In the early 1960s an opera course was introduced at the Savonlinna Music Days founded by Yrjö Kilpinen in 1955. Some of the teachers came from Central Europe. It was then that Viennese Kammersänger Peter Klein hit on the idea of using Olavinlinna Castle as the stage for the course’s final concert.
Three local enthusiasts – Viljo Virtanen, Pentti Savolainen and Pertti Mutka – were eager to enlarge on Klein’s ideas on an even grander scale. Why not revive the opera festival started by Aino Ackté? With considerable support from the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) in the form of an orchestra, the festival was indeed re-launched in 1967 after some years’ planning. Seated in the audience at the premiere of Beethoven’s Fidelio were the Finnish President, Urho Kekkonen, Government Ministers and Members of Parliament. The performance was recorded and shown on television later that year. “There were lots of people at the festival, dairymaids from Kokonsaari, fishermen from Puruvesi and diplomats from Helsinki.”
The only access to the castle in those early years was by boat, and in the absence of any kind of roof in the castle courtyard, the performances were at the mercy of the elements. The watered-down performance of Fidelio in the wet summer of 1968 was recalled for years to come.
After that first summer, two operas were staged each season. Partnerships were forged with, among others, the Tampere Workers’ Theatre, which brought along spoken drama to supplement the opera programme.
Getting to and from the opera was made considerably easier when a bridge was built across the channel separating the castle from the mainland, in the late 1960s. This was a temporary bridge for the duration of the festival.
In 1970 a “modern” Finnish opera was added to the repertoire alongside the classics of the early years. This was Aarre Merikanto’s Juha; it had never before been performed in the manner it deserved, even though Aino Ackté had commissioned it back in 1919. Hendrik Krumm, cast in the role of Shemeikka, was the first foreign soloist to sing on the Olavinlinna stage.
The festival’s finances veered from challenging to catastrophic – by the beginning of the 1970s the latter. The 1972 festival was not able to stage a single production of its own. The day was saved by the Grand Theatre from Lódž in Poland.
Martti Talvela was elected chairman of the artistic committee of the new, nation-wide Opera Festival Patrons’ Association in 1972 and, being a man of great vision, took major steps to develop the festival.
Drawing on his network of contacts, Talvela was able to engage the services of renowned international opera makers, soloists for his concerts, and conductors. His basic policy was nevertheless to use Finnish soloists for his operas whenever possible.
The premiere of The Magic Flute in 1973 was a tremendous success, a triumph for Finnish opera singing and playing, though the stage director and designer, August Everding and Toni Businger, were from Central Europe. The production that summer was (possibly?) unique in that it saw three great Finnish basses, stars of the New York Metropolitan Martti Talvela, Kim Borg and Matti Salminen, all on stage at the same time. That summer, for the first time, the castle courtyard was partially protected from the rain.
There were two operas on the programme for 1974, and three for 1975; three later became the “norm”. The festival season stretched from one week in 1973 to three in 1979. More Opera Festival concerts began to be held in and around Savonlinna. Thus the big wooden church at Kerimäki became a regular venue for large-scale choral and orchestral concerts.
Training for young opera makers was a major theme for Martti Talvela. The aim of the Timo Mustakallio Competition held for the first time in 1974 was to seek out excellent new Finnish singers.
More and more the festival began attracting attention in the international media. One reason was the addition to the repertoire of new Finnish operas: The Horseman in 1975 (on the 500th anniversary of Olavinlinna Castle) and The Last Temptations in 1977.
In 1979 the festival was given a strong international focus. Verdi’s Don Carlos was produced with two solo ensembles, one of which sang in the opera’s original language. Until then, all the non-Finnish operas had been sung in Finnish translation. In other respects, too, Don Carlos was a spectacular production, with splendid costumes and sets such as had never before been seen on the castle stage. That year the simple wooden benches without backrests were replaced by seats with backs, assuring the audience a far more comfortable evening. By the end of the decade the entire castle courtyard was covered by a rain awning and the weather no longer determined whether or not the show could go on.