Dispatches From Helsinki: A USC Thornton Opera Blog

USC Thornton School of Music opera students outside the main building of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland
USC Thornton School of Music opera students outside the main building of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland. (Photos by Lorenzo Zapata; Illustration by Sean David Christensen)

Join Argentine-American baritone and USC Thornton master’s student Lorenzo Zapata each week as he chronicles the labor and love required to prepare for his role as Slykovitch in All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story, the new opera created in partnership between the USC Thornton School of Music and Uniarts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy. All The Truths, which explores the social and environmental impact of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s explosion on April 26, 1986, premieres in Helsinki, Finland on March 15, with an American premiere at the USC Bing Theatre April 21-24. Zapata and a group of USC Thornton students traveled to Helsinki along with Ken Cazan, the resident stage director of the USC Thornton Opera program. Zapata will chronicle the preparations for the premiere in Finland before the ensemble of students and faculty from both schools travel to Los Angeles for the American premiere.


Far Finnish Travelers:
An Interview with Our Sibelius Castmates
By Lorenzo Zapata
April 13th, 2022

(From left to right) Sibelius Academy students Iris Candelaria and Olivia Kyllönen join in laughter with Lorenzo Zapata in front of USC’s Bing Theatre on the campus of USC Thornton. (Photo by Sean David Christensen.)

Hello, readers! I’m thrilled to say that after almost three years of waiting, our fabulous Finnish colleagues have finally arrived in our sunny LA home! After recovering from jetlag, they’ve joined rehearsals and hit the ground running (and sure, maybe they’ve hit the beach for tanning a bit, too.) I’m so very excited to introduce you to two of my colleagues and good friends, Iris Candelaria and Olivia Kyllönen, who are both in their third and final year of the master’s degree program at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland. They were kind enough to join us for a short interview while catching the sun’s rays on the Ramo lawn, part of USC Thornton’s campus.

Lorenzo: Hey, y’all! Thanks for doing this with us today. So, tell us a little bit about your characters.

Olivia: I’m playing the role of Allura, the director of the Chernobyl plant and quite a complex character. She’s someone who’s experienced a lot of trauma in her childhood, which has molded her into a rather emotionless and stiff person. Now that she is in a position of power, she seems to wield that power to demonstrate the control she has over people, though she demonstrates some moments of vulnerability, like cracks in her strong-minded façade. I think the challenge with her has been to not bring forth a one-dimensional villain, but to relay the background and pain of her past.

Iris: And I’m the bear, the coloratura bear! My character serves as the narrator of the show, similar to a Greek chorus. She is the queen of the forest and of the other animal characters who tells this story of human versus nature, a kind of commentary on how humans destroy nature, specifically in Chernobyl but also broadly, and also gives a literal voice to the animals who suffered tremendously from this catastrophe.

Lorenzo: Intense characters for you both! So pivoting a bit, what has stood out to you during your visit so far in LA? Anything surprising or particularly beautiful?

Olivia: Palm trees! (All laugh.) It’s kind of funny, but whenever I see a palm tree here, I just have to point it out! It’s just so exotic!

Iris: It’s true! The weather has obviously been amazing, especially considering the fact that it was snowing when we left, but I’ve also noticed the cultural differences between us. You all [Los Angelenos] are so good at meeting people and small talk, and it’s so fun because each little interaction is so high-energy and friendly. By contrast, when you meet people in Finland it’s more like, “hi” then “bye.” Like today, I was walking around here and someone across campus just shouted “I love your sweater!” It was so sweet!

Iris Candelaria (center) performs as Bear: “I’m the bear, the coloratura bear! My character serves as the narrator of the show, similar to a Greek chorus.”
(Photo courtesy of Uniarts Helsinki Sibelius Academy.)
Olivia Kyllönen performs as Allura: “I think the challenge with her has been to not bring forth a one-dimensional villain, but to relay the background and pain of her past.”
(Photo courtesy of Uniarts Helsinki Sibelius Academy.)

I might add, dear readers, I’ve found that the Finns tend to refer to their more reserved, sometimes self-described “cold” nature. And while they have a respect for personal space and quiet, what they don’t often say is that they are the most generous and kind-hearted people who give of themselves to whatever extent is needed. They also carry this consistent ease and calm energy that is infectious and relaxing moreso than cold, at least from my and the other Fab Five’s experience while in Finland. Clearly, they are a humble bunch.

Lorenzo: You’ve been preparing this show for years. What do you hope someone might take away or learn after seeing a performance of All the Truths?

Olivia: I would say, because of how the animals are given a voice, I’d hope they would leave thinking more broadly about the environment.

Iris: Right, and what we humans can do to actively protect nature as well as what we can do to fix the many mistakes we’ve made in damaging the environment. But I’d like people to also expand this more practically, like considering nature when thinking about who you vote for and their actions with environmental law. This opera has also obviously made me think a lot about how we’re in the middle of a war in Europe, especially with this story being about Ukraine and Chernobyl, and the impact of this kind of art during a painful but historic global event happening right now.

Lorenzo: Absolutely. The relevancy of this work is stunning and seems to only further inform our pursuit of these characters. Thank you both so much for sharing with us, and I can’t wait for your US debut!


Showtime in Helsinki: The Show Must Go On
By Lorenzo Zapata
April 8th, 2022

USC Thornton School of Music Vocal Arts & Opera students perform as woodland creatures in All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story on stage at Uniarts Helsinki – Sibelius Academy in March of 2022. (Photo courtesy of Uniarts Helsinki – Sibelius Academy.)

Hello, readers. It’s been some weeks since we’ve checked in, and what a few weeks it has been. I wish I could tell you the performance run in Helsinki went on as expected, with no surprises or hurdles to be seen. I wish it was only a continuation of our seamless rehearsal process. I wish I even had the imagination to make up what happened instead, as it became this comical series of hoops to leap through right at the finish line. Despite this, our show run was one of the most brilliant examples of ensemble effort and absolute class I’ve ever seen, the embodiment of the phrase “the show must go on.”

Premiere night went off with a bang despite the unfortunate news that two of our USC crew tested positive for COVID-19 several days before. Fortunately, their double-cast partners were available, and we continued to test daily and determined the overall safety of the show. With consensus and determination among the cast and crew, we chose to drive forward. The Sibelius cast (and overall institute) had been waiting to perform this work for three years, as it was originally scheduled at the start of the pandemic. It’s worth acknowledging the obvious shift in COVID-19 protocol occurring globally, with new factors such as vaccinations and shorter infection periods that allow professional companies to now carry on with minimal infections popping up when they would have canceled entire productions with one positive case just last year. 

The day after we open, the next cast is preparing themselves for their premiere that evening when we all receive word that two more crew members have tested positive. The production staff regrettably determines that we must cancel the performance of night #2 and test for several days in order to contain infection. Fast forward to three days later, the morning of our next scheduled show. We receive confirmation that two more cast members have confirmed positive tests with the rest maintaining negative results, but this time, the characters were not double-cast.

Last minute, it is determined that we will employ a not-so-rarely used tactic in opera when the lead is ill: having the understudy sing the music from a music stand set on the far edge of the stage while the co-director performs the character’s staging, often mouthing the words. But, there are a couple problems. These characters did not have musical understudies, and our co-director, despite her enormous talent, cannot perform multiple characters at once. So, the morning of the show, several double-cast singers, originally not performing that night, are tasked with either learning a character’s music or their entire staging, both herculean feats with hours’ notice. It’ll take the combined efforts of four individuals, myself included, to fill the shoes of these characters, but in theory, the plan is set. 

In the hours before the show, a time when meditative singers usually prepare to run their very rehearsed show, a flurry of individuals are now being fit to their colleagues’ costumes with whatever pins necessary, weaving around each other to drill the staging of multiple scenes at once and learning how to use multiple props for the first time. There is no time for nerves, only extreme focus and retention. It is thrilling to say the least, and it’s showtime. 

(From left to right) USC Thornton students Lorenzo Zapata as Borys Slykovitch and Christine Marie Li as Allura Ivanova in All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story.
(Photo courtesy of Uniarts Helsinki – Sibelius Academy.)

The performance starts off without a hitch, and despite the inherent anxiety, I’m having a blast working the staging for my colleague who actually performs four different characters: a hare, a plant operator, town crier and soldier. 

Everything is smooth sailing until the final scene in Act I when my soldier character gets kicked over, as is staged, but I drop the metal helmet, which bounces back and smacks me on the chin – not staged. As our characters run offstage, I quickly notice the throbbing of my face and the blood on my hand after touching under my jaw. I’m quickly seen by a medic on staff, and though the gash is small, its position under the chin and its size mean I need stitches, if only two. Despite my begging to go to the hospital once the show is over, our producer holds my health and safety first and calls me a cab to the hospital immediately. Thank goodness for expedient Finnish health care and a hospital five minutes away from the theater, where a kind doctor in horn-rimmed glasses swiftly glues my chin shut and hands me an aftercare pamphlet as we bolt for a cab back to the theater just as intermission is finishing. I quickly change back into costume and manage to rejoin the fun as we finish the show with the greatest adrenaline rush in history. 

The audience thoroughly enjoyed the show, but for the first time, that doesn’t matter as much to us. The cheers that erupt among us as we gather in the dressing rooms are deafening and serve as an expression of our collective love and gratitude for everyone in that room. Relief washes over us in the form of happy tears and hysterical giggles. As our producer aptly stated, “Not even a professional company could have pulled that together so last-minute, and you all displayed the greatest camaraderie I’ve ever seen!” That night, though I did not sing and received impromptu medical attention, was one of the most fulfilling and informative performances I’ve ever experienced. I’m beyond grateful to be a part of this astounding group of artists who so clearly understand the inherent mission of what we do, to create something together. 

USC Thornton School of Music Vocal Arts & Opera students perform on stage at Uniarts Helsinki – Sibelius Academy in March of 2022.
(Photo courtesy of Uniarts Helsinki – Sibelius Academy.)

Double-Duty Casts and Message for Ukraine
By Lorenzo Zapata
March 9th, 2022

Sibelius Academy and USC Thornton students rehearse the Act 1 finale. (Left to right) Elizabet Petsalo, Christine Li, Stella Tähtinen, Krishna Raman, Luke Scott, Maria Turunen, Jasper Leppänen. (Photo by Lorenzo Zapata.)

We watch from the audience as the full cast holds their final positions and our director Ken Cazan counts a 10-second blackout, marking the end of another successful rehearsal run-through. One of the many benefits of being double-cast is the ability to watch your counterpart move through your own staging, reminding you of your mistakes from the last rehearsal and literally providing a new perspective on your character. Beyond the practicality of rehearsing, having twice as many castmates has been invaluable in helping each of us navigate the emotions brought on by the war in Ukraine. The way our production’s subject matter – Chernobyl, Ukraine and Russia, man’s quest for dominance – continues to become increasingly intertwined with the global conflict each day has made this experience surreal beyond imagination.

Thankfully, our Sibelius colleagues have become our family in a profound sense, and much like family should, they hold us when we need, as we strive to do for them. It is also a unique perspective to hear from them as Finnish natives and residents discussing the global conflict and ways in which we can support relief causes. I plan to introduce you to our beautiful, new family over the next few weeks, and I’ll start this week by including an insert we’ll be providing in our show program. This message was primarily penned by Luke Scott, my Sibelius double-cast partner and long-lost brother. A collaboration from all of our cast, it aims to address the conflict in Ukraine:

“To create art, whatever your artistic medium may be, is an exercise in expressing oneself. In our medium of opera, not just one voice is heard, but many. From the musicians to the singers and production team, many voices come together to communicate a message. In order to permit this type of communication, a safe and free environment must be upheld. We thank Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki and the USC Thornton School of Music for supporting our voices being heard. As students and artists, we come from all over the world and different walks of life to these institutions. In their halls, we create and express ourselves freely and thus inspire a kaleidoscope of art.

In our production of Uljas Pulkkis and Glenda Goss’ opera All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story, we discuss the delicate and complicated subject of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown. This horror caused by man’s thirst for power affected the very being of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian land and nature itself. As a production, we have collectively joined our voices to highlight the wake of destruction caused by man’s quest for control.

Little did we know, when we first started to learn this piece two years ago, that on Thursday, February 24, 2022, we would wake in horror to the unlawful invasion of Ukraine. We would witness man’s crazed quest for power undo the freedoms of their fellow man and leave in their wake destruction once more. This darkened day reaffirmed the need for us as a production to express the subject of our opera.

Thus, we join our voices as artists collectively once more to condemn the unjust invasion of Ukraine and the damage it has and will cause to innocent lives. We wish for peace, and we will support the people of Ukraine in the ways in which we can. For they deserve to live, to express themselves and let their voices be heard without fear. We wish this freedom to be given to Ukraine, so that they can continue to flourish once more.”

A winter sunset in Helsinki. (Photo by Lorenzo Zapata.)

The Power of Art: Telling and Creating Stories in The Face of War
By Lorenzo Zapata
March 4th, 2022

Hello, dear readers. To all of you who have been tuning into my weekly slice of life, I want to say, thank you. Oftentimes, I feel like I am using this blog as an opportunity to focus myself on the beautiful and positive aspects of this incredible opportunity I’ve been privileged with. The reality is that a huge journey requiring some serious transitioning is not always easy, but since those challenges are simply part of change, it is important to channel your energy toward the blessings within a given experience – to one’s benefit! My struggles adjusting to life in Helsinki upon arrival were important to deal with, but they were fortunately temporary and faded after embracing the local beauty. This week was a different story, presenting a struggle that reverberated throughout everyone’s lives to varying degrees and was by no means temporary.

I would be remiss if I did not talk about recent international events, namely the violent and senseless actions from Russia’s leadership with the invasion of Ukraine. I can’t quite sense what the experience may currently be like in the US, but in Finland, a bordering country to Russia and one with a historically war-ridden relationship of conflict, these brutal actions are readily sensed, and they palpably affected morale throughout the nation. This toxic air of war also seeped into our sacred place of art and rehearsal. Our rehearsals are part of a process that allows us to suspend reality, where we can be free to explore feelings beyond this world, and that process felt like it was yanked from the stars and smashed into the ugliest and most heinous parts of humanity. Our story of Chernobyl – conflicts of power with man’s ego costing human lives – suddenly felt all too real, too raw, and no longer in the past. With Russia’s recent reclaiming of Chernobyl, tanks stirring contaminated soil and raising radiation levels, our story no longer feels like a forewarning of what may come again, but of what is happening as we speak.

The community of Helsinki protest the invasion of Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy.

As the world began realizing what was truly happening, our opera leadership, Ken Cazan and Markus Lehtinen, began rehearsal by addressing our concerns and offering words of comfort. During the discussion, ideas of how we could put out a message of solidarity with Ukraine in our program/supertitles, use of our ticket sales for war-relief funds and others were discussed. Perhaps the most pertinent discussion, though, was in regard to our attitudes and energy with this production. After Ken acknowledged our somberness, he fiercely (and rightfully) reminded us of our duty and true power as artists. As living conduits of art, it’s our responsibility to tell the stories that instill change, that remind everyone of the past so that we can learn from our mistakes. Theoretically, one could learn the facts from a history book, but art takes history and fuses it with emotion, the most powerful teacher we humans possess. It’s hard at times to inhabit a character’s pain who was once real, but in doing so, reminding others of the past’s suffering may keep it just there, in the past. The way we sang a full run-through that night, so far out from the premiere, was admirable, but not more so to me than how we sang with abandon of our singer egos, channeling our world’s history, creating something powerful with the world’s pain and our own sadness. 

“As living conduits of art, it’s our responsibility to tell the stories that instill change, that remind everyone of the past so that we can learn from our mistakes.” – Lorenzo Zapata; Final look from a full run-through of All the Truths with full company.
Thousands take to the senate steps in Helsinki to protest the invasion of Ukraine.

I felt renewed and reconnected by these rehearsals, by my beautiful, shining, brilliant colleagues and friends. I also had the immense privilege to join Helsinki in protest over the weekend. Creating yet again, SibA students organized a chorale setting of “Terve Ukraina!,” a poem written over 100 years ago, ringing out too true and relevant today. To see everyone out in the streets of Helsinki, across the world, speaking out against these acts was the brightest light of all to illuminate the darkness of the week. These events are far from over, dear reader, but if you are feeling helpless and overwhelmed, that is alright. I simply encourage you to accept those feelings, and use them however you can. Do not fall inward, but lean into your fellow beings. Do not pity, but give of yourself in any way: protest, donate, create awareness. This threat thrives on despair and is weakened by community and unified resilience. Be grateful for your life, and always work to protect those of others. Share what you have, so our lives that are so worth living may continue to be so. Thank you and until next time, be safe, be grateful and live well.


“Staging Strategies and Helsinki Hockey”
by Lorenzo Zapata
February 23rd, 2022

Hei rakkaat lukijat! (Hello, dear readers!) I can hardly believe we are already halfway through our journey in Finland! As you can probably tell, I’ve been working on my Finnish. I’m far from fluent, but it’s always fun to add another few phrases in a new language to my tool belt. Fortunately for my limited skills, everyone in Finland speaks beautiful English – a blessing for those (including myself) hoping to navigate ordering coffee without inducing linguistic panic.

This week began with a wholesome gathering. Christine and Madeleine (of Fab Five fame) hosted the rest of our USC Thornton crew for a Sunday night dinner of delicious miso salmon with oven roasted vegetables. While we Fab Five – Krishna Raman, Madeleine Lew, Christine Marie Li, Lily Smith and I – spend plenty of time in the same rehearsal room, mostly being called at different times means we’re rarely all together in a casual setting. This chance to share a meal, discuss the week ahead and cackle about our experiences over the past few days is just what was needed before getting back to work. 

A delicious home-cooked meal with the USC Fab Five: (from left to right) Krishna Raman, Christine Li & Lily Smith.

This week, we began staging Act 2 of All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story, which includes larger ensemble numbers, naturally demanding busier staging. You might think that organizing 10 people, which includes assorted animals, a couple killers and a redeemable scientist, would be easy. On second thought, you probably don’t think that, and right you are! There are a lot of moving parts in these kinds of scenes that propel the story forward, and that’s even before putting the music back in with the staging. 

While working these scenes, one is obviously trying to find their character’s physicality and make it convincing, but one must also factor in the other characters’ placements. While I might be convinced with my movement choices, the way my decision visually works in conjunction with another character’s position on stage may contribute or potentially detract from the dramaturgy by shifting focus to the wrong place, unnecessarily distracting, etc. So, you adjust. This is why the director’s watchful eye is so important, but with so many moving pieces and the quick flow of rehearsals, the artist must be prepared to make occasional adjustments themselves. Having a double cast is so helpful for the chance to see your movements on another person from the audience perspective, which almost always yields new and different ideas!

Sibelius Opera Academy Music Director Markus Lehtinen conducts a rehearsal of Act 2.

While these have been a busy (and fulfilling) few days, I can hear your worries about if we’re having fun, dear and thoughtful reader. Fear not! The local hockey team had its first public match since restrictions had been partially lifted in the city, so the Fab Five (minus Christine, our busiest worker bee) took to the stunning stadium accompanied by Siba castmates Luke Scott, Jasper Leppänen and Tuomas Miettola. The energy from excited fans flowing in was electric, but the moment I cheered on my new favorite home team, we were scored on by the opposing visitors, who apparently sensed my optimism. However, I did not lose faith, and after replenishing ourselves with a snack and beverage on the break, our team came back to score three consecutive goals, nabbing a fourth just before the final buzzer! Between the thrilling win and my belly full of concession nakkimuki (literally translates to “wieners in a cup”), I was feeling quite satisfied and full of Helsinki pride. 

Our busy and fun week also included some beautifully bright weather. With the sun setting later each day, we were treated to some absolutely stunning sunsets captured by our director, Ken Cazan. As the days grow slightly longer and warmer, our excitement grows as our premiere also draws nearer. Be sure to check in next week as our incredible set starts to take form and our costume fittings commence. In the meantime, take care and stay warm! Moikka! (Bye bye!)

From left to right: Krishna Raman and Lily Smith waiting to enter outside the first live hockey match of the year; A stunning sunset captured at the end of a sunny winter day in Helsinki; Snapping a rehearsal selfie of the Allura/Slykovitch duos with Luke Scott (back), Olivia Kyllönen (left), Christine Li (right) and Lorenzo Zapata (front).


“Staging in Sibelius: Developing Three-Dimensional Characters”
by Lorenzo Zapata
February 16th, 2022

Two students walk through the city streets of Helsinki.
Christine Li and Jasper Leppännen take a stroll after an exercise class.

Welcome back, loyal readers, to week three of our adventures in Helsinki! This week was a busy one, as we began staging rehearsals for All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story, led by our director, Ken Cazan. Staging with Ken is always a blast, as his approach allows for plenty of spontaneity, really living in the moment with one’s character. Some directors come with strict, preconceived notions of each character and attempt to mold the artist to this vision – not Ken. 

During the previous week’s retreat, one of our workshops with Ken was dedicated to character development. Ken chose not to explain our characters to us – he listened and took notes on our concepts of who we imagine ourselves to be, often expecting a brief biography we have created for our understanding of the character. This approach is more effective, allowing us to take agency in finding who this person is in our bodies and minds. Ken contributed his affirmations and possible alternatives, compiling an idea of each character, which he then uses to inform his vision of these characters onstage. 

With this style of direction, there is tremendous freedom to explore the physical embodiment of who we are portraying, which is readily informed by a believable and thorough backstory. All this exploration takes place under the watchful eye of Ken, who, with a background as a performer as well as a director, has a mastery of physicality that most effectively translates the dramaturgy demanded of a scene. I really recommend having this approach when channeling a sociopathic murderer. (Spoiler alert!) 

I’ve enjoyed the process of developing a villain and trying to avoid the pitfalls of playing it two-dimensionally – think lightning in the background of a curled-smile, wide-eyed “muah-ha-ha” individual, all that jazz. I’ve spent the week looking for subtle movements, finding instances of Slykovitch’s too-believable sympathy that misleads the other characters and, ideally, the audience. While playing around in this role can be quite fun, it’s an experience to stare down your beloved colleagues with an intensity similar to a snake eyeing a tasty mouse before taking a 15-minute break for some water and a bit of chocolate provided by Maestro Markus. You have to love theater. 

Two cast members sit for an interview promoting a new opera to be premiered.
Luke Scott and Lorenzo Zapata sit for an interview as part of promotion for All the Truths We Cannot See.

Besides working on our individual scenes, it is so exciting to see the larger group scenes come together and a privilege to watch your friends create powerful moments of art. It is not lost on me the unbelievable reality that a year ago, I was plunking out notes to Pelleas et Melisande on my iPad in my room, preparing for a virtual rehearsal from home. Now, I am watching my colleagues work in real time at the Helsinki Music Center. It’s something I couldn’t have imagined then and couldn’t be more grateful for now. 

In addition to our rehearsals for the week, my double-cast villain buddy, Luke Scott, and I were interviewed as part of the promotional materials for Uniarts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy. The two “Allura’s” from the show, Christine Li (USC) and Olivia Kyllönen (Siba), were also interviewed. In the interview, we discussed the experience of premiering a new work, what it’s like for us to explore such a villainous character, and the larger themes of the show like climate change, true power and humanity’s fraught relationship with nature. The interview basically turned into a lovefest when the interviewer asked what Luke and I have learned from each other during this process. Truly, it is a joyful experience to share this character with such a gracious and collaborative partner as he. 

First of three pictures showing a rehearsal taking place onstage indoors
Second of three pictures showing a rehearsal taking place onstage indoors
Third of three pictures shows two students sitting on the floor looking at a rehearsal taking place onstage indoors

(From left to right) Madeleine Lew watches her colleagues rehearse staging for Act 1; Ken Cazan (seated – left), director, and Markus Lehtinen (standing – right), conductor, lead staging rehearsals; Lily Smith and Krishna Raman watch their castmates rehearse staging.

In addition to the excitement of these rehearsals, there is more cause for gratitude. Dear readers, we have had bright sunlight and clear skies for four consecutive days this week! A winter rarity in Finland! We enjoyed plenty of outdoor strolls. Christine Li and I also accompanied our new friend, Jasper Leppänen, to a cardio dance class, as gyms have recently reopened in the city. I wasn’t able to capture a photo of us in our post-class sweaty glory, but stay tuned and you may be luckier in the coming weeks!


“Retreat in The North: The Magical Kallio-Kuninkala”
by Lorenzo Zapata
February 9th, 2022

Student bundled up on an early morning bus ride
USC Thornton Vocal Arts & Opera student Lily Smith bundles up on the early morning bus ride to Kallio-Kuninkala.

Welcome back, loyal readers, to our second installment of USC Thornton’s Adventures in Helsinki! Our week begins with an early morning and, to no surprise, a snow storm. We and our Sibelius colleagues are picked up at 8 a.m. via bus for a weeklong retreat about an hour north of the city. Our destination is Kallio-Kuninkala, part of the Uniarts Helsinki campus and a beautiful, natural setting with multiple large, historic homes reserved for music-making activities and rest, which we achieved in abundance. As we are close to arriving, one of our Sibelius friends points out a dark and somewhat obscured home tucked behind some trees. We learn the home belonged to Jean Sibelius, Finland’s most notable composer, and that he used to spend many months here composing and journaling.

As the snow has settled and we arrive at our new home for the week, my USC colleagues and I – known as the Fab Five – know we are in for a treat. The surroundings look like something out of Santa’s backyard, and our music director, Markus Lehtinen, tells us it doesn’t always look so magical, and we are lucky to see the area in its wintry glory, thanks to a fresh snowfall. We all enjoy a quick coffee together in the dining room before we each seek out our respective rooms. Some begin their music coachings immediately. Some others, like yours truly, enjoy the initial break and take advantage of time to settle in and document the experience. 

As I type away and look out my window, I can’t help but indulge myself in feeling like Sibelius, surveying the landscape and looking for inspiration or respite in its frozen beauty. In a class last week that provided some information on the composer, we learned that he is often referred to as “stone” or being “like granite.” One can imagine, during a less picturesque week in the area, that the master drew his composure from his equally hardened surroundings, or perhaps he even felt more at home within them. These thoughts are punctured by my alarm, set to prepare for my afternoon coaching session.

The crew arrives at the Ylä-Kuninkala carrying luggage.
Three students pose for a picture in a beautiful snowy landscape.
A person is seen practicing on a grand indoors with a pendulum clock and window in the background.

(From left to right) The crew arrives outside the main building, Ylä-Kuninkala; Madeleine Lew, Lily Smith & Lorenzo Zapata share a smile shortly after arriving; Coach Kristian Attila sits at the piano just before beginning a coaching session with the singers.

The coachings we have are intense yet very encouraging. It is still so exciting to be working on this new music with our new colleagues, who continue to provide fresh and motivating ideas both musically and dramatically. We close the first day with a brief discussion led by our own Ken Cazan, stage director for All The Truths, on the important backstory of this opera, the disaster of Chernobyl and more specifically, the internal motives and mistakes that led to one of the greatest environmental catastrophes. After our cheery discussion, we all turn in for the night, enjoying a quick sauna session before doing so. 

Student works on a laptop indoors between rehearsals.
USC DMA student Christine Li works diligently on her TA duties between rehearsals.

In the morning, I help myself to the yummy-looking porridge that is described as “the magical porridge of Kunkula,” the nickname for our stay-cation. Afterwards, Ken leads us in a much-needed movement class where we stretch our chilly bodies and get reconnected with our instruments. For the rest of the day, I attend my scheduled coachings, again in awe of the area as I walk to and from the different buildings. I turn in early, due to my morning flight to see my sister get married in the US! I am only gone for a couple days and have wonderful colleagues to relay their experiences to me. 

In the last two days of the retreat, the Fab Five (minus one) continue their diligent work on the opera in their respective coachings and partake in the remaining workshops, which cover mindfulness, character exploration and animalistic movement for our furry characters. All the Siba (Sibelius) and USC students took to the snow one last time at Kunkula for a frosty nature excursion just in time for one last coffee before being whisked back to the city. 

I arrive one day later and reconnect with my cohort, catching up on missed events, the wedding and discussing the week to come. Speaking of, this coming week is an exciting one, as we begin our first staging rehearsals and shoot some promotional materials for All the Truths We Cannot See!


“Jet Lag and Jumbotrons: Early Moments in Helsinki”
by Lorenzo Zapata
February 2nd, 2022

The staff nurse at LAX asks me to lower my mask to have my nose swabbed for the third time this week – a necessary measure before boarding the flight to Helsinki, Finland, and one I’m well adjusted to as a USC Thornton School of Music master’s student. My colleagues and castmates in All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story and I each get tested, await our ultimately negative tests and successfully board our flight. We’re thrilled to find an overwhelmingly empty plane. We each stretch out over our additional seats and settle in for our 11-hour journey. 

Students pose for a casual pic on a 11-hour plane ride from LA to Helsinki.
Lorenzo Zapata and his classmates prepare for takeoff to Helsinki and the 11-hour flight ahead.

When we arrive, we quickly bundle up, preparing for the bracing Helsinki winter. The van that waits for us with our cheerful driver is soon failing to start in the ice and snow. We laugh at the comic nature of our arrival, our giggles no doubt informed by our delirious jetlag. A new van promptly arrives, and we’re whisked off to our new home of two months in the Töölö neighborhood of central Helsinki. In our rooms wait adorable welcome parcels courtesy of our colleagues from the Sibelius Academy, the first of many kind, welcoming gestures from them. It doesn’t take long for us to pass out from the exhaustion of our trip. 

On our first morning in Helsinki, we enjoyed our building’s complimentary breakfast. (I went with the yogurt and muesli.) Then, the Fab Five – Krishna Raman, Madeleine Lew, Christine Marie Li, Lily Smith and I – took to the city to explore the snowy streets of Helsinki and test our LA sensibilities against the local temperatures. Our mighty crew handled the outside quite well, and we even managed to explore each of the Sibelius Academy’s three main campus buildings before jet lag took over and we turned in for the day. On our trek, we managed to see a fabulous advertisement for All the Truths on the jumbotron outside Sibelius’s main building! 

Over the next two days, we each enjoyed the privilege of working with the opera staff at the Sibelius Academy, which afforded us a bit more security with this delicately difficult music. The many coaches and the music director/conductor, Markus Lehtinen, were each a delight to work with and provided us with many insights that we’d apply to our characters, just in time for run-throughs of the show.

During the following two days, we finally met the full Sibelius Academy cast and production staff. All came together for two full musical run-throughs of each act, with the brilliant coach, Kristian Attila, playing the orchestral reduction on piano along with Maestro Markus. The run-throughs felt very successful and put us on a steady track of progress for the weeks to come.

Two students are seen here with music stands in this first of three pictures showing a rehearsal taking place.
Students are seen onstage with music stands as a rehearsal takes place indoors onstage.
Two students are seen rehearsing with an instructor at the piano.

Led by music director & conductor Markus Lehtinen, USC Thornton opera students rehearse scenes from All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story in the main building of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

After our final run-through, we were able to connect with our new castmates outside rehearsal doors and get to know them just a bit more at their favorite local pub and restaurant. The fun didn’t end there, as we welcomed them back to our temporary homes to continue getting to know each other. The night ended with an obligatory trip down to our building’s sauna – not a luxury in Finland, but a common amenity! 

The weekend was full of rest and quiet score reviewing in preparation for our retreat this coming week at Kallio-Kuninkala, part of composer Jean Sibelius’ home and a beautiful stay for music-making and tranquility. One hiccup occurred this weekend when my friend and castmate (and temporary flat-mate) Lily and I took a trip to Helsinki’s famous Ateneum Museum and stopped for a warm drink, where I tragically lost my glasses. But fear not – this will not prevent me from seeing and reporting back on the next chapter of our fabulous adventures here in the capital of Finland! 

To the left of this collage of two pictures, students are seen having a meal on a table indoors. To the right, two students pose for a picture outdoors on the city streets of Heksinki.
(Left) Lorenzo Zapata and his Thornton castmates connect with students from the Sibelius Academy at a local pub and restaurant after rehearsals. (Right) Zapata and his flat-mate Lily visit Helsinki’s Ateneum Museum during a weekend of enjoying the sights and sounds of Helsinki.

Check back every Wednesday to read about Lorenzo’s and his USC Thornton classmates’ latest experiences in Helsinki!

Learn more about All the Truths We Cannot See

All the Truths We Cannot See

All the Truths We Cannot See: A Chernobyl Story, the new opera created in partnership between the USC Thornton School of Music and Uniarts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, premieres in the U.S. on April 21 at 8 p.m. in the USC Bing Theatre.

A Finnish-American Opera with Global Perspective

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.