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Soile Isokoski: A digital  interview with the great Finnish soprano by Göran Forsling (GF)


Soile Isokoski is currently one of the finest singers performing her repertoire and
she is a regular guest on the most renowned stages and concert halls in the world. In the spring of 2005 she returned to the Metropolitan Opera in New York for a new production of Faust and in 2006 for performances of Don Giovanni.

A native of Finland, Soile Isokoski graduated from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and made her concert debut there in 1986.
In 1987 Ms. Isokoski won 2nd prize in the BBC Singer of the World Competition and subsequently won 1st prize in the Elly Ameling and Tokyo International Singing Competitions. After her opera debut in the role of Mimí in La Bohème at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki she went on to capture audiences and critics in the opera houses of Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, London, Milan and Paris and also at the festivals in Salzburg, Savonlinna, Edinburgh and Orange.  

Ms. Isokoski continues to work together with many renowned conductors including Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Seiji Ozawa, John Elliot Gardiner, Sir Colin Davis, Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Sir Simon Rattle, Bernhard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, Valerij Gergiev and James Levine. She has a wide-ranging concert repertoire and regularly gives recitals with her permanent accompanist Marita Viitasalo.  These, and other recitals, have taken her to London (Wigmore Hall), Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin (Philharmonic Hall), Munich, Vienna (Musikverein), Rome, Athens, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Tokyo.

They have also recorded works by numerous Scandinavian composers as well as Schubert and Schumann. Among her recent recordings, the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss in collaboration with Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin received the Gramophone Editor’s Choice Award, having been chosen earlier in the year as Editor's Choice - Recording of the Month in the April 2002 issue. Together with Bo Skovhus and Marita Viitasalo she has recorded Hugo Wolf's Italian Songbook (Ondine).

In honour of her notable contribution to Finnish music Ms. Isokoski was awarded with the Pro-Finlandia medal in December 2002.


The above information is drawn from Allegro Artist Management’s homepage. On my recent visit to Helsinki to see Soile Isokoski as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin (see review.) I tried to arrange a meeting with her, but tight schedules thwarted this. Instead Ms Isokoski kindly agreed on making an e-mail interview, which of course seemed very appropriate for Musicweb-International, so here it is:


Q. What early influences did you have - special singers, for instance or some early experience that made you interested in singing opera?


A: As a youngster I was especially impressed by Maria Callas. Actually, I didn´t find her voice so beautiful but the intensity of it caught me. Later I was fond of Jessye Norman and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.


Q. Are there still singers, present day or from the past that you look up to? If so, what in particular is it you admire in them?


A: The singers that I mentioned are still my favourites. Callas on the stage is still unbeatable.


Q. What quality, in your opinion, is the most important to become a successful opera singer?


A: In my opinion one has to master the voice and express the character without thinking of the singing techniques. Also, one has to be very cooperative and some sense of humour doesn’t harm. 


Q. When you tackle a new role, what is your method to come to grips with it? For instance: some singers I know start with the words, maybe even learn the whole text, not only their own part, before studying the music, some do it the other way, some listen to recordings by great predecessors while others refuse to hear a note before they have got into the role their own way. I know some who spend many hours delving into the historical background, reading the composers’ diaries and letters to get a clue to the interpretation of the role. In short: what do you do?


A: First, I listen to a recording of the opera and read the story, then I start to tackle my role in it step by step. By the piano I have the music and the text in front of me, and I learn them simultaneously. Of course, I also study the history of the opera and then I get more information from the director, conductor, chorus-master etc.


Q. You started, as so many before you, as a Mozart singer, even if your debut role at the FNO was Mimi, and then gradually grew into heavier parts. Like Schwarzkopf, Della Casa and others it was natural to move into Strauss roles. I saw your Feldmarschallin in Helsinki a couple of years ago and you were great. Before that I had heard your Marguerite at both Savonlinna and the Bastille opera. But you have also ventured into Wagner, singing Elsa. How far is it possible to develop a voice like yours without causing damage to it? Where are your limits and what roles are on your “list of desiderata”?


A: By now I know the limits of my voice that I fully control. That´s why it is difficult to understand singers who continue to sing in roles that cause them lots of pain, even physical pain. I doubt I will expand my repertoire of Wagner, but more Strauss and French roles are in the coming. With this I mean Arabella and Louise. 


Q. In an interview you were quoted as saying: “A singer reaches the peak of perfection at 50”. I know one shouldn’t mention a woman’s age, but you are not quite there yet. How long are you planning to continue singing?


A: It is hard to predict but of course the voice itself and one´s physical and mental condition are crucial for the future. I wish I could go on for a while. 


Q. An international career is of course strenuous in many ways, not least through the eternal travelling and living more or less “in your suitcase”. How do you handle this? What else is tough with a career like yours?


A: You are right, travelling with heavy luggage is very strenuous. Also being away from home and living in hotels requires a special attitude, even a sense of humour. Experience is of good help, even here. Dealing and working with different personalities causes sometimes unnecessary stress.    


Q. You have been extremely successful, sung in all the great houses with all the great singers and under the great conductors. Do you still have a dream of something you would like to do?


A: I have been so lucky to have worked with most of the greatest names of today. My dream is to be able to continue with my present joy of singing.


Q. Opera directors are a special chapter in present day music life and one gets to see many strange, controversial and even incomprehensible productions. Have you got any favourites and – if we dare say so – ones you would rather not work with. In both cases – why?


A: Really, I haven´t been in such a situation to give that kind of a strong statement. I´m usually a cooperative, even a "kind pupil", so you have to do with this my diplomatic answer.


Q. How do you keep fit to carry through your artistic – and personal life?


A: Well, I look after my physical condition and try to live a normal life, even though I have to give up quite a lot of it.


Q. We have mainly concentrated on your operatic career but you are also a very successful recitalist, in both the standard international repertoire and launching Finnish songs. What is the biggest difference, in your opinion, between these two fields?


A: In opera you are one player among many colleagues, advisors, assistants, a machinery that works its own way and pace. As a recitalist you are “bare” and alone with your own voice and the piano. Every song is a little scene which you have to feel and see. Added imagination makes it interesting.


Q. It has been said now for some years that the record industry is in decline but you have been busy in the recording studios. Complete operas, opera recitals and song recitals – your Vier letzte Lieder has been hailed as one of the best, and I do agree. Are there any upcoming recording projects you want to or are allowed to reveal?


A: No, unfortunately I don´t have any information for you about that. But there will be more to come.


Thank you very much for your time and let me wish you all the best for the years to come.


Göran Forsling



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)