The Finns, and not many people know this, write more operas per head of population than anyone else in the world. A gleaming new pound;180m Opera House opens its doors five days a week for performances of new and classical opera, ballet and children's opera. In such an opera-vibrant city, it was all the more flattering for Scottish Opera for All to be invited to help celebrate Helsinki's year as Culture Capital of Europe.
It began with a happy accident. Members of the Helsinki education department were guests of the Scottish Arts Council, and education officer Sylvia Dow suggested they visit Norma McCrone, arts adviser to North Ayrshire (a post that the SAC had helped to create). She took them to Skelmorlie where SOFA was at work on its production of 1719, and they were knocked out by what they saw.
"In just an ordinary school," Ulla Salojarvi remembers in her fetchingly guttural English, "it really touched your heart and soul to see the boys and girls making opera."
In the back of the car on the way home, Salojarvi and SOFA supremo Jane Davidson hatched the plan that last week took 30 North Ayrshire children to Finland to join 30 Helsinki children in a co-production of the specially-commissioned The Turn of the Tide. Exciting though it was, it was only the harbinger of bigger things to come.
What had particularly fascinated the Finns in Skelmorlie was the quality of the children's participation. Over the years, SOFA has refined a technique by which, with the co-operation of teachers, it can send in its team of specialists in the morning, produce a fully-costumed opera in the afternoon, and be clear away by 3.30pm. "It's like being in the SAS," explains Jane Davidson.
The energetic programme of performance, education and audience development run by the Suomen Kansallis Oopera (Finnish National Opera) and its children's opera company, Oop!, has always lacked this participatory element, but not any more. Oop! is paying SOFA the huge compliment of adopting its style of working, starting with this co-production. Next year, Oop! will produce its own version of The Turn of the Tide for schools in Helsinki, and that will inaugurate a freestanding SOFA-style company, writing and producing its own body of work.
For SOFA, the commission from North Ayrshire was a chance to expand its range. Librettists Ross Stenhouse (the Hopscotch house-writer) an Ilpo Tiihonen exchanged ideas and came up with a story that managed to involve mythic figures of Finnish folklore and west-coast smugglers, who sing to a jaunty bass-clarinet of sailing "their shipFrom Largs to Inverkip".
The melody comes from SOFA music specialist Karen MacIver, who has written a very singable score, equally at home with the boisterous tax-evaders and the eerie netherworld of the goddess Louhi and her demons of darkness.
In the usual way, SOFA sent out the music in advance. The recipients in North Ayrshire were members of the newly formed North Ayrshire Junior Choir, and in Helsinki the music and dance specialists in Kaisaniemi Primary. Helsinki has a policy of allowing children from P3 upwards to choose a specialism in which they get extra tuition, and drama and dance are bracketed with maths, languages and the rest as worthy choices.
SOFA drama specialist Elena Goodman credits the Finnish children's ability to focus (the key to success in drama as in so many other activities) to this early specialism.
After a week of workshop and rehearsal, the company came together for performances in the Alexander Theatre, Helsinki's "old" opera house, its attractive "wedding cake" auditorium still in use for opera, plays and concerts. For the dress rehearsal, every seat was taken by P3-6 drama and dance specialists from Helsinki primary schools, and two public performances were given to parents and friends, Finnish Opera staff, and participants of the International Conference on Creativity and the Child.
After seeing the SOFA productions in gymnasiums and school halls, it was good to see them in an opera house with all its lurid skyscapes, spotlights and lightning flash, with Ann Archibald's implacable Louhi soaring over the counterpoint of her demons, challenged by David Stephenson's fierce and heroic bass, and Julian Evans taking his bow in the orchestra pit with his Ayrshire and Helsinki instrumentalists.
Their next stage will be the Dome in September, when the Helsinki children return for a week's rehearsal in Ayrshire, and finally the expanded version in the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine for 1,000 North Ayrshire children.
These are exciting days for SOFA and its young participants, but maybe Ulla Salojarvi has the right perspective. She gestured to the mix of children:
"It is good for teachers to meet, and opera people, but if two of these children are still friends in 50 years' time, it will have been worth it."