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“I literally found this opera in my backyard”

INTERVIEW. What shape is planet earth? Finnish director Jaakko Nousiainen's newest work La Figure de la Terre revives Pierre Louis de Maupertis' quest for the answer with contemporary musical theatre and video, starting Apr 13 at Sophiensaele.

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Photo by Miika Hyytiänen

Finnish director and librettist Jaakko Nousiainen’s multimedia opera “La Figure de la Terre” makes its German debut.

It might seem mundane, painstakingly measuring the ground to try to determine the shape of our planet. But the story of French scientist Pierre Louis de Maupertuis’ journey through northern Finland isn’t without drama, especially when it comes to his escapades with one particular woman.

Blending elements from Lapland’s folk music and the French Baroque alongside contemporary electronics, Nousiainen and composer Miika Hyytiäinen, who collaborated on the iPad opera Omnivore last year, have combined forces with video artist Mia Mäkelä for a sonic and visual version of a journey beyond the Arctic circle and back. It’s sung in French and Swedish, but English and German subtitles help clarify this peculiar scientific drama.

Why did you decide to take the stories of de Maupertuis and Christine Planström as inspiration for a musical theatre piece?

My childhood home in the Finnish Lapland is actually at the foot of the most northern hill where de Maupertuis carried out his measurements. So I literally found this opera in my backyard. [Laughs] And these calculations of the earth flattening ratio were groundbreaking in many ways: they paved the way for the introduction of the metric system, and also made the GPS tracking system possible.

Later, when I found out about Planström’s story, the seeds of this opera started to grow in my mind. Christine’s journey from the northern part of Sweden to Paris was so exceptional for that time that I became interested in finding out who this woman really was and what made her leave her family, her culture and her language behind.

How did these two fairly contrasting journeys intertwine?

During the harsh Lappish winter the Frenchmen socialised with the locals, and they naturally also got acquainted with local young ladies. Maupertuis met Christine in Torneå and was so taken by her beauty that he wrote her a love poem, which we hear in the opera. We don’t know for sure if he was really in love with her, and this is one of the questions we explore.

After Christine arrived in Paris she became the latest sensation in the salons for a while an exotic woman of the wild north. But Maupertuis most likely soon felt that Christine became a burden on him. Voltaire mocked him by saying that the man who flattened the navels of the Lappish girl. Christine then retreated into monastic life at the convent of Notre Dame du Trésor was it out of her own will, or did Maupertuis force her?

How is the live video art component of the piece going to work?

We use video to create Lappish exteriors and Paris interiors with animated sequences that will be manipulated and triggered live in each performance.

Is it possible that the audience will see different sequences on different nights?

Some sequences are triggered by the singers’ voices, their pitch and volume control the visuals, so there are slight differences every time they do it. But it’s mainly variations in texture and intensity rather than completely different materials.

Recently there seem to be quite a few people from Finland making the journey south to Berlin. Do you think there’s any particular reason for that?

Yes, Neukölln seems to have become little Finland. [Laughs] But Berlin was already attracting Finns in the late 19th century the composer Jean Sibelius studied here in 1889. Besides the obvious reasons like being affordable and a good place to network, Berlin has a very Finnish vibe sometimes, especially in the winter. But we know how to insulate and make most of central heating: it’s never cold inside in the winter in Finland!

La Figure de la Terre | April 13-14, 18-20, 20:00, Sophiensaele, Sophienstr. 18, Mitte, U-Bhf Weinmeisterstr.