Interview with Virpi Räisänen

Musician interview 22.3.2021

The mezzo-soprano Virpi Räisänen, performing in the concert The Birth of the World, was strongly heading towards a career as a violinist, but eventually her passion for singing won over her playing. In the interview Virpi tells about her career and what kind of changes in her life the pandemic has brought with it. 

Photo: Aino Jalkanen

Name
Virpi Räisänen

Range
Mezzo-soprano

Tell a bit about yourself.
I am an opera and concert soloist with an international career, and a former professional violinist. For 30 years I’ve been living abroad in the US and the Netherlands, but suddenly the pandemic made me come back home. I left the hectic Amsterdam via the tulip fields of Sassenheim and landed in my ancestors’ Oulu. But to be fair I still share my life between Finland, the Netherlands and Central Europe; I teach in Holland and my second home is there. 

I was born in Oulu and I grew up in the near countryside in Kiiminki. My soul is a strong combination of my northern Finnish roots and the influences of Central Europe. My mother was a music teacher and choir leader, my father a sports freak with physics as his profession. Out of three children of a musician and a scientist, all of them became professional musicians, two of them even baroque musicians, and me just a musician and sports freak. 

How did you become a singer?
I started playing the violin when I was five years old and singing in my mother’s choir when I was even. The playing and the singing followed my hand in hand throughout my childhood and youth, until I begun my studies in chamber music in the US at the University of North-Illinois together with my string quartet. At that time my singing paused for a couple of years since I wanted to concentrate on the violin. After my first violin diploma I wanted a hobby on the side of my playing, and found myself taking singing classes. I was very devoted to the violin, and even after my singing studies I struggled with the decision on what I wanted to become. For a long time I did both simultaneously (also literally!). However, when I became a mother I figured that time is scarce and thet I needed to drop something. I chose singing and decided to give my everything to that. That being said, I learned a lot about music and being a musician from my past as a violinist that I never would have learned as a plain singer. At the same time I had a large network from my violinist career that has shown to be useful for my singing career.

When doing what kind of music do you feel most at home?
I am known for being an interpreter of modern and contemporary music and that world is probably the most natural for me. However, I also love singing Renaissance and Baroque music because through that I can try to find the most natural freedom for my voice. I feel like everything in between these two becomes too repetitive, and the freedom of interpretation is too strict. In early and modern music I can unleash my imagination and be more free in creating something that perhaps hasn’t been done before. 

Which are the points in your career that have been especially meaningful?
My most spectacular experiences have probably been the chance to be the soloist for Filarmonica della Scala in La Scala in Milan, and the opera productions at the Salzburg Festival. Also the chances to sing in the world premieres of new pieces and create an own original interpretation on something that hasn’t been heard yet. I’ve enjoyed my work so much, since not even in my wildest dreams as a violinist I could have ever believed what the singing would bring along. Every single new invitation and challenge has been an enormously inspiring chance for my career. 

Which other art form is close to your heart?
I really adore the art of painting. I very much enjoy seeing strong colors and fierce usage of the brush. Art exhibitions are my passion. Also acting feels natural for me, as well as dancing. These elements I also bring along as a soloist in concerts. I’ve done a lot  of corporations with the Dutch opera director Monique Wagemakers and theatre costume designer Joost van Wijmen when creating choreographed and visually good looking concepts. 

What is your biggest dream when it comes to music?
During my life I’ve noticed myself being careful in creating dreams because my career in itself has been really a dream. In front of every new and wonderful challenge I’ve needed to take some deep breaths since they have felt like fantastics gifts to me. I’ve let things come as they are without directing too much. Thanks to that I’ve probably been so open in tackling and making also bravo decisions. But perhaps my most acute dream at the moment is the chance to be able to record the chamber music pieces written for my voice since they are all real diamonds.

At what kind of a place can your soul rest?
In my own home in Yli-Ii at the grounds of my ancestors. For a long time I travelled countries with a weird lack of calmness in me, until I heard that the dream house from my childhood was for sale. I grabbed the chance and made that dream a reality. Along with that came calmness and tranquility.

In what way has the pandemic affected your work? Do you think the cultural life will return back to ”the old way” when the virus is gone?
The pandemic has affected my work very strongly. My concert calendar up until two years from now totally changed during last spring and during the summer the cancellations followed one another. Every little chance to be in front of the audience has been very important mentally and has given hope. The streamed concerts with symphonic orchestras have been my saviors;  I have been able to do my work almost normally. Also my remote teaching to the Netherlands and in Oulu have kept me busy. 

I really hope that we soon will return to at least something similar as what the cultural life was before the pandemic. But I think peoples’ fear for participating in larger social gatherings will still remain for a long time. To tackle this I wish for efforts and support from the society so that the security of events can be guaranteed as well as possible, which in turn would decrease peoples’ fears. We have to learn again how to dare to meet people. 

At first glimpse there doesn’t seem to be too much in common when it comes to early Baroque and Finnish folk music, but this might not be the case. What were your thoughts when hearing about the program for the concert The Birth of the World?
I was so sure about the ingenuity of the program! What an amazing idea to combine the super hero from the Greek myths with our own Väinämöinen. In both cases people from all around came to hear and see them perform. To hear the Finnish birch trumpet in Monteverdi’s prologue for L’Orfeo is a fantastic experience both for the ears and the eyes. 

Do you have a secret talent?
I love to arrange parties. I enjoy planning the food and drinks as well as guest lists, and to be the hostess for big or even smaller groups of guests. The pandemic has also taken this away from me. When the world is a safer place again, I will arrange a huge party for my family and friends, where everybody can hug each other and raise a toast for life!

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