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Mozart meets COVID-19: Finnish opera adapts classic piece

Singers at the Finnish National Opera rehearse "Covid fan tutti," a satirical take on a famed opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart but with an adapted contemporary story line that reflects the Nordic country's pandemic experiences, in Helsinki, on Thursday Aug. 20, 2020. The show follows the lives of ordinary Finish people, the news conferences by the government and pandemic experts with satirical undertones. (Stefan Bremer/Finnish National Opera via AP)

HELSINKI (AP) — After being forced to cancel all its spring performances due to the coronavirus pandemic, Finland’s National Opera is opening this fall with an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart featuring a topical twist: a story line that plays off of the Nordic country’s outbreak.

The 100-minute piece “Covid fan tutte” is meant as a satirical adaptation of the Austrian composer’s classic “Cosi fan tutte.”

The Finnish-language production that premieres Friday conveys “scenes from the coronavirus spring” in Finland with a look at social isolation, job losses and travel restrictions, among other topics. The artists say the work doesn’t aim to make fun of a human tragedy.

“Without humor, these extraordinary times would have been very hard to take,” said soprano Karita Mattila, who will sing the role of a maid, Despina, a character from Mozart’s classic who is now navigating her way through the pandemic.

The opera will be put on under strict distancing rules. Performed on the Helsinki Opera House’s main stage, only 650 spectators will be allowed inside, half the venue’s capacity. Face masks are strongly recommended, though not compulsory. There will be no choir on the stage but its singing will be heard through a prerecorded performance.

Mozart’s Italian-language “Cosi fan tutte” — first performed in 1790 — was his lighthearted take on the merry-go-round of human relationships. The plot of “Covid fan tutte” follows the lives of ordinary Finns amid news conferences by the government and virus experts, while adding satirical undertones.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor, described it as “absurd comedy.”

“Mozart was a mischievous and imaginative fellow who wasn’t chained to conventional thinking,” Salonen said. “He would probably be very excited about this project.”

Finland, a nation of 5.5 million, has so far recorded only 335 COVID-19 related deaths. The country entered into partial lockdown in mid-March but regulations were relaxed in June.

“We’re not laughing at the COVID-19 tragedy and crisis. The work simply tells about the reality we’ve been living in,” said Salonen, who is also a composer and currently works as the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. “Opera is often accused of not living in modern times and not reacting quickly to contemporary issues. This work now deals with our times and people.”

The piece features libretto by Finnish writer Minna Lindgren accompanied by Mozart’s original score. While it can take up to three years for opera houses to plan and prepare a new work, the National Opera completed this piece in less than six months.

“Covid fan tutte” will have 12 performances with subtitles in English and Swedish, running through Oct. 23.