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  KALTIO 5/2001: Soile Isokoski - From the Ruukki riverview to the rush of metropolises

In English



Soile Isokoski

From Ruukki Riverview
to Rush of Metropolises

Kaltio 5/01

Text and image: Jussi Vilkuna
English translation: Anniina Vuori

Soile Isokoski, the daughter of a lestadian family, was never supposed to become a singer, let alone an opera singer. Next January, she will debut in New York Metropolitan Opera as the countess in the Marriage of Figaro. She has conquered all the important opera stages in the world.

Soile Isokoski, one of Finland's most successful singers abroad, is proud of her success for it has been achieved by hard work. Fame is the downside of success.
- Although I'm not super famous. It's nice to get noticed of course, but it's not always good to be spotted all the time. Often I would like to disappear in the crowd and be just an ordinary person. That's of course what happens abroad, but gossip moves fast even in metropolises. People can come for a chat on the street and thank me for a performance, I find it astonishing. Although I think I hide quite well behind glasses, Isokoski says.

The advantage of success is that Isokoski has more and more freedom in choosing where and how often she performs in the future. More time is left to spend in Finland.

Isokoski cannot really say where she is from. Nevertheless, not from "somewhere behind Kuopio", as Hannu-Ilari Lampila wrote in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat after Isokoski won the Lappeenranta singing competition in 1987.
- My father is from central Ostrobothnia, from Raudaskylä in Ylivieska. But I never got to know dad's parents nor much of my relatives on that side.

Isokoski was born in Posio, went to primary school in Ylivieska and secondary school in Ruukki, 50 kilometres south from Oulu. The business college was in Raahe, and cantor and singing studies in Kuopio. And even though Isokoski now officially lives in Helsinki, her career is all around the world.
- Not really coming from any particular place has been a good training for this occupation.

Due to the family's conservative lestadian faith, there was some drama in the beginning of her singing studies: for Soile Isokoski was not supposed to become a singer at all. Music was a natural part of the family's life, but the profession of a singer and performing artist did not even cross young Isokoski's mind.

- Well, we did make music at home a lot and my brother, who was a good player, was a summer organist sometimes. We didn't go to concerts or have a television, but we listened to the radio a lot. We had a record player and I even bought some records. I don't remember there being any limitations for listening classical music. Some other music I listened in secret.

After graduating from Ruukki secondary school in 1975, Soile Isokoski left for Raahe to study in the business college.
- At that point, I didn't consider music as a career.

The two-year long college ended in 1977. Father Sulo had retired from the vocation of Paavola (now Ruukki) bishop a year before and died in January. Perhaps due to the family situation and the fact that business was not close to Soile's heart, she never got the diploma from the business school thanks to one examination she didn't take. Soile worked in school office, post office and grocery store. And sang.

Isokoski had started to study singing in Raahe music school at the same time she was in business school. The young student developed fast. The teacher Sirkka Mattila says that during her 30 years of teaching, she has never met anyone who puts her soul into singing as strongly as Isokoski.
- She is an exceptional talent, immensely fast to learn and good at imitating, which is important in learning. She also learned faster because she was conscientious and didn't forget what she'd learned in the previous lesson, Mattila says.

Part of the singing studies was opera, which was something Isokoski's sisters and brothers in faith scolded her for. Lestadian ideology shuns performing and putting yourself forward. Mattila says that because of this conflict there were lessons where both the student and the teacher cried. Isokoski remembers well the first steps of her singing studies. She says her sorrow was mainly due to her father's death and the fact that the family had just built a new house and had borrowed money for that.

In 1979, Isokoski went to Kuopio to study church music. The profession of a church musician, who serves the church goers, suited the lestadian ideology better than a career of a performing artist, let alone an opera singer.
- I decided I wanted to study music and decided to study church music. I said in the entrance exams in Sibelius Academy in Helsinki that I want to study in the Kuopio section of the school, which felt like a safer place for a girl from the countryside.

Isokoski graduated as a cantor and did her singing diploma in spring 1984. Until then, singing and playing had been studying. The question of what to think of performing and what direction to continue in - church musician, singing teacher, or performing artist - was still open. In June 1985, Isokoski started her work as the cantor of Paavola church. The singing diploma with excellent grades gave her a chance to hold her first concert.
- And that was precisely the threshold I decided to cross. The Academy gave me a first concert which I held in late winter 1986. That's when I felt that this is my field, the one I can express myself in, and that's also when I decided to take part in the Lappeenranta competition.

Isokoski does not want to discuss how the lestadian community took her career, fame, and performing on TV, for her mother and siblings still live in Ruukki, in the middle of the lestadian community and life.

The singing teacher Mattila, who herself grew up with Körttilä religion, tells how there were serious discussions of separating and dismissing Isokoski from the lestadian community after she won the Lappeenranta competition. Isokoski had told Mattila even at the party in Ruukki celebrating her victory that she would never sing opera.
- Of course I knew that going to the competition was against all the principles of conservative lestadianism, but the urge to perform music was stronger. I needed to find out how it felt myself and what my conscience had to say about it.

Nowadays, Isokoski spends a great part of the year abroad. Last spring she performed in Bonn, Toulouse, Vienna, Dresden, Paris. In the summer in Vienna, Berlin, Savonlinna, Kuhmo. In the autumn she will sing in Cologne, Lutzern, Vienna, London, Munich, Brussels... Her sphere of living has widened from the calm riverside in Ruukki to the rush of a big city. In addition to songs of Zion and hymns, she has become familiar with arias about "love troubles of the upper class".

What is the relationship of a singer touring the world with lestadianism and family values today?

Isokoski says she respects the values she was taught home and still reads the newspaper Päivämies, but ever since she was young she has not wanted to take everything as ready truths.
- I go through things in my mind, and if possible, I try them myself. The are certain aspects (in lestadianism) that didn't fit in my head even when I was young.
- When I went to study in Kuopio, where Körttilä religion is popular, I felt home in that tradition too. When I'm in Finland, I listen to the Sunday mass on the radio. Perhaps it's so that wherever God's word is preached purely and humbly, there I feel like home. And the Lutheran church is my spiritual home. 

In the past few years, Isokoski has started to feel closer than before to her family from her mother's side and her mother's home area Kittilä. A few years ago she had a new house made out of timber built in Kittilä.
- Being at the cottage is an opposite to the metropolitan milieu. They say when you're from the countryside, you really are from the countryside. In Kittilä last winter, I heard that once you're Lappish, you'll always be Lappish.
- I have a lot of family from my mother's side there. And one second cousin, my best friend from the summers I spent at my granny's house, is married to a Sami in Teno. Unfortunately, I haven't visited them. Now that I have a base there, I must try to fix that.

Several Finnish musicians have been strongly connected with their home areas, for instance Leevi Madetoja with northern Ostrobothnia and Toivo Kuula with southern Ostrobothnia. Also Jorma Panula is dubbed Ostrobothnian. Isokoski cannot really say if she is from middle, northern or far northern Ostrobothnia or Lapland. In any case, she is from Northern Finland.
- Being from Ostrobothnia and Lapland affects the way I react to certain things, my genetic qualities. Lappish people are terribly tolerant and considerate. They don't want to know everything in a sensational way, but are there when you need them.
- Thus I consider myself well-adjusting, I can be and make music with different people, and I want to be just one part of music instead of the head of everything.

Most of Isokoski's lied concerts and opera roles are abroad. Travelling takes a lot of her time, and it strains her more than it used to. When she arrives at a new city, the apartment is very important.
- I like it if I can find an apartment that is clean, neat and rather blank. If there aren't too many memories of past inhabitants, I can get comfortable there. Next, I go for a walk to see the neighbourhood.

Even though Isokoski sometimes has a small elephant from her elephant collection with her on her trips, she doesn't really take the new place over with her own things. The new apartment becomes a home through the kitchen, by making coffee in the morning and cooking.
- Eating alone in a restaurant is really miserable. The small aspects of everyday life feel important and are highlighted when travelling.

It takes time to recover from a trip, and long stretches of work are stressful.
- Many times it feels like I'm dragging myself as my physics are worsening with age. There's often such a long stretch of work without any vacation that the small things in everyday life start to go wrong. And that can often be the last straw, and you get mad...
- But if you are doing well musically, when the music is done on a high level without compromises and there's a lot of practice, that makes the adrenaline and energy return.

Also reading helps on trips. Right now, she is carrying You Get What You Give Up by Tommy Hellsten with her. 

Isokoski regards her ability to be alone one of her most important traits.
- I know colleagues who've had to return home simply because they were too homesick.

The singer practices a lot by herself, travels and spends time alone in hotels. Even in performances in the middle of all the applause, the paradox of loneliness is crystallised: will I make it, will I be accepted?

Isokoski has not started a family, she does not have a husband or children. Is Isokoski paying a high price for her career?
- This is just how my life went. I was there in the business school and then six years in Kuopio, and I probably spoiled a few chances there. I guess it's the disadvantage of this profession that I only meet singers. A family with two musicians rarely works out. There are plenty of bad examples. At least one of the partners should be normal.
- I can't say there are less chances now, but different ones. I'm living in hope. And I'm not so naive as to think that a relationship is always ideal and blissful. With this profession, it's easy to tell the good ones from the bad ones. It would be difficult to have a relationship with me, because it would have to work according to my schedule.

But now Isokoski laughs and says that's enough of talking about loneliness. She doesn't want to get flooded by letters, thank you very much! The audiences have been full for the 15 years she has sung, and her lestadian circle of friends has not stranded her either.

Soile Isokoski, whose schedule is defined to the minute, wonders if you could learn to control time. Could you come in terms with time if you didn't think of the past or lament the future, if you'd be the child of the moment right here and now. But that's difficult in practice, the calendar is filled already until 2004 and year 2005 is being planned and filled all the time.
- Time passes and we get older. It annoys me to live according to schedules and the clock. That's what annoys me. But I try to stop the clock and just be when I'm on vacation. How does the saying go again:  the guests come when they come and the house keeps living in its own way.

Jussi Vilkuna