Anna Kelo is a Finnish opera director who has graduated from GITIS (Russian State Unstitute of Scenic Art) in Moscow in 1992 and has been working at Finnish National Opera (FNO) for 25 years since 1994, becoming its chief assistant director in 1998. She had been the assistant director for Götz Friedrich’s production of Richard Wagner ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ and now presents a new sold-out Ring Cycle tetralogy that started at Finnish National Opera with its first instalment, ‘Das Rheingold’, on 30 August 2019 and will run till autumn 2021. Esa-Pekka Salonen will be conducting all four operas.

Anna Kelo. Photo by Veikko Kähkönen

Anna, it is fascinating that you, a Finnish opera director, have a connection with Russia. How did you decide to pursue your studies in theatre in Russia? What did the Russian education give you?

I didn’t really decide anything – my mother decided for me, because I was 19 when I finished school in Finland. I come from the opera family – my father was a conductor, and my mother was a pianist. This was the world I’d been living in all my life, and that was very natural for me. But I wanted to be an actress. After finishing school I went to London and tried to find work as an actress, doing all sorts of things, and then my mother came and said: ‘No, that is not real life, and this is not real studies, you have to do something better’. And she had some connections at the Soviet Ministry of Culture – because she is Lithuanian – so she got me a scholarship to go to Moscow. What I didn’t know was that half a year earlier there had been an agreement between the Finnish National Opera (FNO) and GITIS to take the first Western students – three singers and three directors – to study musical theatre. That was in 1989, just before the break-up of the Soviet Union. I just left for Moscow and was placed in a dormitory, and they thought that I was part of the group sent by the FNO even though I wasn’t. After half a year I came back to the FNO and asked if I could join that group – as I had already been there for half a year – and they said it was fine. Suddenly I was part of the group that studied in Moscow in the frame of the agreement between FNO and GITIS. The idea was conceived by Georgiy Pavlovich Ansimov who also then became my professor.

What was your training as musical director like – how it was different from studying to be a theatre director?

It was quite a unique training, because at that time we didn’t have anything like that in Finland. And it was more with a focus on opera, very classical, while I thought at first that it would be more about musical theatre proper. We studied the art of the opera. The training was fantastic, we had amazing professors. It was a very interesting time, because we witnessed the change that USSR (and Russia) underwent at that time – we started in 1989 and finished in 1992. We really lived through all the turmoil. We didn’t have to study all the political subjects, only our profession and all the artistic subjects – so we graduated in three years’ time and got our diplomas in 1992.

Did you go to see productions at Bolshoi Theatre during your studies? Could you describe some that were really inspiring for you in your future career?

Unfortunately at that time Bolshoi Theatre wasn’t very good because it was just after perestroika period and all the best people were leaving or had already left. What was left at Bolshoi Theatre was very old-fashioned, and it might have been musically beautiful, but from the point of direction those were the least interesting things. At that time independent opera groups started to appear, and they were much more interesting – we went to see a lot of student productions and they were very inspiring.

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold

Was your course conservative? I expect you didn’t study modern operas there?

Yes, it was quite conservative, but I am actually very grateful for those conservative teachings, they gave me such a good base. We in Finland at that time had a problem in our theatre school – everything was too modern. People were not given basic tools, there was some kind of turmoil in theatre education at that time. And in Moscow we received real classical foundation, and it was so rare, so to this day I really grateful for certain things, the real craft that I learned there. You need to know the rules before you start breaking them.

Could you give me the examples of the techniques that you still use in your work that come from your education in Moscow?

First – we were always given little assignments, they were called ‘studies’, ‘etudes’. For example, you were given one phrase – say ‘Get away from here’. And then in two days you were supposed to build something around it – first without music, then with music. It really forced you to think. And then before you presented your result, you always had to tell the teacher why you did this and what you were trying to say. And then the teachers made a judgement as to whether you accomplished the task that you had given yourself. It forced you to analyze and think and be critical about things, because otherwise there is a problem – how do you measure art? How can you say that something is good or bad? You can’t really, as it is a question of taste. But if an artist has explained what he or she was trying to accomplish and what story he or she wanted to tell, then it is a completely different thing. I thought it was really good, and when I direct I still try to give all the explanations to myself first so that I really know what I am doing and what I want. And if people start questioning my solutions, I always have an answer.

In Russia theatre and opera directors are still those strong and powerful figures that everyone has to obey. Did you also learn that in GITIS?

Yes, we did learn that. I remember our professor telling us: ‘If you don’t know what you are doing, just fake it’. And this is something that I now have got away from, I don’t believe in it any more. Nowadays singers that study in Finland or abroad – the younger generation – are not used to that kind of approach. They want to be part of an ensemble, they are thinking people, not puppets, they want to express how they feel and how they approach things, and it is wise for the director to acknowledge and respect that. I no longer want to be that omni-present director who decides everything. Also, I remember that we never ever got good evaluation of our work – all feedback from our teachers was always negative. And that is also not working for me now, so I have learned to give positive feedback.

Could you describe the first opera that you directed and your first work experience in Finland?

My opera was Zimlinsky’s ‘Flörentinische Tragödie’, not a very well-known work. When I came to Finland it was recession, there was no work anywhere, and so after having been unemployed for half a year, I came to FNO. At that time the Finnish government gave benefits to young people after more than six months of unemployment if you found a working place, so I was a free employee. I said to them: ‘I am free, I am educated, would you like to have me for half a year as assistant director?’ They agreed, and that is how I started in 1993 or 1994. And after half a year I had proved myself, and they actually employed me full time. And I really like my job as an assistant director, and this is still my title – now I am the head of Assistant Directors here, at FNO.

Can you describe what your job as an assistant director involves?

When we prepare a new premiere, I assist the director – I sit next to him or her and write down everything that happens on stage. If I have worked with him or her long enough, I can propose something, otherwise I don’t say anything. I play by the ear – you have to find the right way of working with different directors. And then I am also the liaison between the production office, the technical offices and the artistic team. This job is great because you have to do a lot of things and you don’t have the artistic responsibility – until of course the production is revived. After the premiere we have 5-7 performances which I supervise – I’ll be there and if something goes wrong, I’ll give feedback after every performance. In the revival the opera might have new soloists, and then it is the assistant director’s job to re-direct them in their roles in the existing production. And that is very important to be able to transmit the idea clearly, even though it is not your creation. And you are doing it for singers, so you have to find motivation for their characters and you have to be able to personally direct people.

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold

Then my next questions will move to Richard Wagner’s Ring tetralogy. Could you please describe your first Ring Cycle at FNO – the one where you worked as an assistant director.

Yes, the director of that Ring was German, and his name was Götz Friedrich. He had already directed two Rings before, and he was already in his 70s when he came here. It was from 1997 to 2000, I think – 20 years ago. So one part was done every year – ‘Das Rheingold’ in 1997, ‘Die Walküre’ in 1998, ‘Siegfried’ in 1999, and ‘Die Götterdämmerung’ in 2000. And in autumn of 2000 we did the whole Ring. But after the ‘Die Götterdämmerung’ premiere he passed away. It meant I had to do the whole Ring when we did it. I had been in all rehearsals of every opera, so I took the responsibility for the whole Ring. It was the first time when I revived it. And then it was revived two or three times in the course of the next twelve years – so I did do it a lot! And I had to bring and revive Friedrich’s directing conception which was very good, but year by year it grew a little bit dated, including visually, and then FNO said that this was it, they were not going to perform it anymore. And then suddenly came the National Theatre of Tokyo in Japan and they bought the whole Ring. And then they needed somebody to go and do it there, and this is what I’ve been doing for the last three years.

Could you describe your conception of the new Ring you have started now?

I think that in the past the Ring has been treated too realistically: Gods are like people, and it’s about love and power and all these things. But I want to go a bit deeper, because I think that it is actually about more spiritual things than that. In my opinion, love between man and woman is fine, but it is not the essence of the Ring. So I want to tell a story which starts when the world was literally born and finishes with the destruction of the world. So it means that every single part will happen in a different era, with parallels of our visions of the Western human history, as it is initially a Western story. I also want to have this contrast between Western culture and Western timeframe and Eastern philosophy, as Wagner was also very interested in it, and to show how these two sides interact. Actually, the East is coming out quite powerfully in modern times: there is Eastern philosophy, yoga, wellness, meditation. The importance of China is also growing – so one can say that Western culture is really coming to its end. My story will partly be within ‘the end of civilization’ discourse. The first part, ‘Das Rheingold’, will be in Gods’ world, so it will in a epoch resembling ancient Greece. The second part, ‘Die Walküre’, is so obviously about war, and I chose the Second World War for it. Then ‘Siegfried’ will be about our time, because this is time of contrasts, individualism and social media, everything is about ‘me’. However, we are also living in the time of new spiritualism, when people are more and more interested in Eastern philosophies and practices. And then ‘Die Götterdämmerung’ will be a dystopia, a horror picture of the future.

So it will be an apocalyptic vision of the world?

It will be apocalyptic, but hopeful. At some point Wagner composed the whole opera about Buddha, but it was never performed. His letters to Liszt reveal that he was very intrigued by buddhism. He took some parts from that opera and put them in ‘Siegfried’ and ‘Die Götterdämmerung’. So there are themes in both of these operas from that initial ‘Buddha’ opera. So Wotan in the scene with Erda in the third act, first scene of ‘Siegfried’ mentions the wheel of life, which is a buddhist concept. And originally in the last aria of Brünhilde in ‘Die Götterdämmerung’ the words were different: he had written about reincarnation, but his wife Cosima had persuaded him to take them out.

Can you describe your collaboration with the conductor of the Ring Cycle, Esa-Pekka Salonen?

We actually sat together in the middle of May 2019 and I took him through the whole direction, showing it on a model, as he wanted to know exactly how it would develop. There is obviously a lot of involvement of the conductor at many stages of the preparation of an opera. We started to rehearse the Ring for one week before Esa-Pekka joined us, then there were some musical rehearsals he led with the orchestra and many others where singers were also involved, with the orchestra or (at a piano dress rehearsal) without it. But of course in many aspects it was also work in parallel, it is separate and then it comes together, but this is the way it always works in opera. I can’t really affect his work much, and he can’t affect mine. But then when we come together and there is a certain problem, we solve it together.

When will the whole tetralogy be performed?

It will be in autumn 2021. I will be rehearsing with singers ‘Die Walküre’ and ‘Siegfried’ immediately after respective operas finish, as ‘Das Rheingold’ is quite short so you don’t have to rehearse that much, and ‘Die Götterdämmerung’ would have just finished, so it it the two big operas in-between that would have to be ready for the run of the whole tetralogy.