Cover story Misc

The tigress of the world


Prima donna of the Grand Opera in Paris

Aino Achté was born in Helsinki on the 23rd of April 1876 to Emmy and Niklas Achté. The Achtés were talented musicians, and Aino learnt to sing from her mother. The audiences loved her from her very first performance. Aged 17, Aino was a tall, slender girl with big brown eyes, an exceptional voice, and great skill. She had another important asset as well, namely her mother. Emmy Achté was an ambitious and enterprising woman who had aspired to an international career herself, and studied in the conservatories of Stockholm, Dresden and Paris. It was the Paris Conservatoire she now chose for her daughter: it represented the absolute élite of the French musical scene, and could launch a successful student into fame.

Having passed the entrance examination with flying colours Aino studied at the Conservatoire for three years (1894-7). Her diligence and ambition were soon noted, but the competition was intense, and Aino's surname made her the butt of jokes as its French pronunciation resembled that of the word "achetée" (bought). "Excusez-moi, mademoiselle Achté, mais est-que vous êtes déjà acheteé?", one of her teachers would often say, eventually leading Aino to change the "h" in Achté to a "k", Ackté.

Regardless of the name, Aino's studies were a success. At the end of her third year she won the first prize at the annual competition of the opera class. This secured her a place at the Grand Opera of Paris, or the Théâtre National de l'Opéra as it was known at the time. Her début role as Marguerite in Charles Gounod´s "Faust" was a triumph, and the Opera eventually came to sign her for six years (1897-1903), during which time she made several recordings.


A cultural ambassadress

Ackté and the painter Albert Edelfelt were considered unofficial cultural ambassadors of Finland. At the Paris World Exhibition of 1900 the young prima donna had an active role in organising concerts of Finnish music. Her diplomatic skills and intimate knowledge of Paris helped ensure the success of the Finnish Pavilion, and thus consolidated for their part the idea of Finland as an autonomous cultural entity.

Ackté and Edelfelt, who had observed his young compatriot's career from its start, were friends, and Edelfelt painted a number of portraits of her. Back home, the two might have been rumoured to be more than just friends, but in the eyes of the Parisians Ackté was exceptionally celibate. Her private life gave little cause for gossip. In fact Ackté had been secretly engaged to Heikki Renvall, a fennoman lawyer, since 1896. Her mother and the Opera were against the marriage, as it was thought to be an impediment to her career, but the couple eventually married in the spring of 1901. Later that year Aino gave birth to a little girl, and in 1908 the Ackté-Renvall couple had a son. The marriage ended in divorce nine years later, and in 1919 Ackté married the general, Governor Bruno Jalander.


{mosimage}Disappointment and success

The Metropolitan Opera had been courting Ackté for some time when in 1903 she finally had the chance to disengage herself from the Grand Opera. The Americans signed her for two seasons, but the experience proved to be a disappointment. The competition was even fiercer than in Paris, the audience favoured the Italian style of opera, and Ackté could not reconcile herself with the language, the magazines' practice of reviewing performances (in exchange for bribes), or the American lifestyle in general. She missed Europe, Paris, and the civilisation she was accustomed to.

Ackté returned to Europe, and started increasingly to tour the great stages of England and Germany, singing parts from Wagner's "Mastersingers", "Lohengrin", "Tannhäuser", "Flying Dutchman", and "Siegfrid" as well as Puccini's "Tosca" and Massenet's "Thaïs". Her greatest success, however, was in the role of "Salome". Ackté had heard of this new, challenging opera by Richard Strauss already in 1906. Strangely transfixed, she studied the part zealously under the composer himself. Not only did she study the music, but she also secured a famous orientally styled dress (designed to give an illusion of near-nakedness) from the foremost fashion house in Paris, and worked out a choreography for the "Dance of the Seven Veils" with an expert of ancient on Greek dances. It was all for one goal: Ackté considered Salome the role of her life, one that could make her the No. One opera singer of the world.

The 1910 performance of Salome in Covent Garden finally obtained Ackté the climax she had longed for. The opening night was a high society event, and Ackté delivered on all the expectations. The audience was absolutely entranced by her dramatic, passionate Salome; the clamour of the crowd forced the curtain up sixteen times, and the stage overflowed with flowers. The reviews called her a cat, a tigress, an enchantress, a Woman, a pure sensation, and reportedly Strauss himself told Ackté that she was the best Salome in the world. 

Pioneer of the Finnish opera

Ackté's international career came slowly to an end at the eve of the First World War. She continued to give occasional concerts abroad, but on the whole the war made it easier for her to gradually retire from the stage. She now turned her attention fully to the needs of the Finnish opera. 

Finnish opera had experienced a golden age in the 1870s, but since then there had been only a few irregular groups performing at their own expense. There was, and had been for years, talk of a national opera, and Aino Ackté decided to turn the idea into reality. In 1911 Ackté, together with Edward Fazer, Oskar Merikanto and others, established the Kotimainen ooppera – Inhemska operan, renamed in 1914 the Finnish Opera, and today known as the Finnish National Opera. Ackté brought her artistic abilities, international style and glamour to the new house while her mother acted as singer, teacher, and artistic director. The first performances were a success, but the artists perceived Ackté to be rude and arrogant. She became entangled in bitter disagreements with the other founders, and was forced to quit the enterprise.

After leaving the Kotimainen ooppera Ackté began to organise international opera festivals in the historic castle of Olavinlinna, Savonlinna. The setting was perfectly beautiful, St. Petersburg only short distance away, and the town teemed with summer guests seeking amusement. "I wish to offer artistic experiences also for those people who have never in been to opera", Ackté explained to the press. She organised the festival successfully during the years 1912-1914, again after the war in 1916, and finally in 1930, when she also gave her last public performance. In 1938 Ackté was invited to become the director of the Finnish Opera, but after one glorious season, and renewed quarrels about budget, she resigned the post.

Aino Ackté died of pancreatic cancer on the 8th of August 1944. Savonlinna and Helsinki have streets named after her, and the City of Helsinki owns her summerhouse of 40 years, Villa Aino Ackté, which has been restored to its original appearance.

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