The Olavinlinna Opera Festival directed by Aino Ackté was, from the very beginning, not only an ambitious attempt to create a new opera festival, one of the first ones in Europe, but also, and above all, a mighty showcase for Finnish culture. “The Olavinlinna opera season will, as an annual event, gradually direct floods of foreign tourists to our country. In this way, too, Finland will become better known, and so will Finland’s Finnish art, performed in the heart of Finland. Who knows how big a foundation stone for the future has been laid with the Olavinlinna opera week.”
During the first five seasons of her opera festival, almost all the Finnish operas so far composed were staged in Olavinlinna Castle, including the first Finnish opera, The Hunt of King Charles, and the first opera in Finnish, The Maid of the North. The only non-Finnish opera, staged in 1916, was Gounod’s Faust; the part of Marguerite was one of the roles for which Ackté was best known in the world, so the inclusion of Faust in the repertoire was justified.
The Finnish slant was also marked in the concert repertoire. As early as 1912, the programmes already featured such works as Järnefelt’s Berceuse and Sibelius’s Valse triste, Karelia Suite and Finlandia. The names of only a few non-Finnish composers appeared in the programmes: Mozart, Haydn, Grieg – and Puccini, who was still actively composing at the time (La fanciulla del West had been premiered in 1910 but such masterpieces as Turandot still lay far away in the future).
In its very first season, the festival invested heavily in the castle milieu. Ville Vallgren, famous for his Havis Amanda statue in Helsinki, was commissioned to sculpt a statue of St. Olaf (this still exists), and a big stage (unfortunately now gone) was built at Kyrönniemi for a song festival held in conjunction with the Opera Festival.
“My soul has not been able to rest until now, at last, through a merciful stroke of fate, it has once again been possible to revive this festival, to strike up once again, sheltered by those stern yet smiling walls, our very own, exquisite music.”
The Singspiel The Village Dance by Ilmari Hannikainen was the festival’s first premiere. This was coupled with Madetoja’s The Ostrobothnians (1924) – a work that was in time to acquire the status of “Finland’s national opera”.
But the tickets did not sell as well as hoped, and in view of the poor revenue and despite Ackté's plans, the festival was unable to continue. “In vain did I apply for a grant from the government, the Kordelin Foundation, just about everywhere. My applications were always turned down. People were so terrified I would personally derive material gain from the festival, and since I had finally sacrificed all I owned, over a hundred-thousand marks, on my last opera festival alone in summer 1930, I considered I had done enough, reaped sufficient ingratitude.”