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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

PROFILE | Soile Isokoski: The Artist as Teacher

By Joseph So on July 16, 2015

(photo courtesy Intermusica)
Finnish lyric soprano Soile Isokoski is in Toronto this month to participate in the Toronto Summer Music Festival’s Art of Song Academy (July 16 – August 9) (photo courtesy Intermusica)

The great Finnish soprano shares her thoughts on her art and the passing of her wisdom and experience to the next generation

One of the happiest occasions for Toronto music lovers this summer is the appearance of the great Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski at the 2015 Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy. She’s in town for the week of July 12 to 18, as a mentor in the Art of the Song Program. TSMF has been trying to get her for some years, according to James Norcop, a former singer, arts administrator and the unofficial coordinator of the Art of the Song program. He was instrumental in making the initial contact with the great soprano: “I’ve admired Soile Isokoski for over twenty years,” says Norcop. “She’s one of the great sopranos of our time and one of the greatest recitalists. Douglas McNabney and I worked for three years to bring her to Toronto, and we’re delighted she’s here to share her art with our singers and accompanists.”

I’ve heard Isokoski on many occasions, in orchestral concerts, recitals and staged operas, in some of her greatest roles – Ariadne, Marschallin, Rachel, Madame Lidoine, and the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. A prolific recording artist, her Four Last Songs conducted by Marek Janowski on the Ondine label is my desert island disc. The last time I heard her was August 2014, as the Contessa in a concert Le nozze di Figaro at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, conducted by her long-time colleague James Conlon. Alas, it turned out to be my last opportunity to see her in opera. I hadn’t realized at the time that she would make her farewell to the operatic stage so soon. At 58 – she was born on Valentine’s Day in 1957 – the Isokoski lyric soprano remains a glorious instrument. But she feels it’s time to bid farewell – “I want to finish at the top.” Her last staged opera performance was as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier in Vienna last December.

On August 1st, Isokoski takes on the title of guest professor at the University of the Arts Helsinki for the academic year of 2015-16. She’ll focus on opera and voice, giving masterclasses to the Sibelius Academy voice students, and she’ll also contribute to the opera productions as a coach. In the article on the University website, Isokoski is quoted as saying: “this is a great opportunity and challenge for me. I’ve sung in opera over the last 25 years, mostly outside Finland. It’s my deep belief that I have a lot of knowledge and experience in performance and in vocal production, and I want to share it with the students. My goal is to help all the students sing freely, to allow them to interpret the music.”

“Soile is much more than the cliché of being a ‘true artist’. She is a sublime artist who is true to her art, to herself, and to those around her. She has a deep respect for the poetry, for the composer, and especially for the young artists she has generously agreed to mentor this week. It has been a privilege to have her with us for an extended visit and a pleasure to see the young artists genuinely inspired by such a wonderful musician and human being. The young artists are extremely fortunate to have her as a mentor. With Soile as a role model – there is still a future for the Art of Song!” – Professor Douglas McNabney, Artistic Director, Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy

Yesterday I sat in on a masterclass she gave at the Geiger Torel Room of the U of T Faculty of Music. For three hours, Isokoski put the four singers and two pianists through their paces. Each singer worked on two pieces. As is typical of a masterclass, the student sang the song all the way through once. Then it was Isokoski’s turn to give each student her feedback, and the aria is broken down into little segments, to be worked on over again and again. Isokoski strikes me as a wonderful teacher – kind, supportive, caring, encouraging, and never overbearing. If a student needs correction on the language, she tries to come up with equivalent English sounds to help. Given Isokoski’s excellent grasp of English, her suggestions are invariably effective. She also makes judicious comments on tempi, dynamics, phrasing and helps the students to gain a deeper understanding of the text. All of this is accomplished with a mixture of good humour, sincerity and seriousness, putting each student at ease. As a teacher, she obviously believes in the “carrot” rather than the “stick,” realizing that gentle persuasion works better than a stern reprimand. The effect was evident this afternoon – after her various pointers, each singer showed marked improvement.

After a full three-hour class in which amazingly Isokoski didn’t even take a washroom break – the first time I’ve seen that happen in such a long class! – she and I sat down for a face to face chat, an abridged version of the interview is reproduced below. I’ve interviewed many singers over the last twenty years but rarely have I encountered one as completely down to earth, with zero diva posturing, totally genuine and very easy to talk with. She mentioned that after 25+ years of an international career, she now wants to stay closer to home, to take care of her 90-year old mother, and to transition into teaching. In our conversation, I was struck by her sincerity – she’s thoughtful, and she speaks her mind, but she’s never unkind. I think above all, she uses her gift to serve the music, and now she wants to use her knowledge and experience to help the next generation:

JS: Are you enjoying the voices here in the Art of the Song program? What do you think of the Canadian singers?

SI: The level here is very high – they are very talented young people, so well prepared, with fresh voices, eager to learn. Their language (skills) are amazingly good. And everyone is singing these long and difficult songs by heart!

JS: I think you are very kind and encouraging to the students. I think they learn better this way.

SI: That’s because I was lucky to have had kind teachers. My first teacher was Seija Nylund. The second teacher, who was my main teacher, was Professor Dorothy Irving. To be a singing teacher, there are three words – patience, patience, patience!

JS: I read that you are taking up a new position, at the Sibelius Academy starting in August 1st

SI: Yes. Last year was my first year (teaching). I was a senior lecturer in a high school, in the middle of Finland, the town’s name is Oulu. I want to keep my 90-year old mother company. She lives alone in a huge house by the river. I am one hour drive away from this place. I can be with her every morning and evening and weekends. That’s very important to me.

JS: Does that mean you are going to sing less?

SI: I quit singing opera. Because it takes a minimum of three weeks, even if I know the production, it means at least a week’s rehearsal followed by performances.

JS: Will you still be singing opera in concert?

SI: I have nothing against singing opera. It’s just the time (involved). I sang my last performance, as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, in Vienna, last December. I am not sad. I have been now a year as a teacher, and (I have) no regrets. I am very balanced with that. I was at the top and there was no way up any more. Either keep the level or go down. It was a good time to stop. It was also (because of) family matters…

JS: It’s only the people who love your voice who are sad…

SI: Well….but I sing a lot of recitals, and concerts with orchestra. And I teach. In Ravinia they say I am welcome any time to teach. I like to share my experiences. If the young singer’s voice cracked, I say it happened to me in a concert…I can tell them. And I am still alive and the conductor still works with me!

JS: What do you look for in a student?

SI: I am looking for a free voice; no cramps in the body and no tricky voice. (The students here) have amazingly good breathing technique – it all starts with breathing. Interpretation goes hand in hand. When you think of happy things, all of a sudden it just opens up inside of you, the voice comes out freely. I look for a free voice that is able to deliver what the singer wants to say.

JS: What about a singer’s ability to communicate to the audience?

SI: Yes but it has to come inside, not (through) manners. The music itself is heart to heart. And if a singer is sincere, and the pianist as well, if they try to find out what the composer and the poet want to say, then it’s a true dialogue with the audience. I am speaking for myself – if in the beginning of a recital, you try to communicate too much (with the audience), it can ruin your focus. Like the Michelangelo songs this afternoon, you have to be focused. Of course if you sing Bernstein’s “I Hate Music” you can do more! (Note: she just sung that satirical song a few days ago at the Newport Music Festival in Rhode Island.)

JS: I guess what I was asking you was that some singers seem to only sing for themselves, all very introverted, ignoring the audience completely.

SI: The most important thing when you come on, is how to salute the people. And the wise thing would be in the beginning of a recital, sing something light that you are sure you can do, nothing too deep.

JS: Do you look for musicality in a student? Do you believe you can teach musicality?

SI: These students here are already qualified, so I don’t need to look. In the high school where I taught last year, we have auditions, we look for voice and musicality, of course. You can learn musicality to a point. It can be asleep inside a student, it needs time to awake the musicality, to bring it out.

JS: A related question is how much technique can be taught. For example, do you think a trill can be taught? Or a high pianissimo? Is that possible?

SI: I think so. You see it’s not just physical but also mental. Teaching… they can read books and go home and sing. Teaching singing is not telling (a student) how to do it, but to find an example, a picture, in the memory that (the student) can use. The teacher just have to have ears open and (at the right moment) say “yes, this is right, repeat that.”

JS: I notice some teachers use imagery to achieve the proper position of the tongue, larynx and soft palate for singing – like imagine there’s an egg in there, or the sensation when you’re starting to yawn…

SI: That’s also the point. Maybe the egg thing works with one student. But it may not work with the other. Some example that’s good for you or me may not work with others. Teaching singing is very delicate. You have to have a good relationship with the student, and create an intimate atmosphere where the student can make mistakes without fear.

JS: Joan Sutherland is quoted as having said that you are born with a trill… either you have it or you don’t…

SI: With a gorgeous trill from a coloratura soprano like her, of course! As I said, up to a certain point, you can teach it…

JS: What about a singer’s physical appearance? What are your thoughts on the emphasis on looks today?

SI: I think it’s a sickness of our time, for singers to be like a top model. It’s pure PR. There are hundreds of beautiful girls, but how many of them can sing? Of course it’s not healthy to be overweight, that’s for sure. It has to be a balance. If a person is balanced in his or her outlook, then the beauty comes from the inside.

JS: Since you serve a lot on jury panels of competitions, like the one you just did in Cardiff, I want to ask you what do you think of competitions?

SI: They are necessary and very useful. The singers in Cardiff are ready for career. Great opportunity for them with intendants, agents, and lots of people there. At the finals, we were there with the five finalists, and we knew who won of course. I told them that I was in the same position 27 years ago. I was a finalist, and waiting for the announcement. I didn’t win, but I made a career. You compete against yourself; how you keep calm with the pressure, how you can deliver, how you can say what you want to say. Sometimes, the winner doesn’t have the best career, or the best singer doesn’t always win. But that’s the game….

JS: I’d like to think that the good voices that speak to the audience will always win in the end.

SI: Yeah, of course! For young people they come to competitions to win money and job.

JS: I read that you came second in 1987, but I thought Cardiff had no second…

SI: They created a second, the Song Prize, after me. I brought lots of Lieder, and they said I was second, and I should win the song prize. They created it for the next competition (1989), and the winner was Bryn Terfel.

JS: I’ve noticed that some singers are great in competitions and auditions and maybe not so great in regular performances, while other singers might have fantastic voices but never seems to do well in competitions. Why do you think that is?

SI: I don’t know why. I think it’s mental. Thirty years ago when I did two or three auditions in German houses, I wasn’t taken in. I was competing with Americans, because they were so good in auditions. Then I got a job I jumped into in Vienna…the Pamina was sick and I got the performance to show what I could do. Also James Conlon, he was in Köln. Somehow he heard me, so they arranged an audition for me with him.

JS: Oh so you’ve worked with Conlon for a long time. Is that why you went to Ravinia to sing the Contessa last summer?

SI: Yes, because he asked me.

JS: I am so glad I went to hear your last Contessa! I had no idea that you were thinking of retiring. You know, Toronto Summer Music had been trying to get you to come for several years but you cancelled…

SI: Look, I am a cancer survivor. If I cancelled it was because of that. When things like that happen you want to be closer to home. But they caught it early and I’ve recovered. You can put it in the article, to help people to get tested.

JS: Your illness hasn’t touched your voice – it’s still in great shape, it’s still beautiful…

SI: Yes, it did not affect my voice. I stopped for many reasons. There were things in the opera world that bothered me. At some point, some directors, (maybe) they needed if for their own energy, would attack one of us, one of the cast. Some of them are known, I won’t say any names. I’m always against when someone wants to be bigger and stronger and more beautiful and more powerful, to go over the corpses, to hurt people. It’s so much in the opera world, and that was bothering me all these years. What was happening there made my decision (to stop) easy. In concert and chamber music, it’s more sincere, it’s more for the music. In opera there are so many things to consider that’s not music…

JS: Tell me what’s the best memories in your long career?

SI: Meeting Zubin Mehta and working with him was really a blessing. He’s a musician and a beautiful human being, a mensch.

JS: And your best moments on stage?

SI: Oh there are so many, I can’t pick one! I can tell you several, like in Carmelites, or La Juive or Nozze or Rosenkavalier… when you are singing and playing the role, suddenly it is magic – for you and for your fellow singers. In the early years when I was learning the roles, I learned to recognize this magic. You feel you are one with the person you are singing, and the music goes well together… we could die after this kind of (experience)! I call it the “magic touch of art’s feather” (laughs). It doesn’t need to be long…just a moment. And it stays with you for years. Opera is a wonderful art, if everything matches together. Of course if (the production is) too much against the music, you get irritated.

JS: What about your favourite role? Maybe it’s unfair since you sing so many – let’s say three favourite roles…

SI: For years it was the Countess, and then the Marschallin. There’s also Marguerite…and there’re so many others! I liked Rachel! And Liu, Mimi… It was a great privilege to sing these roles on stage!

JS: Well I consider it a great privilege to have this opportunity to speak with you, after all these years…

SI: Ah, thank you (laughs)

JS: And of course it’s wonderful to have you here at Toronto Summer Music. The young singers are really inspired by you. What advice would you give to these aspiring singers?

SI: I was thinking about it this morning. There are so many talented people here. I want to say to them – the slower you go, the faster you learn. You have to be careful not to take too big roles in opera, even if it’s flattering. Of course people – the intendants, the agents – get excited when they hear these young new voices. Maybe the young people will survive if they have a cool head. But if you’re singing alone, with big orchestra playing, and you get involved in the emotions, then the voice could be used (up), “gebraucht” as the Germans say. So (my advice is to) go slowly.


Soile Isokoski will participate in a public Masterclass for the Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy with the 2015 Art of Song Academy Fellows on Friday, July 17 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. Walter Hall. Details here.


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Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).

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