The new director of the Mirjam Helin Singing Competition wants to create a sense of community around the contest’s stellar musical moments.
Text: Reeta Holma
Photos: Petri Summanen
Päivi Loponen-Kyrönseppä took on a new position at the Finnish Cultural Foundation in August, as director of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition. The next instalment of the event, which ranks among the top classical singing competitions in the world, will take place in June 2024.
Loponen-Kyrönseppä says that she highly appreciates the Cultural Foundation’s decision to invest even more effort into the competition. She also finds the foundation that funds arts and sciences an otherwise enjoyable workplace.
“Especially in these times of great uncertainty globally, domestically and in cultural spheres, it feels wonderful to be working for the greater good.”
Loponen-Kyrönseppä has been involved with music since childhood, having started the violin at the age of seven.
At some point she began to dream of a career in music, and was accepted into the Sibelius Academy. While studying music education and classical vocal arts, she also began to teach and to work as a journalist. She established the opera company Skaala with some of her fellow students in 1996.
“We suddenly realised we could do opera independently. We commissioned our first opera from composer Juha T. Koskinen and produced it ourselves. I chaired Opera Skaala for seven years, which was a really deep dive into building, funding and developing an artistic organisation.”
Having always also carried out other work in the music business in addition to singing, Loponen-Kyrönseppä felt increasingly drawn to that.
“Very few people in Finland make a living out of singing, so many combine performing with vocal teaching, for example. I wasn’t interested in teaching, so I started to work as a music journalist, first for local papers, then Helsingin Sanomat newspaper and, from 2003, for the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (Yle).”
This was followed by stints leading Vantaa Pops Orchestra and the Savoy Theatre. Since then, she has utilised her performer’s instinct in tasks such as presenting.
Being asked about leisure pursuits, Loponen-Kyrönseppä answers that her life revolves around art and culture, the only exceptions being ice swimming and mushroom picking..
“I am passionate about mushrooms, with an intense drive to forage. I pick more mushrooms than I need.”
Loponen-Kyrönseppä’s work experience serves her well in her new role as singing competition director.
“As a singer, I am aware of the special characteristics of the singing world. A competition such as this is not only about skill but also involves matters of taste. Sometimes it’s about identifying future potential. Sensitivity is important,” she says. Managing a singing competition requires even more organisational skills, however, and she has amassed some of those while running various musical institutions.
Meanwhile, thanks to her background as a journalist, Loponen-Kyrönseppä finds it easy to approach people, including global superstars, without hesitation.
The Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition is among Finland’s finest vocal contests, and it is also highly valued abroad. While being highly ranked among professionals, the competition still has some work to do to improve its recognition among the public. How can one get people who are not well versed in classical music to become invested in a contest such as this?
Is it even possible to compete in art? Loponen-Kyrönseppä doesn’t see a conflict in it. Yes, it is about skill and talent, but ultimately the crucial thing is for the artist to win over the audience’s hearts.
“Besides a good voice and a fine musical ear, a singer must have persistence, tenacity and good luck. Competitions are an excellent opportunity for singers to introduce themselves, and for audiences to discover new talents.”
The director feels that the best singers are not only competent vocalists but also smart, deep, interested in the outside world, and keen on continuous self-development.
Many singing competitions have scrapped having separate categories for men and women, and the next instalment of the Mirjam Helin Competition will do the same. The world’s diverse range of genders and human voices is more highly valued than before.
“Of course on the stage, particularly the opera, gender fluidity has always been a thing – just think about trouser roles, where male parts are played by a mezzo-sopranos or contraltos, or older works where all the roles were played by male adults or children. Not to mention the parts written for countertenor or castrati.”
The Finnish Cultural Foundation has organised the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition every five years since 1984, based on a major donation made to the foundation by singer and professor Mirjam Helin (1911–2006) in 1981.
The competition cycle will now be shortened to once every three years.
It has been an established part of the competition to arrange home accommodation for the contestants. Whether this can continue is currently under consideration.
“Accommodation hosts become involved in the competition in quite a unique way, and for many contestants this form of housing adds a whole new dimension to the experience. An entire community springs up around the event. I warmly encourage people to apply to be hosts and to enjoy the ambience of the competition!”
What is The Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition?
The Finnish Cultural Foundation has arranged the competition since 1984. From 2024 onward, it will take place every three years.
The IX Mirjam Helin Competition will take place in Helsinki between 3 and 12 June 2024.
The total prize money is EUR 190,000.
You can subscribe to the competition newsletter at mirjamhelin.fi.