Saariaho’s “Innocence” is the terrifying opera America needs to see

It may sound improbable that a 70-year-old Finnish composer has written an opera that strikes straight to the heart of America’s gun-violence epidemic, but that’s exactly what Kaija Saariaho has done with her latest opera, “Innocence”.

Be forewarned about that title. In this opera, almost no one is innocent. The people who die in the fictitious but all too plausible massacre at an International School somewhere in Europe, as well as those who survive, had a hand in shaping the character of the shooter. Such events do not happen in a vacuum — and that is the point.

The opera, which had its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival in France in 2021, recently had a run at the Royal Opera House in London where seeing it in person proved even more terrifying than when viewed twice on a livestream from the French festival.

Saariaho, who is one of the greatest modern composers, and her first-time librettist, the Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen, who had assistance shaping the libretto from Saariaho’s son, Aleksi Barriére, have created a rapid-fire 100-minute work that encapsulates many of the major issues in the plague of gun violence that seems to be increasingly out of control in the United States. One organisation tracking gun violence in the U.S. says that as of early May there had been 200 mass killings — defined as shootings with four or more people killed — since the beginning of the year, almost a 10 percent increase on 2022.

In Saariaho and Oksanen’s opera, the shooting, which left 10 students and one teacher dead, occurred 10 years prior to the time in which the opera is set. The modern, international-style school building where the massacre occurred has been repurposed, after the school closed, as a luxury restaurant. A wedding banquet is in progress and Tereza, sung by the wonderful Finnish mezzo-soprano Jenny Carlstedt in London, and by Czech mezzo Magdalena Kozena in Aix, has been called in last minute to be the waitress, replacing someone who fell ill.

Had she had time to find out whose wedding it was, Tereza says, she would have refused the job. The nuptials are for a Romanian woman and Tuomas, the brother of the shooter who killed Tereza’s daughter, Markéta, and the other victims on that fatal day. She is so shocked by the discovery that she can barely deal with serving food and drink to the guests. A painful thought that keeps resurfacing is why have these people been able to go on with their lives, thriving and having a wedding, when her daughter’s killing shattered her marriage, her dreams and her life.

While Tereza musters the courage she will eventually find to confront the family — and the Romanian orphan bride, who has not been told the family’s secret and is perhaps the only innocent in the whole story — flashbacks take us to the fateful day when the building was still a school and the massacre was yet to happen.

The opera unpeels like an onion. At first we think the shooter was a sociopath, whose only friend at the school was a young woman who also was an outcast. But then we find out that Markéta, sung by the Finnish folksinger Vilma Jää, used to sing songs about the brother having a “froggy face”. The other students as well had formed a clique to exclude him and his outcast girlfriend.

An English teacher who survived the massacre and tries afterwards to go back to teaching says she gave up because she recalled that the boy used to write papers about serial killers, and she never did anything about it. A priest who is close to the shooter’s family tells his parents he’d always known there was something wrong with the boy but he, too, remained silent. He is still a priest, but does not believe in God. And the boy’s father tells Tereza he is sorry he taught him how to shoot at a young age.

The opera begins with an ominous rumbling in the low winds and bass fiddles that is reminiscent of the opening of Wagner’s “Rheingold” but far more threatening. Vilma Jää’s vocal acrobatics provide an eerie counterpoint to the superb vocal writing for the rest of the cast.

This is an opera that cannot have its American premiere soon enough. In a country that seemingly has a mass shooting every day, an opera that holds up a mirror and says this is why this is happening, and if you pay attention you might find out how to fix it, could be a force for healing.

By Michael Roddy

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