Better than ever

Marja-Leena Pétas intends to aim at even greater international visibility. The warm, caring legacy of Mirjam Helin is a key element of the ‘Helin brand’.

Tired but immensely happy are words that admirably describe Marja-Leena Pétas, Executive Director of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition, as she looks back over the seventh Mirjam Helin Competition held in August 2014. This year, she feels, it was better than ever before. “We’ve had glowing reports from far and wide, from all over the world, via social media and by email. It’s very gratifying if a top jury member says it’s the world’s best singing competition,” she says. “Everything suggests that people got a lot from it.”

‘As Mirjam would have wished’ kept cropping up in conversation. And indeed, the profile created by its mother is what makes this competition so special. “It means it’s more than just a successful event. Mirjam’s spirit is visible in little things, to some extent in the underlying principles – warm-hearted, people-oriented yet aiming at the highest possible standard.”

Mirjam Helin specifically wanted the competition to be a meeting place for young singers in many ways. The warm, human touch is manifest in, for example, the accommodation in private homes, and the face-to-face feedback from members of the jury. For a young singer, this may be the highlight of the competition.

The competitors felt they were all treated with the same respect, regardless of how they placed. The various get-togethers and the organiser’s tender loving care were quite an experience for many. A competition is not about beating others; it’s a learning experience. “The competitors also appreciated the fact that failing to get through to the next round was not the end of the competition for them. Many stayed on to follow the subsequent rounds, and to take part in the masterclasses.”

Another attraction was the Singers’ Studio, introduced this year. Gustav Djupsjöbacka interviewed one member of the jury, star soprano Deborah Voigt, who talked about her life and answered questions from the audience. “I reckon the competitors got a lot from this,” says Marja-Leena Pétas. “Singers need to network, and opportunities to do so.”

A sports-festival atmosphere

The VII Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition was the crowning event of the 75th anniversary of the Finnish Cultural Foundation. It had, according to Marja-Leena Pétas, grown significantly since the previous competition in 2009. “You don’t need to be a sports fan to know how important the Olympics are,” she says.

The competition was seen and heard in many media and was on everybody’s lips – even those of people who don’t usually listen to classical music. “More and more people became aware of it, not just arts folk but just generally people who follow the news. Our basic message, that it is a major event of a high standard, has clearly etched itself on people’s minds,” she happily claims.

This is partly due to the various social media and the unusually strong presence of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle). The whole competition was streamed online, and both the Semifinals and the Final were televised live on the Yle Teema channel. “Yle also produced studio programmes on the spot during the intervals and while we were waiting for the results. So if they wanted to, listeners could drink up the Helin atmosphere all the time. We’re grateful to Yle for this. Compared with many other international competitions, we’re lucky here in Finland in that Yle is ready to give music competitions such wide coverage. Being featured in so many media has a cumulative effect that is growing all the time.”

Here at home in Finland, Marja-Leena Pétas has the feeling that the competition can hardly go on growing any more, so the answer is to look more abroad. The work put in since 2009 and this year’s competition, and particularly the network communications, clearly made the Mirjam Helin Competition better known outside Finland, but Marja-Leena Pétas reckons that more could still be done. “This means a lot of hard work, especially as the competition is held every five years.” By the next time, in 2019, she has visions of the Mirjam Helin Competition being even more firmly lodged in international awareness than it is at present.

Building an international brand nowadays relies to a great extent on the internet: social media and streaming are the keys to creating visibility and credibility, but so is personal PR. The Mirjam Helin Competition already stands as an example on the world music competition scene, as was evident at the meeting of the World Federation of International Music Competitions held in Geneva in October. “Our use of social media was considered exemplary, and many said they had borrowed ideas from us. This shows that we are capable of regeneration and that we represent the front line of international music competitions.”

One innovation that was eagerly taken up elsewhere was the Shadow Jury; like the Singers’ Studio, this was new this year. The idea of an independent jury of young professionals was first launched in Finland at the Paulo Cello Competition in 2013. “We wanted this Shadow Jury to open up new perspectives on singers’ performances, and to demonstrate that there is no single truth in a competition like this.”

The Shadow Jury ran a blog throughout the competition and took part in Yle broadcasts. It consisted of Jenni Lättilä (Chair, soprano), Ann-Marie Heino (mezzo-soprano), Petri Bäckström (tenor), Joonas Asikainen (baritone) and Juho Alakärppä (Lied pianist).

Croatia lights up on the Helin map

The Semifinals and Final were now held for the first time at the Helsinki Music Centre. Being a venue familiar to people outside Finland, it made the competition even more prestigious and the singers were able to give their Semifinals recitals at a first-rate hall. For the Final they were accompanied by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. The finalists also appeared in a concert with the Tampere Philharmonic. The competition thus grew steadily from round to round.

The number of singers from Ukraine (four) and Croatia (three) was quite a topic of conversation, especially as four of these singers went home with prizes. “This is not the first time our competition has made the international community aware of singers from Eastern Europe, Russia and Asia,” Marja-Leena Pétas points out.

As it did this time. One reason may be that financially, participation has been made as easy as possible. “Applicants don’t need to attend pre-selection auditions, and there is no entry fee. Added to which our competitors can, if they wish, get free accommodation here in Helsinki, a travel grant, and a daily allowance for the days on which they are competing. So even for someone from a humble background, the competition may be a supersonic springboard to international fame.”

There were singers from every corner of the globe at the pre-selection stage, but the winners all came from east of Helsinki. “Not all talented singers nowadays want to become professional artists, or to learn the varied repertoire required for the Mirjam Helin Competition. Singers from the East clearly have the passion to do this. They are prepared to work really hard for a career in singing,” says Marja-Leena Pétas. “Like Mirjam, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the future development and careers of our competitors.”

Text: Auli Särkiö
Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Photos: Heikki Tuuli