare than it is today. So that made me think that yes, still we have advanced, because nobody spoke about the fact that Simone Weil was a woman and wouldn’t be taken seriously because of that. So, we are advancing little by little. ¶