Monday, November 11, 2013

Interview: Tero Harjunniemi

At the moment, Finnish tenor Tero Harjunniemi plays the part of Jean Valjean in Tampereen Teatteri’s production of Les Misérables. Classically trained and having done many opera roles, his voice gives the part a unique twist. But how did he end up as the lead in the new Finnish production of world’s favourite musical, and what does he think about his character?

A while ago, I had the chance to find out.

During the past years, Tero Harjunniemi has been singing in various operas, operettas and musicals. But music isn’t the career he originally chose. He decided to become an architect when he was still in comprehensive school, and eventually became one. But on the side, he also studied singing. For years, he kept doing the two side by side, but finally, singing won.

“There are two things that I like a lot that I’ve always been somewhat good at: drawing and singing. The former affected my decision to become an architect, but singing has always been my ultimate dream. Music has always interested me, always affected me in some way”, Harjunniemi says.

Harjunniemi mentions that he sings mainly because he enjoys it himself, but the energy he gets from the audience is also important to him. One of the differences in between the two professions is the speed of getting feedback.

“You do get feedback when it comes to architecture, but that takes a while. When you’re singing in front of an audience, you get the feedback right away. It’s great. You don’t have to try guessing what people think about your work. Of course, nowadays, I can also tell myself if something is going wrong – my own estimate is rarely completely wrong.”

An ideal role

Harjunniemi says the role of Jean Valjean is a part that lets him use all his talents onstage. He wasn’t dreaming about doing the role before learning the musical would be produced in Tampere, but looking into the part, he found out it would suit him. 

Alfie Boe inspired me to audition for Les Mis. If he could sing the part in a classical style in the 25th Anniversary Concert, why couldn’t I? If they have voices like that in the role in London, why not in Finland?”

Why not indeed – Harjunniemi has been playing the part for the past few months and the reviews have been glowing. Originally, however, he wasn’t to be the only one to play the lead in the production. The role of Jean Valjean in TT’s Les Misérables was supposed to be split in between two actors. Before the premiere the alternate had to back out, but Harjunniemi was up to the challenge.

“A double opera I did in Oulu assured me I could do this. There, I did two opera roles – Cavalleria rusticana’s Turiddu and Gianni Schicci’s Rinuccio – back to back, on the same night, three nights in a row. After that, I was certain I could do five shows of Les Mis a week!”

Harjunniemi was sure the role of Jean Valjean would suit him vocally, but before the premiere, he was a bit uncertain about the looks.

“Valjean has been played by tall, rugged-looking guys…  So I wondered if I would look believable in the role. But makeup does wonders. I was looking at some photos taken during the premiere night’s curtain call and had to look at them twice before the realization hit me: oh, that’s me. I honestly didn’t recognize myself. I look quite convincing as a senior citizen!”

Character studies

Les Misérables is based on a classic work of literature, but Harjunniemi is still half-way through reading Victor Hugo’s brick of a novel. He thinks that while it’s interesting to see how the author originally saw the character, everything you need for the onstage performance can be found in the script of the show.

“I have been studying the character’s background online. But for the show itself, I don’t think research like that is necessary. You can’t show off your knowledge about the character’s origins onstage.”

Harjunniemi mentions that Les Misérables is a rare musical – not many musicals tell the whole life story of a person. In this case, the story begins in prison.

“Valjean’s sense of justice is very strong. He simply cannot accept the punishment he has been given.  He doesn’t seem like the sharpest crayon in the box, though, trying to escape the prison so many times and not making it… Maybe there’s some simplicity in the character, and why wouldn’t there be. He’s a normal guy”, Harjunniemi ponders about his character.

The Bishop’s gift of candlesticks changes Jean Valjean for good. Harjunniemi wonders, however, if the Bishop alone could’ve helped Valjean to the right track. He thinks there must be another experience in Valjean’s life that motivates the big character change.

 “What has taught Valjean to accept the chance the Bishop offers to him? I’m sure there has been someone in Valjean’s life, before the Bishop, who has given him love, goodness, warmth – something. Nothing else explains how Valjean was able to turn the love the Bishop shows towards him into opportunities for another people. I don’t believe a man can change just like that unless something good has happened in his childhood. The prison doesn’t make you very gentle, after all!”

In the musical, Valjean’s character embodies the themes of love, caring, and forgiveness. Yet his life is never easy:

 “Valjean is afraid of getting caught all the time. And that fear grows stronger from the moment he meets Cosette and decides to take care of her.”

The fear is personalized in Javert, Valjean’s opposing force.

“I consider the character of Javert to be deranged in some way.  When he can’t do his job, it’s too much for him to bear. It’s a little silly to think that is his reason for committing suicide. He has had a really bad childhood that has affected him in the wrong way. Then he’s ended up in a profession where you can control people – as long as it’s in accord with the law, he has the chance to do treat others whichever way he wants. During the course of the story, he stops using common sense altogether.“

“Valjean, then, thinks with common sense all the way through and sees things in a completely different light. That’s where the theme of forgiveness comes into play. Valjean sees no reason to take his revenge on Javert, even though he has multiple chances to do just that.”

Is there anything in common in between the actor and the character?

“Determination is a trait I share with Valjean. Once you decide to do something, then you do that, no matter what happens on the way! Acting is always about becoming someone else. But it has been easy becoming Valjean, seeing how he stands for things I could imagine standing for myself.”

Fantastic combination

The tickets for the spring 2014 season of Les Misérables are on sale, so for a while still, Harjunniemi’s life will be all about Les Misérables. And who knows, maybe the future might hold more musicals in store.

“I like the world of musicals, and I suppose there are many musical roles that might suit me, seeing that I also sing in a non-classical style. But the show has to mean something to me. Just like opera – next, I would like to do a role that touches me.”

Summing up his life at the moment, Harjunniemi feels happy:

”For me, this combines a hobby and a job. I think that’s the ideal situation. You get to do what you want, and maybe sometimes somebody even pays you something for doing it. That’s a fantastic combination.”

Suomalaiset lukijat, kuunnelkaa myös tämä: audiohenkilökuvassa Tero Harjunniemi