Opera singer Johanna Rusanen-Kartano: “I enjoy the unpredictable life of a singer.”
Growing up in Kuopio, Johanna Rusanen’s early days were filled with music. A cantor's daughter, she played the piano and flute, and sang with the chamber choir. Ever since the age of 7, when her first time at the opera left a profound emotional impression, she wanted to be an opera singer when she grew up. Singing lessons had to wait until she turned 18, when she finally got the green light from her father, but things quickly took off from there. She applied for the Sibelius Academy church music program – and got accepted. While her ambition was to study under Anita Välkki at the Sibelius Academy, she was still a shy country girl and, already being blessed with a good teacher, she decided to stay in Kuopio. A year into her church music studies, Johanna's organ teacher noted that she would do well to apply for the soloist department, as Johanna’s focus was on singing.
“I was completely absorbed in my singing studies, which gave me endless amounts of motivation – everything else just seemed meaningless to me. I have a high regard for the cantor’s work, but I came to realise that it wasn’t for me,” she notes.
The following spring, she applied to the soloist department at the Sibelius Academy Helsinki – under Anita Välkki. She was accepted, but not under Välkki, at least for the time being. Instead Johanna studied under Professor Matti Tuloisela from 1991 to 1993 before starting under Välkki. For the first few years, her time was filled with intense study, including courses in stage work, vocal music studies and Lied seminars, all of which helped to build a useful repertoire. At the Sibelius Academy she had a chance to work with some amazing Lied pianists in a chamber music setting, which was a particularly rewarding opportunity. And following a 1995 first-place finish in the Timo Mustakallio Singing Competition, the job offers started pouring in. These were formative years for Johanna, as she got to fill her days with her singing career and landed a scholarship for the Berlin Deutsche Oper. During her two years in Berlin, Johanna was able to perform in minor and medium-sized roles and focus on her singing.
“I got tickets to every Deutsche Oper show and saw about 80 opera performances. That counts as a major learning experience, and it’s an opportunity only a few learning institutions can offer.”
In Berlin, Johanna was able to take the time required to properly learn the role of Marie in Alba Berg’s Wozzeck, a part she played in Finland following her return from Germany. A number of eventful years followed, including a crisis with her voice – as it grew more dramatic her technique couldn’t keep up. During this period, Johanna began studying
under Irina Gavrilovic, and together they began patiently working on her voice. When she attended a vocal competition in Los Angeles, she received valuable feedback from Placido Domingo.
“Placido gave it to me straight. He said that I have a special type of voice and it’ll take another ten years until I’m at my best. He sent me home to grow up, and I had to take that advice to heart.”
The following decade was filled with hard work, and throughout this time Johanna continued to mature in preparation for the dramatic roles she would take on in the future. She supported herself by taking on concert engagements and singing in operas, such as the part of Anna in The Horseman at the Savonlinna Opera Festival. This period certainly provided some important milestones for her.
Her studies at the Sibelius Academy were unfinished and the deadline for her coursework was expiring in 2008, so Johanna needed to get them out of the way. About to have her first child, she powered through the remaining theory classes and graduated with a Master’s in Music.
Eventually she was rewarded for her patience and has since sung several dramatic dream roles as a soprano.
“Tosca is a role I’ve dreamt about my whole life. It has everything you could possibly hope for – vulnerability, drama, suicide. And now that I’ve actually played the part, I still think Tosca is as big a diva as you can possibly get.”
But Johanna readily admits that she enjoyed playing Isolde even more and compares the feeling to the exhilarating euphoria a long-distance runner might experience.
According to Johanna, the uncertain life of a freelance singer suits her extremely well.
“I’m comfortable with unpredictability and changing tides. Every day is a new adventure.”
Her great opera roles are balanced with her love of nature and her family. She enjoys living in the countryside and says it gives her some healthy distance from her life as a singer.
Johanna Rusanen encourages young singers to roll up their sleeves, get to work and learn not just through experience, but also by powering through adversity. Work itself is the best teacher.
Text: Maiju Vaahtoluoto
The author is a Sibelius Academy student participating in the student-alumni mentoring programme