"It was here that my international career began"

matija meic
Matija Meic in the Helin Final in 2014. Photo Heikki Tuuli

Matija Meić gazes happily round the Helsinki Music Centre. It was here that he was awarded the second prize for men in the 2014 Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition, and it was to this hall that he returned in spring 2016 as the soloist with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. In August, he once again entered the by now familiar glass cube on his way back from Rauma Festivo, to which he had been invited by Finnish bass Mika Kares.

Heart-warming reception

His Mirjam Helin victory is not the only good memory of Finland for Croatian baritone Matija Meić. He feels at home here, he says. The thing that remains uppermost in his heart was the tremendous support and encouragement he received from the competition audience, which went crazy over the cheerful, talented Croatian with the sumptuous voice. That he was the audience’s favourite was evident from the angry buzz that went round the auditorium when he was awarded “only” the second prize for men.

“I didn’t notice it myself, but my parents told me, and it felt better than victory,” Meić recalls. “Months afterwards, I was still getting Facebook messages from people who had heard me at the competition concerts or on the net. The amount of support was unbelievable. A welcome like that is the best prize an artist can get.”

Matija had become convinced of the significance of a singing competition to the Finns, and not just in musical circles. On his way to the airport after the competition, the taxi driver recognised him and said wasn’t he one of the winners of that competition. “That’s when I realised how important this competition is in Finland.”

Of the competition experience as a whole, Meić has nothing but good to report. “One of the things that I’m most proud of now is that the jurors were experienced, renowned singers, not casting directors. When you are selected by them, it is a special honour.” Among the jurors for the 2014 competition were legendary singers Deborah VoigtBen Heppner and Nathalie Stutzmann. “The competition brought me some fine work opportunities and valuable connections, and the prize the financial security that allowed me to concentrate on my career. As I return now to the Helsinki Music Centre, I feel that it was here that my international career began.”

Ambassador for the Finnish solo song

A singer with an interest in opera, Lieder of different language regions and early music, Meić was pleased that the competition allowed singers to prove themselves in a wide range of repertoire, from oratorio to Lied and opera. In the semifinals, each competitor had to perform a Finnish solo song. Over the years, an interest in Finnish vocal music has, thanks to the Mirjam Helin Competition, as a result been sparked off in many non-Finnish singers, who have then added Finnish songs to their repertoire.

Such was the case with Matija Meić, who picked up the special prize for the best interpretation of a Finnish song in his semifinals performance of the Pastorale from Tauno Pylkkänen’s Swan of Death cycle. His attention to Finnish pronunciation and his ability to get right inside the twilight mood of the song astounded the audience, and by the end, he had a devoted Finnish fan club.

His fans were there to greet him when he sang the same song in a foyer event after a guest appearance with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. In Rauma, he treated the audience not just to the Pastorale but to the whole Swan of Death suite. He had been given the score of this after the Mirjam Helin by his competition accompanist Tuula Hällström, to whom he is greatly indebted. From then onwards, Pylkkänen would occupy a permanent place in his Lied repertoire, as illustrated by his decision to choose it for his diploma concert at the Zagreb Music Academy.

Bringing the suite to Finland was, he says, a great honour. “I felt very humble performing The Swan of Death in Rauma, before a Finnish audience.”

Finnish nickname

The Artistic Director of this summer’s Rauma Festivo was Mika Kares. He and Matija Meić had got to know each other while singing in Puccini’s Turandot at the Bregenz Festival in Germany. Kares also heard him sing at Munich’s Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz, where Meić is nowadays a member of the solo ensemble.

“I admire Meić’s passion for Finnish music, because for me, promoting Croatian music is similarly close to my heart.”

Singing Pylkkänen surrounded by a band of Finnish artists in a concert on the theme of Finland was, Meić reports, somewhat intimidating. Before going on stage, he recalled what Tuula Hällström had written in the score she gave him: ‘Matija, stay alive! Love, Tuula.’ “That little message in a work about death gave me lots of energy,” he recalls with gratitude.

In Rauma, Meić also sang in a scene from Wagner’s Rheingold with Finnish singers and the Don Quichotte à Dulcinée by Ravel that was on the programme for the Helsinki Philharmonic concert. During that visit, the HPO folk even gave him a Finnish nickname (a friendly – and for Finns easier to pronounce – twist on his real name), and it was by this name that the people of Rauma referred to him later in chatting about the festival. Matija was very taken by this.

Passion for Croatian gems

Meić also brought some music from his homeland along with him to Rauma: a song cycle composed in the 1980s by Boris Papandopulo from Croatia’s Istrian peninsula. Istria and Rauma have some surprising things in common, Matija laughs. Both have a distinctive dialect of their own, and both have a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list: Rauma a concrete one – its old town centre – and Istria an intangible one – its own musical scale. The Istrian scale and regional dialect are both integral elements of Papandopulo’s song cycle.

Croatia’s musical heritage means a lot to Matija Meić: Papandopulo’s song cycle is no longer available to the public, but Meić made an edition of his own from the manuscript. He is also organising a concert series called Project Lazarus dedicated to unearthing some of the gems hidden in Croatian music. The programme for the series also includes music by a Venice-based Croatian Baroque composer that Matija and his colleagues performed in Venice in August and at a Croatian Baroque festival.

New home in Munich

Matija Meić spent a gig-packed summer until October, when work resumed at the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz, where he has been a member of the solo ensemble since autumn 2016.

“They’ve got a new, young ensemble and a fantastic intendant who understands singers. They choose their stage directors wisely and do interesting productions. Last season, we premiered two new operas and they were both successes. I was very lucky to be part of it and work with the composers.”

Last season was also a jolly Mozart stint for Meić, singing in all the Da Ponte operas: The Marriage of FigaroCosì fan tutte and Don Giovanni. He continues as Don Giovanni in the present season. Also upcoming are some bel canto roles – a genre for which he further honed his skills in the Mirjam Helin Competition.

“I have great colleagues in Munich. I enjoy myself so much and discover new things about myself, make myself better.”

We come to the end of our meeting. It is time for Meić to say goodbye to the Helsinki Music Centre and head for home. He hopes to be back in Finland soon.

“The most rewarding thing for a singer is making the listeners happy. In Finland, I feel I have a very special relationship with the audience. We understand one another. It’s great that although we speak different languages and our countries differ, we can share the same positive feelings through music.”

Text: Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen