The smell of paint is strong inside the Svenska Teatern – Helsinki’s Swedish Theatre. A fresh coat is being applied to the stairwell. Ponytailed director Lars Rudolfsson whisks around handing out advice. On the stage stand the stars of the musical Kristina från Duvemåla, Maria Ylipää and Robert Noack. They touch noses and start to sing.
The men of the Swedish band ABBA sit in the seats and watch the performance closely. At times composer Benny Andersson, 65, leaps over the seats and whispers something in the conductor’s ear. The writer of the libretto, Björn Ulvaeus, 66, suddenly comes up with altered lyrics for Ylipää to read. The gentlemen are clearly perfectionists. There is concern if there will be enough time to get everything ready by the premiere, which is just over three weeks away.
“We can do it. These are just the final touches”, Ulvaeus says. “I don’t know about the refurbishment of the building, though. It seems to be behind schedule, but isn’t that usually the case refurbishing jobs?” Ulvaeus continues with a laugh. Björn Ulvaeus praises the acoustics of the big stage of Svenska Teatern. Then he laments its small size, even though there are 600 seats.
“We have never done a musical in such a small space. But this makes for a magnificently intimate feeling.”
Both Ulvaeus and Andersson heap profuse praise on the performance of Maria Ylipää. “She is fantastically talented. I like her voice more and more with each passing day, if one can say that”, Ulvaeus says. He is sure that this will make Ylipää a big star in Sweden as well. Interest in the musical has been great in Sweden. More than 15,000 tickets have been sold in Sweden alone.
This week Sweden’s TV4 showed up to shoot footage of the rehearsals in the renovated theatre. Ylipää was chosen to play the main role in auditions involving nearly 700 singers. About a third of the singers are from Sweden. “We decided that in a choice between singers of equal quality from Finland and Sweden, we would choose a Finn. But Maria was by far the best. And naturally Birthe was good too”, Andersson says. The role of Ulrika is played by Svenska Teatern’s own actress, the warm-voiced Birthe Wingren.
Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus have been travelling back and forth to Helsinki inconspicuously. In the coming weeks they will practically live here in a nearby hotel. They want to iron out their musical as much as possible. “This has been an absolutely magnificent experience”, both of them say. Kristina is based on The Emigrants, a series of novels by Vilhelm Moberg. It tells about a family that emigrates from Småland in Sweden to Minnesota in the mid-19th century in search of a better life. “It could just as well have been a Finnish story.
Up to a quarter of the population moved from Sweden to America, and large numbers went from Finland as well”, Andersson says. Immigration has touched the lives of both of the men. “Three of my grandfather’s brothers moved. Fortunately my grandfather stayed in Sweden”, Andersson says. “Several of my family members moved. Once I got a letter from an unknown American who said that he was a second cousin or something. He asked to borrow money”, Ulvaeus says. “Did you lend him any money?” Anderson asks. “I think I did, but I never got it back!”
Turning the four-part novel series into a musical was a massive ordeal, and the two worked on it for five years. The point of view was the story of Kristina. The way that they divided the work was that Andersson composed the music on his own, and Ulvaeus concentrated on the lyrics. The entire musical is sung. The music of Kristina från Duvemåla is quite different from that of ABBA. It is an ambitious, even operatic composition, and will not necessarily even open up on the first hearing. At times the songs have overtones of the folk music that Andersson loves. “It was quite frightening to grab on to a national epic like this”, Ulvaeus admits.
He says that he would wake up at night to nightmares. After the Swedish premiere he immediately travelled abroad just so he would not have to read reviews in the newspapers. Now he is also anxious. But Ulvaeus does like working on lyrics. “I was allowed to operate with the kind of language that cannot be used in pop songs. I read the book dozens of times. In finally felt that I was almost a continuum of Moberg, after internalising his text so thoroughly. After all, he did not write poetry at all.
Published between 1949 and 1959, The Emigrants was a turning point in Swedish literature. “It is kind of like Väinö Linna for you in Finland”, Andersson says. “Or the Kalevala. Indeed, you have more national epics than we do.” “By the way, I love the Kalevala. Lars, who is directing Kristina, recently did Kalevala for the Stockholm City Theatre – in Swedish. It was one of the most wonderful performances that I have ever seen.
Did it come as a surprise to the gentlemen that Finland has such a living bilingual culture? “Actually I have been somewhat surprised how little Swedish is spoken in Helsinki. Outside this building we need to use English. It probably would be different if we went to Ostrobothnia somewhere”, Andersson says and adds that most Swedes are aware that Finland is a bilingual country. “Your Swedish sounds a bit different – fascinating.”
Björn Ulvaeus manages to talk for a long time during the rehearsals. He is very relaxed and laid back – and very excited about the musical. Ulvaeus likes to talk about his grandchildren. There are five of them now. He had a daughter with Agnetha Fältskog who is an actress, and his son is in IT. “Sometimes there are many weeks when I do nothing except enjoy my grandchildren.” However, he does not plan to retire. “Creative work is therapeutic. I want to continue making music to the very end, no matter how small the audience.”
The two clearly have other projects in mind, but they do not want to talk about them yet. They are like an old married couple who are always together. But do they ever argue? “Not much. Sometimes we have differences, but we first met in 1965, so there has been plenty of time to get to know each other well. We don’t call every day, possibly once a week. We have so many issues, both old and new, but we do not have couples’ dinners every Saturday evening.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 5.2.2012 The musical Kristina från Duvemåla premieres in Helsinki on February 29th. The evening is also the re-opening of the Svenska Teatern after its major renovation. The spring performances are sold out, but cancellations are possible.