Mirjam Helin – Ambassador and Patroness of Singing

Mirjam Helin 1911–2006

Professor Mirjam Helin wanted to make the singing competition bearing her name the most presti­gious in the world. Though its patroness is no longer with us, her principles are still observed as rigidly as ever.

”The best singers were so good that I could hardly contain myself,” said Professor Mirjam Helin in August 2004 after once again listening to all the preliminary rounds and semifinals.

”I sat through every minute, I didn’t cheat at all,” laughed the ever-youthful 93-year-old iron lady. Mirjam Helin took the wellbeing of the contestants and the success of the arrangements, right down to the smallest detail, very much to heart. She also took an interest in the singers’ later development and was pleased when they did well.

Childhood in the shadow of the Russian Revolution

Mirjam Helin was born in St. Petersburg in 1911. Her father, an electrical engineer by the name of Oskar Rokkanen, was manager of a power plant in what was at the time the Autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. He soon set up in business on his own as a wholesaler for electrical goods and purchased an imposing five-storey stone house in St. Petersburg for his business and to live in.

The times became restless. In May 1918 Oskar Rokkanen sent his wife and two daughters to safety at the family’s summer villa at Antrea on the Karelian Isthmus, in what was by then the independent Republic of Finland. He later joined them, taking refuge there himself, for in Russia he was in danger of being imprisoned and sent to Siberia. In Helsinki he founded Pohjoismainen Sähkö Osakeyhtiö (PSO, a wholesaler and manufacturer of electrical goods) that in time grew to be one of the most successful undertakings of its kind. Mirjam studied accounting and, in compliance with her father’s wishes, worked as manager of the company’s accounts office for nearly 10 years from 1940 onwards.

Singing becomes a mission in life

Mirjam’s parents were musical. They sang in a choir, and her father played the piano. The girls took piano lessons. Her music teacher at school encouraged Mirjam to consider a career in music. In 1929 she enrolled at the Helsinki Conservatory (later the Sibelius Academy) with a view to qualifying as a school music teacher, at that time a singing teacher. There she made such good progress that her teacher, Oiva Soini, sent her to the Finnish Opera for an audition.

”I passed the test. I was offered a chance to make my operatic debut. I rushed home and announced I was all set to become an opera singer. Father banged his fist on the table and said no way was his daughter going to be an opera singer. My fiancé, Hans Helin, agreed with him and threatened to break off our engagement if I chose to make opera my career and go abroad. So I did as I was told and that was that as far as opera was concerned,” is how Mirjam Helin recalled the most dramatic scene of her youth.

The Helins were married in December 1937. Mirjam then began preparing for the next great event in her life, her debut concert. This she held in October 1938 and received acclaim and encouraging reviews from the critics.

Mirjam Helin completed her singing diploma at the Sibelius Academy in May 1941. She later continued her studies with Lea Piltti and broadened her musical outlook in Italy and France. She had concert and oratorio engagements in many countries. A concert in Paris in 1950 opened the door to the Paris Grand Opera and roles in Wagner, but her love for her husband and homeland was greater than any other temptations the world could offer.

In 1940 Mirjam Helin had been accepted for the Radio Soloists Choir conducted by Nils-Eric Fougstedt and sang there until 1952. She also made a dozen or so solo recordings, a few of them under the pseudonym of Anja Sini. The most familiar of these is no doubt Lapin äidin kehtolaulu (A Lappish Mother’s Lullaby) to words and music by Kalervo Hämäläinen, still a popular request programme hit.

A highly-esteemed voice pedagogue at the Viipuri Music College (nowadays the Lahti Conservatory) from 1951 to 1963, Mirjam Helin also taught at the Sibelius Academy 1960–1980. She enjoyed teaching and stressed that the relationship between teacher and pupil is an extremely delicate and important one, at its best both close and warm.

Secret dream comes true

Following the death of her lawyer husband, Hans (1907–1973), Mirjam decided she wanted to see the world. Accompanied by friends, she travelled to distant lands dozens of times and once right round the world. On the evening of the day she returned from one of these trips, this time to South Africa, in January 1981, she listened to a broadcast from the Lappeenranta Singing Competition. The winners were Karita Mattila and Petteri Salomaa. She had long been working on the idea of launching a competition of her own of a high standard for young singers who already had performing experience. That night she knew that the time had come to reveal this secret dream. Her phone call to Matti Ilmanen, Secretary General of the Finnish Cultural Foundation, the following day was the prelude to the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition.

Mirjam and Hans Helin had no children and in their will therefore decided that their estate should be used to further the arts. Whichever spouse outlived the other would determine in what way. The Finnish Cultural Foundation was both familiar and close to the Helins. They had been attending Foundation events since 1939, for Mirjam’s father had been a member of the Finnish Cultural Foundation Patrons’ Association.

The project proceeded at a brisk pace. On the eve of her 70th birthday Mirjam Helin made a large bequest to the Finnish Cultural Foundation, out of which a Fund bearing the name of Mirjam and Hans Helin was set up. With the earnings from this, the Finnish Cultural Foundation arranged the first Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition in August 1984. The Chairman of the Competition Committee was conductor Ulf Söder­blom, and of the Jury Kim Borg, the first male Finn to sing at the New York Metropolitan.

In the 25 years since then the competition, held every five years, has become one of the world’s leading singing competitions. As early as 1987 it was accepted as a member of the World Federation of International Music Competitions (Fédération Mondiale des Concours Internationaux de Musique). Its selection was influenced by its stringent requirements, its jury, prizes and organisation.

The Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition has gone from strength to strength. The first competition received applications from 111 singers in 25 countries; by winter 2009 a new record had been set of 343 young singers from 42 countries around the world, attracted by the good prizes, the interesting, celebrated jury and the chance to gain admission – like the contestants in previous competitions – to the world’s most prestigious arenas. Singers who, in addition to honing their vocal skills to perfection, possess the ability to capture their audience and hold it in their grip stand out on the competition platform to their advantage.

”A little smile, a sweet look and a natural bearing are enough to create a charismatic presence. Stars are not made. Stardom grows from the singer’s own will and determination,” said Mirjam Helin in 2004.

Text: Mariitta Hämäläinen

Hannu-Ilari Lampila has written a charming biography (in Finnish) of Mirjam Helin called Mirjamin laulu (WSOY 2000).

The article was published in the official competition handbook of the 2009 competition.

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