Co-creating interactive opera – An interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Paula Vesala

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Laila test-runs at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. © Ekho Collective

On Thursday, the Finnish National Opera and Ballet welcomed its first live audiences since the mid-March lockdown with the world premiere of Laila (2019-20), a new, interactive work co-created by composer, conductor and the Artistic Partner of the FNOB Esa-Pekka Salonen, singer-songwriter, actor and dramaturg Paula Vesala, sound designer Tuomas Norvio and Ekho Collective, the team for concept, visual design and technical realization. 

Scored for voices and percussion, with the music and visual elements evolving in interaction with the audience, the twenty-minute Laila is to be experienced with a specially designed dome, housing six audience members, with COVID-19 safety measures.

In Laila, the audience is invited to participate in the creation of a new reality, an unknown future. As suggested by its title, a Finnish female name containing the acronym AI, artificial intelligence is an important aspect of shaping the whole experience.  

Commissioned by the FNOB, Laila is a production of the Opera Beyond ecosystem, created in collaboration with Nokia Bell Labs. 

Earlier this week, I sat down with Salonen and Vesala for a discussion on the whole creative process of Laila, from its launch in February 2019 all the way to the premiere. Salonen and Vesala first worked together while living in Los Angeles. 


ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: ”We were neighbors in LA, and I went to study with Paula, because I wanted to get to know how pop music is written. And she was kind enough to teach me. We’ve kept in touch and collaborated ever since.” 


For Laila, Salonen and Vesala were joined sound designer Tuomas Norvio and Ekho Collective, the winning team of the 2019 the First Session competition by the FNOB’s Opera Beyond initiative.


PAULA VESALA: ”For us as a team, the key thing was to dismantle the hierarchies often associated with the world of opera, and collaborate as equals.” 


Laila is presented in a specially built dome, with 360-degree sound design and visual projection. In addition, each audience member is given a portable loudspeaker to wear. Upon entering the dome, each member of the audience is asked to choose words from a computer screen to be spoken and recorded, and later incorporated into the sonics by the AI.

As a part of the experience the members of audience are free to move within the space. The movements generate interactions within the material.

The initial series of 136 performances were sold out way in advance. With more performances now added, Laila runs through 13 September, with a total of 306 performances at the Almi Hall of the FNOB, thus enabling 1836 people to experience it.


The process of co-creating Laila began with a narrative framework, developed by Vesala and the Ekho Collective. As for the interactive materials, music became first.


EPS: ”I knew from the start that this project will not involve composing in the traditional sense of writing one contingent whole from the beginning to the end. Instead, I wrote a couple of composition-like sections, alongside producing material for various soundscapes. 

The real challenge was that whatever was going to happen on the auditive level, it should never feel random or chaotic. Instead, there would be a mechanism controlling the whole thing. And in this case, that mechanism is harmony. 

The music is based on a five or six-part harmony, and everything that happens, is subjected to the rules of that harmony. So the harmony is locked into the timeline. And it is actually the only thing fixed from the beginning.” 


Laila closes with three-and-a-half-minute fully written out section, which is the most traditionally ’composed’ sequence in the whole twenty-minute piece. Elsewhere, the border between a composition and a soundscape is often elusive.


EPS: ”In certain sections, there is a lot of interaction between the audience and the sonic material. It is hard to estimate the percentages, but here and there the interaction has a crucial effect on the dramaturgy, whereas at some points it is more subtle. And then there are moments when the audience has no impact on the auditive component. 

The clarity of the interactive experience has been our key goal from the beginning. So that people will truly have the feeling that they are not powerless in this world, but their actions truly have an impact.”  


Each of the thirteen singers and six percussionists of the FNOB were recorded on separate tracks, in order to provide optimal setting for spatial sound mix. With the musical material thus available, the creative process entered the next phase. 


PV: ”Based on a thorough study of the musical potential, we then built a 360-degree, reactive (to a certain point) sound design. And only then we got to work with the visuals. So we did proceed one element at a time.

In some other context, our installation might have turned out more, let’s say, meditative. But given that we have been working with the Finnish National Opera, and the dramatic aspect is an essential part of the operatic expression, we came up with bigger gestures. I find it quite cool to be able to relate to this tradition. 

It is really astonishing that the FNOB has been willing to let us study all these things that can be used to blow up the tradition. We went quite far out with Laila, which is awesome.” 

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Laila taking shape at the FNOB. © Ekho Collective

With complex interactive material, auditive and visual, projected within a dome of fabric and mirrors, combined with an intricate surround sound, there has been a lot of adjustment at play.


EPS: ”The challenge is to find the optimal amount of information per second. If there’s too much of it, the interactions are lost in the overall noise. With too little information, it all becomes boring. And this is what we’ve been fine-tuning over the past couple of weeks. Neither did we want to feed it to our audiences with a spoon, nor just leave them there scratching their heads and wondering, what the hell just happened.

So, the idea is to provide a curated, interactive experience. Otherwise, it would make no sense. And the interaction must be expressive. It must convey a certain feeling, although not necessarily a specific message; that feeling when you realize that your actions have consequences.

And what is it that moves us in this way? Not an easy question to answer.”


The search for an ideal balance between written and improvised material has been one of the fundamental musical questions across genres, be it jazz idioms or the limited aleatoricism of Witold Lutosławski, one of the key figures of postwar modernism.  


EPS: ”In music, be it classical, rock or especially jazz, freedom usually happens within strictly controlled guidelines. In jazz, solo improvisation is rooted in a chain of chords. And in rock too; a guitar solo is based on a fairy specific set of rules, and you are married to the harmony. You can go out, but not far out. 

And the same thing with Lutoslawski. He did allow freedom when the musical situation was simple. With more complexity, in harmony, for example, there was no freedom at all. Because he knew that if everything was free, it would yield to cacophony. And mess is never expressive. It may be fun, occasionally, but it expresses nothing.”   


Prior to Laila, Salonen too has incorporated some freedom into his musical fabric, though on a smaller scale. The second movement of his Cello Concerto (2017) calls forth a sound designer, who samples live material from the solo line into loops, within the guidelines indicated in the score. In similar vein, some of the percussion parts in his Frank Gehry tribute, FOG (2019) are not fully written out, but left to the performer to improvise. 

Paula Vesala and Esa-Pekka Salonen at the FNOB press conference. © Jari Kallio

PV: ”In the end, the most important thing for us is to convey the feeling or understanding that as a member of the audience, you have an impact on the outcome. You may also be passive, that is a choice you can make too, but the idea is that each time, the choices make a difference.”   


For each of the 1836 people potentially attending Laila over the next three weeks, the experience will be always unique, both aurally and visually, depending on their location and actions (or inactions) within the dome.


PV: ”It has been super-fascinating to follow how the Echo Collective has been providing us with all these solutions regarding to the AI of the piece: How much freedom there can be within the visuals, without it all ending up in chaos? How to balance between freedom and restrictions, in order to make in intelligible?  

In theory, it might sound cool to give the AI complete freedom. In practice, it would most likely result in twenty minutes of total mess, because Laila is such a complex thing as a whole. 

Of course, all kinds of cool ideas present themselves along the process, but so do various realities also, such technical limitations. In the end, it is always the same old story; you can’t really know these things until you get to mount the whole thing onstage and are able to start trying things out.

There were times when the whole thing seemed to be out of our control, but having a core narrative has helped a lot. And on these final stages of the process, we’ve achieved in making it all more clear.” 

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Installing Laila at the FNOB. © Ekho Collective

For Salonen and Vesala, the process has been a learning experience at the highest level. 


EPS: ”With this project, we’ve all been outside of our core skill-sets, because this is a whole new thing. So there’s been a kind of collective uncertainty around, which has been quite nice, actually. 

Now, I’m not saying that I’m always hundred per cent certain about the things I do, but when I’m starting to write, say, an orchestral piece, I am fully aware that I know how to write it. But this journey, all the way from the First Session competition to this rich and, hopefully, logical experience, has been quite something.”     


In the course of the process, the many aspcets of Laila have been perceived differently, depending the context.


PV:  “With all the elements now finished, it feels more like a multi-modal flush. It doesn’t really feel like twenty minutes, more like ten. The visuals are hyper-technical, but yet in an organic way.

Still, I’ll never forget the feeling with the sound only, when you could really hear all the sonic interactions when you were guided by your ear only. With the massive visual elements installed, you just don’t hear it all in the same way any more, but that is one of the things that must be accepted.”   

EPS: “It has been really interesting to interview our test audiences about their experiences. Many of them have said that they felt relaxed a bit like after a meditation or yoga or something like that.”

PV: “Could it be that when you are immersed in all the visual and auditive material, you just don’t think about anything else, but you just drop everything else for twenty minutes?”

EPS: “And also, you have no idea what is going to happen once you enter the dome. When you go to see an opera, or a ballet, or a gig, you always have at least some kind of framework about what is going to happen, but with Laila you don’t. You enter a funny-looking tent, and things start to happen. You may also be more open to the experience than in a conventional setting.”    


The opening week’s runs of Laila are also a part of the annual Helsinki Festival. In addition to the premiere performances at the FNOB, festival circuit and international touring has been a part of Laila’s concept for the very beginning.   


PV: ”It is so cool that we have the world premiere performances happening here and now. Of course, I am saddened by the that under these problematic times it will be difficult to tour with Laila, but that too will eventually happen.” 

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Data scientist and creative technologist Joonas Nissinen checking the interactive visuals of Laila © Ekho Collective

With the prospects of touring subjected to the overall uncertainty of the performing arts during the COVID-19 pandemic, alternative platforms have ben taken into consideration. 


EPS. ”There is a possibility of coding the whole thing as an VR experience for a headset. According to our main coder Joonas Nissinen, it should be a relatively simple thing to convert, given that Laila has been created using Unity, which is originally a game engine in itself. 

My first VR experience took place in the subway in New York City. It was something totally unique. There was this guy high with Google Cardboard glasses. Given that it was the Brooklyn subway, with the usual addicts onboard, my first impression was that that here we have yet another. But I soon realized that it got something to do with his glasses. 

Anyway, I pat him on the shoulder and said ’excuse me, but are those Google Cardboard glasses?’ And he said ’yeah, wanna try?’. And I did. It was three minutes of full-on VR, a New York flyover by night. Grainy as hell, but I was completely stunned there in the crowded subway.      

These new headsets have such dazzling capacity. It is no longer that grainy, crappy thing, as it used to be. Kaija (Saariaho) and I visited the Varjo offices to test their new headset which is absolutely awesome, with human eye resolution. With that, you no longer look at things, you see them. You look at the TV, but you see the world. 

At that level we are so far out there that one begins to wonder, will people simply want to stay there for the rest of our lives, Matrix-style, with intravenous infusions. Be that as it may, there are huge new possibilities with this technology.”  

PV: ”I find it interesting, how different platforms transform the experience. Within the dome, Laila is a shared thing. With a headset, it would be more solitary experience.

EPS: But how about Travis Scott launching his new album in Fortite with 2.3 million avatars in the audience. What kind of experience is that? Solitary or shared?.  


With so many things learned from co-creating Laila, both Vesala and Salonen are planning to adapt these new procedures for their future projects.   


PV: ”I’ve been getting all these ideas, for example, it would be fun to publish a collection of poems in an immersive setting. 

It must be kept in mind that these new tools also have their inherent, distinct laws, which have nothing to do with upgrading traditional forms. Rather, they give rise to ever-expanding new worlds, like new ground merging from the sea. ”

EPS: ”As performers, we are imprisoned by the fact that we create the timeline. We start singing or playing or conducting at moment X, and the piece ends at moment Y. And thus we pass our timeline on to our audience. 

I’ve discussed this a lot with Frank Gehry. He sees the interiors of his buildings as music, where people can enter and create their own timelines. And they can also return to things passed, something you can’t do in a concert. 

In Laila, there are moments, when the whole thing seems static, and people create very subtle dramaturgy with movement. And I’ve been thinking that the next step would be changing roles, providing people with a world where they can create their own timelines, where they can even go back to things, although that would come with price. So this might be the next challenge.”

© Jari Kallio




Esa-Pekka Salonen, composer

Paula Vesala, dramaturg

Tuomas Norvio, sound design

Ekho Collective, concept, visual design and technical team


Krista Kujala, Sanna Iljin, Helianna Herkkola, sopranos

Anna Erokhina, Raisa Vaarna, Ida Wallén, altos

Halim Shon, Joonas Eloranta, Jere Martikainen, tenors

Arto Hosio, Andrus Mitt, Robert McLoud, Jyrki Korhonen, basses

Uolevi Högström, Jukka Koski, Virva Kuusi, Mauri Myllys, Heikki Parviainen, Keijo Puumalainen, percussion

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor


A production of the Opera Beyond ecosystem

Commissioned by the Finnish National Opera and Ballet


20 August – 13 September (306 performances)

Mon – Fri 2 pm – 7.30 pm, Sat – Sun 12-19.30 

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