Soile Isokoski taking the world by storm
Over since she ventured out into the world to make a career for herself, the stars have been lucky for the Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski. A singer reaches the peak of perfection at 50 - so she says - and in her case that age is still a long way off. But she has staked out the path that she plans to follow for a good few years ahead. In January 2002, for example, she will make her debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera. She has already done so in London, Vienna, Paris, Hamburg, Tokyo, Berlin, Rome, Salzburg, Moscow, Amsterdam, Munich, Milan, St. Petersburg. In twelve years she has conquered the music metropolises of the world one after the other and she now stands on the threshold to unforgettable greatness.
To be in demand and command fat fees, one has to be good, but also famous. They are not the same thing. That, at least, is how Luciano Pavarotti sees a singer's path to stardom.
"For me, fame is not an end in itself," says Soile Isokoski, looking me convincingly in the eyes. "Of course one ought to be well enough known through music to make people bother to come to a concert, that is obvious, but I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that I really do not want the kind of fame that Pavarotti has. A singer on stage is naked enough in front of the audience. Everyone in it is entitled to think and say whatever they want to about me. As a counterweight, one has to have a private life. Fortunately, I can still get around in the world in reasonable peace and quiet. That is a great thing. Big fees? It's easy to say that money is not important, because I have enough of it. I also know from experience what it is to have to count pennies. But if there is too much money, everything can lose its meaning in a certain way. Is there anything worth striving for in that?
"Star. It's a very trendy concept, as old as it is. Even in the sky the stars are remote, beyond reach," Soile philosophises. "At the opera, a member of the audience in the 57th row can admire from afar, and perhaps never muster the courage to approach. But there are also those who do. I have a group of fans who travel around after me. Quite pleasant people who are in no way intrusive. It's enough for them to be able to exchange a few words and for me to sign a photograph. It's nice to know that someone in the audience has made a long trip just to hear me sing."
The maestros' favourite
Success in the world of music can be measured by many criteria. Many singers proudly list some of the great conductors that they have had the privilege to work with. Soile Isokoski has worked with pretty well everyone: the most famous examples include Zubin Mehta, Sir Colin Davis, Seiji Ozawa, Neeme Järvi, Andrew Davis, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, John Eliot Gardiner, Yehudi Menuhin, Riccardo Muti, Claudio Abbado and, of the Finns, Okko Kamu, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
"I don't collect conductors' scalps," she smiles. "If anyone does, that's their business. I'm happy and fortunate that things have gone the way they did and that it will continue. After all, a name is in a certain way a guarantee of quality. Maestros discuss a lot of matters among themselves, and that includes singers. For example, Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta studied in Vienna at the same time and Daniel Barenboim is a good friend of both of them. It's a tight little circle in which things move and are moved in the music world. It could just as well have happened that at a decisive moment everything went wrong - and word went around that it wasn't at all a good idea to hire Soile."
That has certainly not happened. Soile, who had earlier worked as a church musician, made the breakthrough to an international career after her success in first the Lappeenranta song competition in Finland in 1987 and later the same year the BBC Singer of the World competition in Cardiff. The following year brought victories in the Elly Ameling competition and the Tokyo international competition. It was also in 1987 that she got a contract with the Finnish National Opera, where she stayed until 1994. Right end the early days of her career she was given an opportunity that few singers ever get: a solo concert in Amsterdam's renowned Concertgebouw. Now the steps in a ladder that reached higher and higher were beginning to be put in place. And none of them has failed. She first sang under Claudio Abbado's direction in 1996. They have been cooperating ever since and word of the splendid Finnish singer has reached all the places it ought to. Now Soile can choose her cooperation partners and build her career the way she thinks best. In 1999 she will be singing her first Wagner role, Elsa in Lohengrin, in Athens. Yet another feather in her cap.
"I continually have new and interesting tasks, am learning new things and trying to develop myself. But even if I had to give up now for some reason or another, I'd still die happy and grateful. In my work as a singer, I've been lucky, blessed. Whatever you like to call it: fate has been benign and given me a lot.
"One of the star moments in my life was the inaugural concert for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's new auditorium, where I sang with Placido Domingo in a scene from Verdi's opera Othello, with Daniel Barenboim conducting. Of course there are also other evenings that have left indelible memories, but every performance is equally important. A person has to be firm, even hard to cope in this environment, but then open and sensitive when performing. It takes time to learn these things and keep them in balance. It must also be born in mind that on the day that one's voice fails to carry there will immediately be ten applicants for the job.
"The Lied has always been the music that I love best, that is closest to me. Alongside opera performances and orchestral concerts, I try to sing Lieder as often as possible, accompanied by my regular pianist Marita Viitasalo. Fortunately, I already have enough of a reputation to make that possible."
A whole life for song
Music, the love of it and the privilege of being able to make it - those are frequently-repeated themes when Soile speaks, and which seem to fill her life. The reverse side of the coin is that she has to give up many things, sacrifice them on just one altar.
"I'm single. That was more or less a conscious choice. Actually, there's never been a situation of the kind in which I would have really had to choose either one way or another. In that respect, life has gone quite painlessly. Whether I've ever been really in love? We-el yes. But in that situation there were no realistic prospects of founding a family. No." Her gaze shifts to the interviewer for an instant. She brushes her beautiful dark locks and laughs. "Of course a life like this is a suitcase life, but I avoid hotels as much as I can. In large cities that I often visit, I always rent the same apartments. Staying in one of them for as much as a week sometimes, I have some kind of homely feeling. However, work is always most important, work and the people that it's done with. That's my family. When I get together with colleagues I know, we go to the movies, jogging and to the gym, cook and talk about anything but music."
Soile Isokoski carefully shields her privacy, keeping it behind a door that is rarely even slightly ajar. She has hideouts to which she retreats when necessary. But she says she is happy and that her human relations are in order. Yet the loneliness of living out of a suitcase is not always easy, no matter how passionately one loves one's work. "I write poetry that goes into a drawer, minimalist poems, trying to express some enormous experience of my life in a few words. That could be compared to my love for Lieder, in which a whole world is encapsulated within one small song."