In Tribute to Her: An Exploration of Kaija Saariaho’s Operas

By John Vandevert
(Photo Copyright: Priska Ketterer Luzern)

Known as a luminary and artistic visionary in the acoustically-focused style of “spectralism,” a creative approach towards synthesizing technological processing and the human voice, along with her profound interest in culture, philosophy, and literature, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (1952-2023) is a musical icon.

Pushing the limits of what music could do and achieve as an artform and method of communication, each one of her works pushed the boundaries of music one step further. Blending computer-mediated soundscapes and effects with instrumentalists, orchestras, vocalists, and choirs, Saariaho gradually developed a unique style. Taking the compositional technique of the “sound mass” but blending it with her quasi-synesthetic sensitives towards timbre, color, melody, and texture, many of her works revolve around constructing dynamic atmospheres of sound. Many of her early IRCAM-tinged works like “Verblendungen” (1984) and “Stilleben” (1987 – 1988) showed her methodical approach towards blurring the boundaries between traditional modes of writing and her soundscape approach.

An incredibly prolific composer, beginning in the 1980s and continuing without pause until 2020, Saariaho only further developed her “spectral” aesthetic throughout the decades. Despite her many works for orchestra and instrumentalists, the human voice and its many dimensions remained a pivotal element for her. Whether it was “Quatre Instants” (2002) for soprano and piano, the “Tempest Songbook” (2004) for soprano and baritone, or later masterpieces like “True Fire” (2014) for baritone, every inch of the voice and its capabilities were explored with earnestness. The cello/soprano work Mirage (2007) was my introduction to the world of Kaija Saariaho. 

Yet, while her many vocal works proved Saariaho’s novel ability to capitalize on the mysterious subliminality that the human voice carries when extended, for many it was her operas which epitomized her innate artistry. The magnitude of her revolutionary creativity, tenacious curiosity, and unmatched originality was brazenly confirmed beginning in the year Y2K (2000) when, for the first time, Saariaho ventured into opera with “L’Amour de Loin.” An instant success for her, the opera solidified Saariaho’s ability to systematically convey the interior of the human experience using her intrinsically visceral attachment to the melodically-defined contours of the voice.

Saariaho’s second opera, “Adriana Mater (2006), prompted critics to candidly state that what she was doing was both novel and necessary. As one noted, the opera proved she is “one of the most interesting and imaginative contemporary composers.” Her third opera/oratorio, “La Passion de Simone” conveyed how complete Saariaho’s artistic unification and attunement towards the themes of philosophy and religion had become. Following in the mystic footsteps of Sofia Gubaidulina and Arvo Pärt, Saariaho’s curation of sound and psyche was being reborn, evidenced in works like the “Leino Songs (2007). The next operas, “Émilie (2008) and “Only the Sound Remains (2015), were universally praised. Yet, her final opera, “Innocence (2018), will forever be known as one of the most poignant works of Saariaho’s 40+ year career. 

In tribute to the living legacy of Kaija Saariaho, we will explore her operatic works from beginning to end.

Saariaho’s First Opera

Her first operatic expression, “L’Amour de Loin” was an instant success thanks to its innovative narrative and impressionist score. Yet, the journey towards producing her first opera is as exciting and enthralling as the work itself. Beginning in the 1980s, Saariaho was busy expanding her artistic capabilities, focusing on extracting and expanding the boundaries and capabilities of melody and rhythm. Following the successful writing of the reception of her orchestral song cycle for soprano Chateau de l’âme (1995), an opera was the next object of her creative desire. Around this time, the driving double bass/electronics work Folia (1995) was also published. 

However, Saariaho wasn’t entirely sure she could write an opera, despite her many achievements thus far. It was upon viewing Sellars’s staging of Messiaen’s only opera “Saint François d’Assise” at the 1992 Salzburg Festival that she became emboldened to at least try. An iconic moment if there was one, her phrase “If that is opera, then I can write one,” marked a new beginning for the composer and musical philosopher.

Having discovered the book “La fleur inverse” by French poet Jacques Roubaud (1932-), and within the poem “Lanquan li jorn son lonc en mai” by 12th-century troubadour Jaufre Rudel, she used this poem as a first taste of the opera to come. She used the religiously-inclined poem as the text for her work “Lohn” (1996) for soprano and electronics. Soon after, following a successful agreement with Gerard Mortier of the Salzburg Festival to perform the work, in 1999, Saariaho began fervently working on her opera.

In 18 months, “L’Amour” was brought into the world in a conflagration of stimulating glory. Another one of her works, however, “Oltra Mar: Seven Preludes for the New Millennium” (1999) for SATB chorus and orchestra, served as inspiration and material for her opera. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, the work was eventually subsumed into the opera’s fourth act.

The five-act opera was premiered on August 15 at the 2000 Salzburg Festival and was instantly recognized for its idiosyncratic blend of Wagnerian allusions, particularly the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde,” Debussy’s “Pelleas and Mélisande,” and of course Messiaen’s “St. François d’Assise.” Her signature “spectral” approach was now being evocatively combined with a neo-traditional method of writing for the voice, as other mystic female composers like Hildegard von Bingen and Gubaidulina had sought to do. Further still was Saariaho’s autobiographical plot, a thoroughly untraditional look at love from the clouds and the earth. Saariaho remarked how the opera represented the dual aspects of her being, the part which is grounded and the part which dreams.

The opera also made history as the second opera ever performed at the Metropolitan Opera House written by a woman, the last one being Ethyl Smyth’s “Der Wald” (1903). Later, the opera’s music would be heard again in Saariaho’s work “Cinq reflects de L’Amour de loin (2001) for soprano and baritone, and again in “Quatre instants (2002) for soprano and piano. Unlike other 2000s operas, it only gained popularity as time has gone on, so much so that in 2019 it was considered one of the 21st-century’s most important works.

The Next Big Four

Having thought “L’Amour” to be her only attempt at opera, it wasn’t until approached by Mortier again that a second opera was thought possible by Saariaho.

Having been recently elected as the head of the French National Opera, his invitation to compose an opera led to the cultivation of Saariaho’s second opera, “Adriana Mater.” A complete thematic antithesis to her first opera, “Adriana” was to be the first in a series of four operas between 2002 and 2018 that would reintroduce and ultimately strengthen the intimate connection between Saariaho’s musical messaging and her international audience. Amin Maalouf’s artistic partnership with Saariaho had begun with “L’Amour,” but only exploded in depth as the years went by. Four out of Kaija’s six opera were completed with Maalouf’s partnership, along with numerous vocal works.

Having co-written the text for Oltra Mar, taken from the Sufi poetry of Abou Said, along with being the librettist for vocal works like the “Adriana Songs (2006) and the “Émilie” Suite (2011), Maalouf’s artistic echoes can be seen throughout this period in Saariaho’s creative development. Taking from Maalouf’s personal experiences of war-time journalism and interwoven with Saariaho’s personal experiences of motherhood and pregnancy, the opera exposed the tenuousness of motherhood not only alone but in live-or-die conflict.

In 2006, the work premiered under the directorship of enduring friend and colleague Peter Sellars at the Paris Opera. Soon enough, another operatic offer came. This time, the project would span across the Western world from Austria (Vienna Festival), England (Barbican Center), and America (Lincoln Center/Los Angeles Philharmonic).

Inspired by the writings of French philosopher and mystic Somone Weil (1909-1943), Saariaho’s opera-meets-oratorio “La Passion de Simone represented her personal reading of Weil’s enigmatic blend of intellectual sophistication, spiritual beliefs, and scientific analysis, the “musical journey in 15 stations” represented the many faces of the human being’s journey to find itself. The work was remodeled into a chamber piece in 2013 upon external suggestion and shortly thereafter grew in popularity.

And then in 2008 came her third opera, “Émilie.” Having nascently begun in the late-90s, the opera foregrounded the all too often ignored contributions of women intellectuals and the challenges women face in embracing their femininity yet simultaneously developing their intelligence and scholarly work.  Centering around the life and legacy of Marquise Émilie du Châtelet, of whom Saariaho had learned about in a book by Elisabeth Badinter, and inspired by a particularly strong performance of “Fidelio” by soprano Karita Mattila, the nine-scene opera was an international success.

Premiered in 2010 at the Lyon National Opera, “Émile” was considered to be complementary to “La Passion” given its feminist theming. The last of her three “female-centered operas,” it would be five years before her next operatic marvel. By the mid-2010s, Saariaho’s career had become one of international rapport, and had begun spending more and more time in the United States. While in residence at Carnegie Hall from 2011-2012, Saariaho began work on her fifth opera, “Only the Sound Remains.” Modeled after the Japanese dance-drama known as Noh, this dual-natured work showed Saariaho’s ability to capture the spirit of life in its many colors. The work was premiered in 2016 by the National Theatre of Amsterdam.

Her Final Opera

By the late-2000s, Saariaho’s legacy was not only secured but guaranteed thanks to her many projects, teaching, and musicological adoption. The Finnish musicologist Pirkko Moisala, in 2009, had released what remains one of the most authoritative works on Saariaho’s music to date. But by the end of the next decade, not only had her oeuvre grown in size with seminal works like “D’Om le Vrai Sens (2010), “Circle Map (2012), and “Maan varjot (2014), but Saariaho herself had become a commander of narrative. A resourceful, inventive, and multidimensional sculptor of both music and story, Saariaho’s last operatic work, “Innocence,” was anything but. A caustic look at the toll of a crisis as of yet unstopped, at least not yet in America, her opera about the aftereffects of a school shooting in Helsinki in the 2000s took an intimate, pathological, and compassionate look at violence and the death of children. A somber look at unmitigated violence, the opera is encoded with discomforting relevancy.

The five-act opera began its life back in 2013 after the Royal Opera House invited Saariaho to write a new opera based on a theme from our modern world. However, the opera would gradually take shape by 2020, a year after the start of COVID-19. The years 2019-2020 were particularly important years for Saariaho as many vocal works like “Changing Light,” “Prospero’s Vision (2002), and “Saarikoski-laulut (2017) would be reworked for different voice parts and expanded orchestration. The opera was slated to be premiered at the 2020 Aix-en-Provence Festival but with COVID, the premiere had to be put off until the following year.

However, in February of 2021 it was revealed that Saariaho had been diagnosed with glioblastoma.

Of course, nothing ever stopped Saariaho and much like her operatic characters, she adapted to the circumstances and inevitably overcame whatever life handed her. So too did her opera and in 2021, Saariaho’s opera premiered at the Royal Opera House to an overwhelmingly stupefied and permanently changed audience. According to conductor Susanna Mälkki, the rehearsals were challenging as the story hit close to home for many of the cast, themselves parents to young children. In a moment of reflection with The Guardian’s Erica Jeal she emphatically stated, “I’m absolutely sure that this is one of the most important works of our time.”

While the opera was striking resonantly with the cast, on the creative side it was exceedingly close to home. Saariaho’s son Aleksi Barrière, an acclaimed opera director, had worked with his mother on several of her previous choral works including “Echo! (2007) and “Kesäpäivä” (2011).  Yet, “Innocence” marked his operatic involvement alongside Finnish librettist Sofi Oksanen. Saariaho had wanted to create a “fresco,” a highly impactful yet compact work lasting no longer than an hour and 45 minutes. So, it was done, and done it was. Focusing on the perspective of the victims rather than the shooter, explicitly said not to be depicted on stage, the opera featured nine different languages to convey the unity of experience that tragedy brings.

In 2022, the opera was performed at the Finnish National Opera to celebrate her 70th anniversary.


We have traversed her operas together. From her first in 2000 to her last in 2021, Saariaho’s brilliance was never in question from beginning to end, only strengthened as time went on. Her consummate talent for capturing in luminous detail the beauty and the pain of our world and the next was never lost throughout the years and only ardently confirmed with each published work. Shedding light on what made us human by revealing the underbelly of humanity itself, Saariaho artfully exposed us to the visceral truth of ourselves. For that, we are and will always be grateful. We will continue to be humbled each and every time we observe one of your resplendent works.

Rest now in the beautiful and sublime light that you so compassionately gave to us, your public, for so long. 


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