I finally made it to Savonlinna. Five young women from England wanted to know what I was wearing. Thankfully nobody at the opera festival cared.

A decade ago, relatively inexperienced and hungry for work, I was asked to interview the outgoing Artistic Director of Finland’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. It was an external commission from a client I wanted to please. I made noises over email to obscure the fact I hadn’t actually been to Savonlinna (though I didn’t lie). After many hours of preparatory research, it felt like I had.

Now, I actually have. Last week, on 6 July, I was dumped abruptly near Savonlinna by a non-liveried Saab 340, one of only five passengers on board. Having topped up that research of a decade ago and re-read the interview transcript, the place was pretty much as I’d been picturing it. Perhaps there was a touch more of both the idyllic (the castle and coast) and the drab (the city) about it. Beyond that, it simply felt magnificent to be back in in Finland – as it always does. That’s a feeling I have never quite managed to rationalise.

Medieval Castle opera in Finland is a far cry from Country House opera in England. Nobody cares what you’re wearing. The auditorium is huge – the capacity approaches that of the Royal Festival Hall – and attention is rapt. In an interview two hours after I arrived, current Artistic Director Ville Matvejeff asserted that Savonlinna sees itself as the most prestigious opera stage in the country. It has the advantage (over the Finnish National Opera) of a short one-month summer run to be able to book stars – one usually tops the bill each year, Lisette Oropesa for 2023 – and employ a colossal chorus of 72. My interview with Matvejeff, with words from others and an analysis of where Savonlinna sits 111 years on from the first operatic performance inside the castle, will run in a future issue of Opera Now.

On my second day in Savonlinna, I was swallowed-up by a group of five British wellness and travel journalists. They were on a Visit Finland-sponsored press trip staying at Pihlas Resort – a high-end ‘eco-luxury’ spa and hotel in the Lakeland area of Saimaa, about an hour’s drive from Savonlinna.

With the festival’s Head of Communications, Sonja, I met these five women off a minibus. Sonja then proceeded to give us a backstage tour of the castle that hosts the opera, Olavinlinna (‘backstage’ = the bits of the castle sufficiently free of the general public to be crammed with the apparatus required for large-scale opera). Next we climbed aboard an elegant double-decked steamboat, which padded around Finland’s biggest lake as we were served savoury tapas and Aperol. Three hours later the boat dropped us at a concealed jetty at the back of the castle-island, from which we could sneak into the auditorium/courtyard via the orchestra pit, and take our seats.

It was a breath of fresh air, on the boat, to listen to these journalists from my homeland (and Sonja) – marooned as I am in northern European climes where social conventions and conversational rhythms are so different.

Then, a short way into the boat trip, it started – a familiar trope. ‘We’ve decided: we’re all moving to Finland,’ one of the women proffered, to general good-humoured agreement. ‘I feel my whole body has kind of gone down a few gears…like I can breath again,’ said another, who had made the journey from Fulham (she actually said this happened the moment she was embraced by the cool white-grey of a Finnair cabin on the tarmac at Heathrow).

This took me back to my first extended visit to Finland in 2007, when I tramped heavy-hearted back to London from Kuhmo, absolutely convinced that the only reasonable course of action to reclaim what looked like a grim future was to lay foundations for a permanent move to Finland.

Part of that is the buzz of a press trip, when you’re working without working (not something that’s possible these days – not for me, at least). Part of it was the obvious effect of Finland’s flat lakes and forests, its ever-present horizon. Much of it, I suspect, was the realisation, among these five young women, that the Finns they were encountering lived their lives in a way that contrasted hugely with daily grind in London, Birmingham and elsewhere.

Is the ‘lets’s move to Finland’ line a figure of speech, an impossible dream, or a rational and realisable objective? After Brexit and the pandemic, it’s demonstrably harder than before. But it was a tough enough proposition for a single British man, and even more a single British woman, back in 2007 – or even in 2015, when I made the move to Copenhagen. ‘Have you found it difficult to integrate in Denmark?’ Sonja asked me on my first night in Savonlinna. I took a while to answer before conceding that yes, on balance I have, but that the circumstances mean those difficulties haven’t affected me all that markedly. Settling in Finland, with a language that bit harder to master, a climate that bit more brutal and a capital city that bit further off the beaten track, would be a very different proposition. Still, I know brave people – including two from London – who have done it.

I often wonder why more people don’t move to countries with which they feel attuned, to which they feel more politically aligned, and whose creative optimism or pervasiveness they find more inspiring. One of the Savonlinna women had, indeed, moved to Paris from England and made a career there. Who hasn’t dreamed of living in Paris? She’d actually done it.

Another of the women was wise enough to notice that the experience they were being shown at Pihlas was far from everyday reality, even for the Finns who work there. And yet, I know from talking to them – a diverse group, but an educated and worldly one – that they saw the gulf that exists between the way life works in Finland and the way it works in England (and France). I reassured them that yes, this is really the case, even in an increasingly globalised Helsinki (and even in Copenhagen).

Then, opera. The women had been told I was an opera specialist, and their journalistic inquisition led them to prod me gently for insights. I found this no less awkward than when, around the boat’s dining table, we were each encouraged to present our chosen outfit for the day garment-by-garment from shoes up, explaining which brands we were wearing (they let me off lightly).

The reason for my discomfort on the opera front wasn’t self-deprecating or shy – I don’t mind talking about things I’m familiar with and have opinions on. More, I didn’t want to skew their own natural responses and was fascinated by their reaction to large-scale opera, as a bunch of curious people with almost no experience of it (only one had been to an opera before). What a privilege, in these times when opera is facing such a crisis of cultural and social identity, to watch one with four perceptive people who had never done so before.

Amy Lane’s production of Roméo et Juliette at Savonlinna (Jussi Silvennoinen)

I might get around to writing about that for Opera Now too. If I do, the despatch will include the young journalist from Sutton Coldfield who, on my immediate right for the performance, groaned and wept her way through Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and just wanted to hug someone, anyone, when it was over – suggesting that, yes, opera still holds some power even for a generation used to quicker fixes (but who, like all of us, know the ending to this particular opera before it’s started). In the meantime, I’ll be filing my visit to Savonlinna away with plenty of other little trips to Finland that have proved, somehow, far more provocative and life-affirming than the sum of their parts.