Kaija Saariaho doesn't blend into a crowd. The composer's red hair and intense eyes stood out at Paris' Gare de Lyon early one morning while boarding a TGV to Bern, where a new production of her opera L'Amour de loin was opening that night. She napped on the shoulder of her husband, Jean-Baptiste Barrire. And later, when she was passing my seat en route to the dining car, I looked up from one of her CD booklets and said (in my best French): "Hi! I'm going to the opera tonight. Et vous?" Not for a minute did she mistake me for a garden-variety Saariaho groupie.
Her reply (in English) and with a demure smile: "You're a journalist. Aren't you?"
Right. Those intense eyes don't miss much.
Over the past year that she has been living on New York's Upper West Side (she's Carnegie Hall's 2011-2012 Debs Composer's Chair), the 59-year-old Saariaho has had to get used to encountering many more admirers. Concerts of her music have been popping up all over the city. And now, her most recent opera ê_milie is in this year's Lincoln Center Festival. "Young people know me. They recognize me and come to say hello. That's very surprising. I feel a bit embarrassed," she said at the apartment she sublet during her Carnegie tenure. "It's not the same in Paris where people know me but I have a lot of private time."
The French capital is the home base for the Finland-born Saariaho. But her operas and symphonic pieces have made her and her music in demand all over the world. Though her past operas needed years to migrate through Europe, her 2010 hour-long monodrama ê_milie about the celebrated 18th century mathematician ê_milie du Chê¢telet has already played in Lyon and Amsterdam with plans for London performances. An American production, directed by Marianne Weems, Artistic Director of the experimental theater company The Builder's Association, was seen at the 2011 Spoleto Festival USA. The opera now plays at Lincoln Center Festival on July 19, 20 and 22 with soprano Elizabeth Futral. The work depicts ê_milie du Chê¢telet in a race against time: The 42-year-old former lover of Voltaire is in the midst of translating Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica (in what became the standard French edition of the seminal work) during a late-in-life pregnancy that she knew would kill her, and did in 1749.
Half under her breath, Saariaho uses the word "crazy" in reference to the opera's singlecharacter nature and plot that lacks exterior action. Fortunately for whoever is singing each scene's extended ariosos, the opera has voice-resting interludes when ê_milie is scribbling down her Newton translation. Yet the opera isn't a one-voice affair.
Saariaho is a true child of the Paris electronic music studio IRCAM (where she first studied in 1982). The dreamy spaciousness that her music has in common with her best-known musical countryman, Jean Sibelius, is often achieved partly through blends of electronic generated sound and conventional instruments. Often, she seems to translate ether waves and auras into sound. Barely overheard whispers are heard amid washes of color, enhancing the mystery of her work while also allowing her a certain amount of control over the different spaces where her pieces are performed. With ê_milie, Saariaho initially wondered if there would be any orchestra at all _ "just electronics and maybe a video extension. But then it grew...." And at various points, voices representing her unborn child and its father are heard, not pre-recorded, but in electronic real-time mutations of soprano Futral.
"We created a program that not only transposes the voice but changes its character. Timewise, it's completely flexible," Saariaho said. "I very rarely used pre-recorded sounds. I can't stand the idea of a click track in the ear of the performer."
Certainly, the most obvious difference between ê_milie and other single-character operas that it has been compared to, such as Schoenberg's Erwartung and Poulenc's La voix humaine, is Saariaho's way of defining characters not by what they do but by their spiritual temperature. Saariaho's creative process seems to have no typical causes and effects. Though many think of her operas in the tradition of Pell_as et M_lisande, her model is more likely to be Don Giovanni _ if there's any model at all. "When you compose," she says. "You just think about creating the music."
Before L'Amour de loin was an immediate success at the 2000 Salzburg Festival, Saariaho was a prolific experimental composer (roughly half her 108 published works predate her opera) creating music seemingly inspired by spells, incantations, and other elusive, magical things. Her electronic ballet score Maa begins with rapid footsteps heard amid changing sound environments. During this time, she lived relatively quietly, raising her two children and disseminating her music through recordings made on her own Petals label, sold through the website (petals.org) she co-founded with her composer husband.
However, her collaboration with the Lebanese/French poet Armin Maalouf changed all of that. Having authored the book The Crusades through Arab Eyes, he brought a special authority to the world of medieval troubadours in L'Amour de loin, a simple parable of a poet who falls in love with the Countess of Tripoli on the basis of mere description. Maalouf went on to write libretti for Saariaho's 2003 Adriana Mater, the 2006 oratorio La Passion de Simone and the 2010 ê_milie. In this most recent work, Saariaho wanted to take a Cubist approach toward characterization. There's no way to show all sides of a person simultaneously, of course. "But there are layers that add to each other," says Saariaho. "Certain things come back so they make that part of the portrait stronger."
Through no input from her, the production looks Cubist with a series of triangles and trapezoids that double as projection screens _ unlike the Op_ra National de Lyon production that had Emilie in the center of various globes and measuring instruments, like a solar system revolving around her. "Both productions have fantastic strengths. Very different. But I'm used to that," she says. "L'Amour de loin has had eight different productions."
I reminded her of the Bern production we both saw years back. In contrast to the spiral staircases and wading pools of the original Peter Sellars production, this one unfolded in a library filled with giant books and towering windows that opened gradually as the hearts of the characters unfolded. So attached was she to Sellars at that time, Saariaho couldn't take it in: "I thought it was all wrong." But in a way, she only had herself to blame: Nowhere in the score are there production suggestions. In ê_milie, she included the harpsichord thinking that directors might use it onstage. But that has yet to happen.
Might Saariaho have more production control in the future, thanks to her daughter (an aspiring conductor) and son (now in Prague studying stage direction)? She could keep it all in the family, right?
"No," she firmly declared. "That would not be healthy."