A Finnish-American Opera with Global Perspective

Elk and image of chernobyl site

USC Thornton School of Music and Uniarts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy collaborate on world-premiere opera All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story.

On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant released alarming levels of radiation far beyond Ukraine, causing the worst global environmental disaster ever seen. “Chernobyl,” says American author and music scholar Glenda Dawn Goss, “embodies the fundamental conflicts of human existence: courage and cowardice, love and hate, past and future, life and death.” In this story, she found inspiration for a new opera.

All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story, with music by Finnish composer Uljas Pulkkis and a libretto by Goss, will be produced as a collaboration between the USC Thornton School of Music and Uniarts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy in Finland. Students from both institutions will perform at the world premiere at the Helsinki Music Centre on March 26, 2021, and the American premiere at USC’s Bing Theatre on April 21, 2021.

Glenda Goss

Glenda Dawn Goss, American author and the opera’s librettist. (Photo: Beth Thompson Photography)

“Language alone can only partially convey the depth and poignancy, the ironies and losses, the heights and depths of Chernobyl’s real-life heroes and anti-heroes,” says Goss, who is an adjunct professor at the Sibelius Academy. “I believe that by combining language with the musical, theatrical and visual dimensions of opera, we may perhaps come closest to communicating ‘all the truths we cannot see’ in this heart-rending story that should concern us all.”

The opera will be directed by Professor Ken Cazan from USC Thornton and Professor of Opera Markus Lehtinen from the Sibelius Academy is the Music Director. Lehtinen and Associate Professor of Opera Brent McMunn from USC Thornton will conduct. The creative team also includes set and lighting designer David Jacques, costumer designer Pia Lasonen and projections designer Sean Cawelti.

The production will feature four named principal and five multiple-role singers and will be double cast with students from USC Thornton and the Sibelius Academy. USC Thornton talent include: Victoria Lawal (Svitlana Fedorova), Daniel Fields (Maksym Smirnov), Natalie Sheppard (Allura Ivanova), JeHoon Chung (Borys Slykovitch) and Sunwoo Park (Bear).

“It is exciting for two of the world’s leading music schools to cooperate on a production of such musical, political and social importance,” says Dean Robert Cutietta of the USC Thornton School of Music. “The event this opera explores had international implications and happened before most of our current students were born. This collaborative project has the potential to make a life-changing impact on our students and audiences. Working in international partnership will amplify that message.”

Feelings Past the Facts

The radioactivity from the Chernobyl accident was estimated at 400 times the levels unleashed in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the Soviet Union kept quiet about the accident, Sweden and Finland were among the first to register the toxic radioactive count.

“The global spread of radioactive emissions led the Germany Green Party to invent the slogan “Chernobyl ist Überall (Chernobyl Is Everywhere),” Goss says. “A colossal disaster of this magnitude, which affected entire nations and altered the course of history, cried out for the spilling of feelings past the facts that opera affords.”

“It’s a very intense, very exciting story line. As the piece moves on, it gets faster and faster and more frenzied,” says Cazan. And with its references to environmental disasters, survival and incompetent leaders, the opera is “incredibly timely.” “It invariably happens that art anticipates reality.”

A ‘Challenging and Fascinating’ Production

Cazan says the production is both “uniquely challenging and fascinating” because of the elements of fantasy and mythology. “We have singing animals, and one of the main characters is a female brown bear,” he says.

Animals and nature feature prominently in the story. “Nature was both one of the biggest losers and one of the few winners in the Chernobyl story,” Goss says, “Although there was widespread destruction of waters, woodlands and animals, with the evacuation of humankind from the area much of the wildlife in the Evacuation Zone has begun to flourish to the point that the zone has become something of a wildlife refuge.

Embracing an eco-conscious view, the production will use as much recycled material as possible both in costumes and stage settings.

In place of a large physical set, Cawelti’s video projections will cover a multitude of panels of differing sizes and materials. Projections — an approach to set design popular with many professional opera houses — will create the control room of the power plant and make other fantastical elements possible. “There are firemen and soldiers that melt — you can’t do that on stage, not on a university budget,” says Cazan, who worked with Cawelti, theater and opera director at Rogue Artists Ensemble, on a production of Billy Budd last summer. “His projection work is exceptional, and he is a director too, so he gets into it from an emotional perspective as well.”

With the visual aspects already in the works, Cazan can focus on the libretto and the student talent delivering it. “We can really concentrate on the human situation going on, the absolute panic of the people in the control room when the disaster takes place,” he says. “For me as a director, it’s all about the human beings on stage and their relationships and the stories they are telling.”

Composing a ‘Collection of Emotions’ 

A well-known composer and current doctoral student at the Sibelius Academy, Pulkkis says he has tried for most of his 25-year career to apply mathematics to music without compromising the emotional impact. “Opera music is the ultimate challenge,” he says, “since opera can be thought about almost purely as a collection of emotions.”

Uljas Pulkkis

Finnish composer Uljas Pulkkis.

Harmonically, his biggest influence is the French spectral school, “the guys from the ’70s who tried to mimic synthesizers with the orchestra.” “My idiom is sound that fills the hall,” Pulkkis says. “For this opera, I have created a new tool to create a big sound from the singers: a computer program that calculates the thickest (biggest sounding) orchestration that can be used for each singer without the voice being masked by the orchestra.”

Pulkkis learned about musical drama from Italian verismo. While his music does not sound like Puccini’s, the musical interactions between characters are Puccini-like. “This is relatively new to my music, but All the Truths is already my fifth opera, if I count my dramatized cantatas,” he says. “I could say that the dramatic timing in All the Truths is inherited from ‘La Rondine.’ In that opera, there is a wide variety of textures from lieder with piano accompaniment to full dramatic orchestration, all timed perfectly.”

Lehtinen, music director for the Sibelius Academy’s 30-musician orchestra, described Pulkkis’ composition style as distinctive and bold. “He is not afraid of combining different styles; of using understandable harmonies; of using different speeds, sometimes changing quickly to next mood; of painting sometimes long lines, and by that, stretching the feeling of duration; and of using very colourful orchestration.”

An Opportunity for Students and Opera Alike

This artistic collaboration came about thanks to an ongoing partnership between USC Thornton and the Sibelius Academy who regularly send students to study at each other’s institutions and are members of ConNext, an elite consortium of ten international conservatories based in Belgium.

“When a unique opportunity like this comes along, you have to grab the bull by the horns and go for it,” Cazan says. “I’m excited for my students and thrilled that a number of them will perform principal roles in Finland. The kids are ecstatic because before they graduate they will have an international credit.”

“Surely we can talk for ages about the necessity of international projects and about the importance of collaborations,” says Lehtinen. “For me the themes and questions we are dealing with in this opera make this project much more important than a normal co-production. The fact that students can be involved with the creative process also makes this process unique.”

Lehtinen believes All the Truths is everything opera should be. “We are creating something new, expressing fresh thoughts and deep emotions in a new piece which is about our life, about the world we are living in,” he says. “This is how we can keep the great form of art called opera alive.”

Learn more about All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story on the production’s website.