By the time Martti Talvela resigned as Artistic Director, Savonlinna had won itself an established place among the leading European opera festivals.
The Flying Dutchman entered the repertoire in 1981 (sung in two languages, like Don Carlos in 1979) and since then all the operas have been almost always sung in their original language in Olavinlinna Castle. The Magic Flute has, because of its history, been a natural exception. The Bartered Bride was a less successful venture in 1991. Contemporary Finnish operas, world premieres and great world classics (Aida 1986) constituted the backbone of the repertoire.
The decade was one of considerable growth. No other Finnish festival could compare in popularity: tickets for the season were sold out in the first couple of days after they went on sale. With such a great demand, the festival set about expanding and diversifying its offering: more concerts were put on (38 in 1987, not only in Savonlinna but also in Kerimäki, Puumala, Heinävesi and Ruokolahti and at the Retretti Art Centre), the programme also included mini-operas, an operetta and a play, and there were even plans for a ballet (Romeo and Juliet in 1990).
A fourth week, assigned to a visiting opera house, was added to the season in 1987. The first of many guests was the Estonia Theatre from Tallinn. More funds were procured by setting up a company, Savonlinna Opera Festival Ltd. The favourable economic climate and public demand inspired the festival to make some extremely bold artistic moves (Shakespeare-Sibelius: The Tempest, Heininen: The Knife and Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet).
The bold artistic policies nevertheless proved risky and dramatically undermined the festival’s finances. The Bartered Bride, added to the repertoire with such high hopes, did not become a hit on a par with The Magic Flute.
Radical savings were required (such as postponing the premiere of The Palace), and so was a helping hand from the government. Only then would the festival be able to breathe again and continue on an even keel.
The strict budget made its mark throughout this decade. Yet even now, the festival was loath to abandon new Finnish opera. Hence The Palace was premiered in 1995 and Aleksis Kivi in 1997. The festival decided to celebrate the new millennium in style with an operatic trilogy commissioned jointly from three composers. The result was The Age of Dreams. But the opera Anna-Liisa commissioned from Veli-Matti Puumala was not performed.
For a few years the policy on visiting opera houses sought continuity and the Mariinsky Theatre from St. Petersburg was responsible for one week’s performances for three summers in succession (1995-1997).
Savonlinna Opera Festival Ltd. adopted a determined foreign outreach policy that resulted in guest performances abroad of Savonlinna operas, either complete with performers, or as rentals. The first tour was to Spain in 1997 (The Flying Dutchman in Peralada and Santander).
The company also came up with new ideas for the festival season in Savonlinna. Some proved to be viable (the start of the opera day in Harbour Park), others did not (the “bazaar street”). The main thing was, however, the desire to create greater visibility in the town and to enhance the atmosphere there during the festival season.
The opera direction enjoyed a period of stability such as it had never known before, and long-term planning benefited as a result. Jorma Hynninen’s ten-year term as Artistic Director was the longest in the festival’s history, and Paavo Suokko held office for almost as long as General Director.