San Francisco Opera stages American premiere of  Saariaho’s intense ‘Innocence’

Lilian Farahani and Miles Mykkanen portray the Bride and Bridegroom in San Francisco Opera's 2024 production of "Innocence" by Kaija Saariaho, Sofi Oksanen and Aleksi Barrière. (Courtesy Matthew Washburn/San Francisco Opera)

A contemporary Scandinavian look and sound and timely 21st-century themes comprise San Francisco Opera’s American premiere of prolific Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s rich new opus “Innocence.”

A San Francisco Opera co-commission and co-production, “Innocence,” running June 1-21 at the War Memorial Opera House, made its pandemic-delayed debut in July 2021 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France, two years before Saariaho’s death in June 2023.

San Francisco Opera co-commissioned late Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s “Innocence.” (Photo by Andrew Campbell/Courtesy San Francisco Opera)

Dutch-British director Louise Bakker, heading up the opera’s revival, is particularly fascinated by the libretto, which originally was written in Finnish by Sofi Oksanen, then translated into a multilingual version by Saariaho’s son, Aleksi Barrière.

“The most appealing element to me has been the libretto. It’s a 21st-century libretto for 21st-century audiences,” Bakker says. “And the pace of the narrative coupled with the tension in the music that Saariaho wrote, within the space of an hour and 45 minutes, just makes it feel even more perfect for 21st-century audiences.”

Louise Bakker directs San Francisco Opera’s American premiere of “Innocence.” (Courtesy Natasha Marshall) 

“Innocence” takes place during two timelines: in the 2000s at a wedding reception in Helsinki, where Stela (soprano Lilian Farahani, who appeared in the world premiere) is to wed Tuomas (tenor Miles Mykkanen), and a decade earlier.

Tuomas’ family is happy for him but also conflicted about whether to share with Stela how they are connected to a horrific tragedy, a mass shooting at a high school 10 years earlier. The tragedy emerges through the memories of six students and a teacher at the international school where it took place, which is why nine languages are in the opera: a harmonious tapestry, says Bakker.

“The amount of language reinforces the universality of the piece,” Bakker says. “It’s not just about Finnish, American or French people; it’s a universal story that could happen anywhere. There’s a really beautiful definition to the different characteristics of the languages and how Saariaho has used them. It’s not a gratuitous use of languages, it’s really apt to the texture of the piece.”

Changes between time periods are not the only shifting elements in “Innocence.” A two-story, rotating set neatly houses the scenes, which alternate between the wedding reception at a restaurant and the somber narrative at the school.

“Chloe Lamford’s design is pretty genius,” Bakker says. “This monolith that rotates is an indication of time; the story talks about two different times, two different places, and she’s got them in this perfect queue. You see the poetry of that, and how that queue morphs through the course of the show, and it feels like the most fitting articulation of how it should look.”

James Farncombe’s ambient lighting and Arco Renz’s choreography also are notable elements of the production, which boasts 13 soloists.

“Most of it has this sense that the light comes from the structure and these rooms and that’s all that exists — you don’t really witness sunlight — so with that comes this sense that you are stuck in this box — time and reliving this trauma and its inescapability,” Bakker says.

Bakker calls the choreography “beautiful tension work,” adding, “a lot of it is based on how tension is held and manifests itself and persists in the body if it’s not processed.” Corresponding well to the music, Bakker says the choreography “fits as a really interesting counterpoint to the realism of the other elements in the piece.”

“Innocence”—one of five opera or music theater pieces Saariaho wrote, among many works for solo instruments, chamber ensembles and orchestras during a five-decade career — has not undergone major changes since it debuted under the direction of Simon Stone.

Clément Mao-Takacs conducts “Innocence,” making his San Francisco Opera premiere. (Courtesy Vasco Pretobranco)

French conductor Clément Mao-Takacs, a frequent collaborator with Saariaho (who led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a reading of “Innocence” in 2018 at the War Memorial), makes his debut with the company conducting the varied, complex score.

“The music kind of moves along with, but also pulls at, the extremes of pitch and rhythm. The musical forces involved are so rich, and with Clément conducting, it’s just delicious,” Bakker explains.

The music is complemented by tantalizing dramatic bits that will keep audience members rapt. Finnish Music Quarterly called the 2021 premiere production “touching and gripping” and the New York Times has called “Innocence” Saariaho’s “masterpiece.”

Baker adds, “Saariaho plays with tension throughout the piece. The storyline is stressed, there’s a forward projection, there’s a perfectly balanced kind of trajectory,” she says. “The information throughout the piece is so cleverly breadcrumbed, it has such an even trajectory that you don’t really know what conclusion you’re going to get.”

San Francisco Opera’s “Innocence” is at 7:30 p.m. June 1, June 7, June 12, June 18 and June 21 and 2 p.m. June 16 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. For tickets ($26-$426; $27.50 for June 12 livestream), call (415) 864-3330 or visit 

The post San Francisco Opera stages American premiere of  Saariaho’s intense ‘Innocence’ appeared first on Local News Matters.

Leave a Reply

The Exedra comments section is an essential part of the site. The goal of our comments policy is to help ensure it is a vibrant yet civil space. To participate, we ask that Exedra commenters please provide a first and last name. Please note that comments expressing congratulations or condolences may be published without full names. (View our full Comments Policy.)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *