A stylistic omnivore – In discussion with soprano Olga Heikkilä

3 May 2024

Olga Heikkilä, who competed in the 2014 Mirjam Helin Singing Competition, champions individuality in a singing world that tends to impose narrow categories on singers. In the fourth part of our blog series on lied music, Olga Heikkilä talks about versatility, expression, and the ways she has been challenging the stereotypes of a lyric soprano.

Finnish soprano Olga Heikkilä has, since her graduation in 2013 from the Royal Danish Opera Academy, created a versatile career reaching from ambitious contemporary music projects to Mozart operas and sound art works of her own. In recent years, she has been busy taking part in Kaija Saariaho’s acclaimed opera Innocence and working on her doctoral thesis, at the Sibelius Academy, on the multitude forms of Sprechgesang or speak-singing.

Heikkilä is thoroughly familiar with the International Mirjam Helin Singing Competition, where she participated as a contestant in 2014. She returned in 2019 – the previous instalment of the competition – as a commentator on the “Shadow Jury”, acting as a mediator between the spheres of the singers and the audience.

“When I graduated, I did a kind of competition tour, which I warmly recommend to everybody”, she says. “That is, I prepared a programme and participated with it in several competitions.”

 A singer-friendly competition

One of them was the 2014 Mirjam Helin Singing Competition. Amid many different competitions, “The Helin” stood out as a very warm and enriching experience.

“This is a very singer-friendly and low-threshold competition”, she notes. “In many competitions you must pay a participation fee and other costs, but not here. You can come from anywhere in the world and from any economic background. The participants are really looked after and cared for.”

She goes on to say that things like home accommodation, accomplished pianists, rehearsal rooms,  and the possibility to attend masterclasses free of charge are not self-evident in singing competitions. On top of that, there is a warm and collegial atmosphere:

“After the competition, every contestant has a face-to-face feedback session with the members of the jury, which is simply wonderful. And during the 2014 competition, I made friends with whom I have stayed in touch until these days.”

Fighting narrow categories

In the Mirjam Helin competition, there are no compulsory pieces and no strict repertory requirements. Diversity is explicitly encouraged in the competition rules.

“The repertory guidelines respect the individuality of a singer, and you can stand out as yourself”, Heikkilä says with enthusiasm.

This is a point made by Heikkilä not only in the case of singing competitions but concerning the music profession in general. She is a passionate champion for originality in an ever more competitive musical world that tends to push singers into narrow categories.

“I also teach at the Sibelius Academy and try to encourage my students to break free from this, to question the voice type thinking and the vocal ideals we are presented with. Are we allowing room for individuality?”

A voice type redefined

In a traditional sense, Heikkilä can be labelled as a lyric soprano, but she has been joyously fighting against the light, bubbly, girlish stereotypes of that voice type, challenging herself in adventurous contemporary music and performing repertory that could be seen as too low, harsh or stylistically “inappropriate” for a lyric soprano. Her explorations in the many forms of Sprechgesang have brought her to unexpected ways of singing and performing, redefining the boundaries between singing and speaking.

“A diversity of styles is essential for me; I’m a musical omnivore”, she laughs.

In Saariaho’s Innocence, Heikkilä first performed a speaking-only role (in Greek!) and then proceeded to learn another role, this time requiring vocal techniques typical of Finnish folk traditions. For many classical singers, the very thought of mastering folk techniques alongside your “official” instrument is startling, to say the least.

“You can learn so much from folk music! It has nourished my singing in many ways, in terms of phrasing and timbre, for instance.”

Freedom for expression

In classical opera repertory, the singer must first be able to make themselves heard over the orchestra, and the tones and colours come into play after that. Heikkilä especially enjoys styles and contexts where maximising the volume isn’t the main focus. This is especially true of lied music.

“In art songs, you can play with the acoustics and use much lighter and richer colours compared to traditional opera”, she says. “You also have more freedom in interpretation and endless possibilities for expressing yourself.”

For Heikkilä, text always comes first. In a way, this is what led her to explore Sprechgesang in the first place: behind singing, there is speech and language. The pivotal work of her doctoral project is the quintessential Sprechgesang masterpiece, Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire (1912).

“The actress Albertine Zehme, who commissioned the work and, in every way, made it possible, was interested in how small children learn the language and use their voice.”

Heikkilä describes how every composer of songs is different, some more visual, some auditive or kinaesthetic, and this is reflected in their choices of poetry. The notation of a song is only the starting point, and the quest of a performer is to go behind and beyond the score.

“In songs, you are exploring different expressive tools with your vocal instrument and the pianist; it is a mutual and organic process of inspiration”, she says. “As an artist, I use my whole personality. I cannot shut down any aspects of it.”

Encouraging artistic self-discovery

Heikkilä warmly encourages young singers to question typical career paths and generalised assumptions about repertory and vocal technique.

“But of course the instrument has to be developed to a certain stage in order to express what you want”, she adds. “In classical music, there are many things that are physically impossible if your vocal range or breath technique is not adequately developed. The teachers are responsible for helping young singers to choose suitable repertory in which you can explore your artistic self without harming your instrument.”

The vocal career is such a demanding endeavour that Heikkilä cannot emphasise enough the meaning of support. Musical competitions can be traumatic events, or they can change everything for a young musician, regardless of the outcome. Heikkilä is happy that singing competitions and the field in general are more and more aware of the psychological side of singing, and how it can be supported in the form of coaching and elaborating mental tools.

“When you go and compete, you prepare a huge programme and do an immense job. It is important that a competition also offers something to those who are dropped after the very first round.”

Text: Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen
Photo: Tom McKenzie

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