Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin has had eight different productions since it was new in 2000, including the one opening at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre on Thursday. Love From Afar (as the Canadian Opera Company prefers to call it) is probably the most-produced opera of the 21st century, though when the COC performances were announced last year, even some deep-dyed opera fans wondered who Saariaho is, and what the Finnish composer had done to get billing alongside Puccini.
Saariaho's music is widely played in Europe, less so in North America, though Los Angeles was a great outpost for her while her former classmate Esa-Pekka Salonen was music director at the L.A. Philharmonic. Santa Fe Opera did L'Amour de Loin in 2002. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra featured two of her pieces on a mostly Finnish program last season. And the COC's Canadian premiere of her opera comes days after a feature performance of her music at tonight's opening concert of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's annual New Music Festival.
Musically, the 59-year-old composer inhabits a richly coloured world. The particular flavour and density of sounds is very important in her works, which often shift kaleidoscopically through a relatively static set of tones and harmonies.
That isn't necessarily a type of music naturally suited to narrative. And indeed, there's not a lot of story in Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf's French libretto for L'Amour de Loin. A French troubadour dreams aloud of a woman he thinks he loves, hears her existence confirmed by a visiting pilgrim, and travels to the remote shore where this ideal woman lives. He dies almost as soon as he sees her; the opera finishes with her lyrical complaint about what might have been. But there's another narrative that goes on in the minds of the characters, who, like the music, are intently conscious of their own internal processes.
Speaking on the phone from New York, where she was doing a residency at Carnegie Hall, Saariaho says she pondered her prospects in opera for years before she began writing what would become L'Amour de Loin. It helped her to see Olivier Messiaen's meditative St. François d'Assise, which also deals with a mainly spiritual narrative. Saariaho's choice of subject – an incident from the life of a medieval troubadour named Jaufré Rudel – steered her toward an austere yet beautiful kind of melodic thinking.
"If you write for big stages, and for great voices, you need to make decisions about vocal writing," Saariaho says. Her own inclination is to think of language as its own form of music, whose properties affect even the specifics of orchestration.
"I think it has to do with the quality of the phonemes in each language, and the direction of the sentences," she says. She found it disturbing to hear the opera sung in English when the COC's co-production was first done at the English National Opera in 2009, even though she had no quarrels with the translation. Similarly, she's had a few shocks when seeing what different directors have made of the piece. A 2008 production at the Bergen International Festival in Norway ran a cartoon animation behind the principals, who were teenagers texting and chatting at their computers. The poet died in the toilet, choking on his own vomit.
"I didn't so much like it, but many people liked it a lot," she says diplomatically. "Stage directors often look for ways to leave their own fingerprints, and there's no way you can control that." But, she adds, she's grateful to have the luxury of facing that problem.
The ENO production wasn't well-received by the British press – The Guardian's critic called it "desperately uninvolving" – but Saariaho says that director Daniele Finzi Pasca's work wasn't entirely finished when it opened there, and evolved in subsequent performances.
"It's a very beautiful production, and had grown enormously deeper when they did it again in Belgium, and I trust that it has probably deepened again" for Toronto, she says. Peter Sellars tweaked his original 2000 staging for four years before he would consent to have the Finnish National Opera performances filmed for DVD.
Saariaho's program in Winnipeg includes one of her most-played pieces, Graal Théâtre, from the mid-nineties. In spite of the title, it's a violin concerto, written for Gidon Kremer, and tailored closely to the meditative yet explosive qualities of his playing.
Ironically, Saariaho says her writing became "more dramatic" after she had finished L'Amour de Loin, and her orchestration became more intense. She has written two more operas, both with text by Maalouf, and recently finished Circle Map, for orchestra and electronics based on Persian texts by Rumi. The piece will be premiered in Europe by Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and in the United States by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The COC, meanwhile, has already sold 80 per cent of the tickets to its eight performances of L'Amour de Loin. If opera fans here weren't entirely hip to who she was when the opera was announced, they seem keen to find out.
The Winnipeg New Music Festival features the music of Kaija Saariaho at Centennial Concert Hall on Saturday. L'Amour de Loin opens at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Feb. 2 and runs to Feb. 22. Soundstreams Canada performs Saariaho's Tag des Jahrs at Koerner Hall on Feb. 2 and 3. The COC presents two lunch-hour concerts of her music at the Four Seasons Centre's Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on Jan. 31 and Feb. 2.