Q & A: Outi Tarkiainen and The Mission of Her Opera ‘A Room of One’s Own’

By John Vandevert

Hailing from Rovaniemi in Finland, Outi Tarkiainen has established herself as a remarkable curator of the human voice and a commander of instrumental color. Being featured on programs and concert venues all across the world, from the United Kingdom, USA, and Japan, Tarkiainen has a unique ability to see music as oscillating hues and colors. Striking the soul with audiences wherever she goes, her music conveys the truths of music. That is to say, her music is equal parts peace maker and philosopher of the soul. 

Her compositions cover the gamut of forms including song cycles, chamber music, and even opera. In 2021, her first opera “A Room of One’s Own,” based on the eponymous 1929 book by American author Virginia Wolf, was successfully premiered at the Hagen Opera House in Germany. Looking at the role of women in 1920s England, Tarkiainen’s opera interrogates how women are seen and valued in society and the intrinsic desire for agency.

In this interview, Tarkiainen and I discussed being a composer, her opera’s symbolism, and the path towards creating her own voice. Having begun as a jazz band composer, Tarkiainen is a vanguard in her quest to demonstrate the creative power of the female operatic imagination.

OperaWire: What do you try to do when you compose?

Outi Tarkiainen: I think of composing as a way of communication. It’s a way to go from emotions and thoughts directly to other people without words. Music can connect hearts to each other. I’ve changed as a composer in the last five to ten years. A big point of change was when I had my first child. All of a sudden, I had to be born as an instinctive human being. I was really surprised at the connection between the infant and the mother. As a composer I’m synesthetic, meaning I can see music as colors, especially colors in different light. I live in the arctic and the light is a very important aspect for me. How the seasons change, midnight sun. After giving birth and getting more instinctive as a human being, I started to believe that just painting those colors is enough. I don’t need to do anything more and I’ve been much more instinctive after that as a composer.

OW: What are some of your influences?

OT: I listen to a load of music and I believe that all the music one has ever loved effects the writing that you do. Even if I might think of a certain influence, however, it always turns out different because it goes through my aesthetic and way of writing. 

OW: But why composing at all?

OT: I grew up in a city by the arctic, Rovaniemi, and there are no opera houses anywhere near there. I was almost 20 when I went for the first time to a live opera which was a very powerful experience for me. We had an orchestra there and I was lucky to hear many of their concerts. But somehow composing was a part of me even before that. I was very young, about four years old, when I insisted to my parents that we should purchase a piano. I learned to write notes before I learned to write any words on the page. I was around six when I premiered my first composition at my cousin’s wedding.

I studied the piano and there weren’t many opportunities to play chamber music in my early years. When I got the opportunity to join the local jazz orchestra, or big band, that was mind blowing for me. I wanted to write for them and they were kind enough to play it, and this actually led me to jazz for a decade or so. My classical work started around 2008 but before that I composed mostly for chamber jazz orchestra. In fact, I studied jazz composition at university before I switched to classical. 

OW: How did you come to create your own musical voice?

I was 17 when I moved to Helsinki for evening classes and soon after that I started to go to as many concerts as possible. They have two orchestras and opera, so it was overwhelming for me at first. It took me several years before I started writing for the orchestra, because I had written a lot for the jazz orchestra. The possibilities for painting colors are just so different in symphony orchestra than in a jazz orchestra, even if there are exceptions like Gil Evans and Maria Schneider. But the strings and the percussion, it’s another world for me. 

OW: What about the Finnish musical scene?

OT: Finland is a population of five million and we have forty professional orchestras. It is the most densely populated country of professional orchestras in the world. Maybe that’s one part when there are so many Finnish conductors in the world.

Of course, Jean Sibelius is one of the most well-known Finnish composers and in Finland, we have “the shadow of Sibelius” which goes up to his death. For decades, it was really hard to shine because of his shadow. Now, my generation has a different attitude towards this. I quote some of Sibelius in my works but he’s far enough away that we can think on our own. The other most famous name is Kaija Saariaho. I know her and she has been a big role model for me. I realized how big she was for the first time when she was looking at my scores in Paris in 2017.

For the first time in my life, a woman composer with authority and understanding was looking at my scores and I could relate to it. It felt very different than all the other male teachers I’ve had. In Finland, there’s a lot of modernist composers as well. However, there is a cherishing of craftsmanship. This is a good thing because writing in different styles and knowing your technique has been very useful for me. Many Finnish composers are known for their technique and craftsmanship. 

OT: Your first opera ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ is based on Virginia Wolf’s 1929 book. Why choose this theme?

OT: I was living in Berlin when I encountered this book for the first time. It was in a friend’s apartment and he had it there a book on the shelf. While reading it, I actually realized that even though I thought I was a feminist I instinctively thought classical literature written by men was worth more than Jane Austin and others. I realized I had almost avoided reading literature written by women because I had thought it was lighter. It shocked me at the time. 

That book opened up my mind to the structures behind society that grow these kinds of thoughts. This explained to me why many main, female characters in classical literature like Madame Guermantes (The Guermantes) by Proust felt so unreal to me. I didn’t relate to them and then I realized these women are pictured from the male gaze and that’s why it felt so different. 

Somehow, I instinctively thought of this as a subject for my first opera. It took some years to finish. I left it for a bit as well. Then, in 2019 out of the blue came a conductor from Germany who saw my concert at the Proms in August and wanted to commission me to write an opera. I went to see them before my first child was born and we talked about the subject. The director has been working in the Berlin Staats Oper for many years as a dramatist and somehow it clicked with him. Maybe two months after that, my son was one month old when the director sent the first libretto and we started working. Six months later, I was already composing.

OT: Why is an opera about the contributions of women necessary?

OT: If we tell stories from different perspectives, from different cultures and points of view, it makes the world more balanced bit by bit. In a way, although it’s an opera about women it’s not only for women. It’s not making fun of men. The men characters are very emphatic, and the conclusion is that both need each other. Everybody has their male and female sides and the best art can reveal it. As it was such a big thing for me to see Kaija go through my scores, it’s very important that women get to important places like composing and conducting opera.