Alma Fohstrom: kansainvalinen primadonna (Finnish) [Alma Fohstrom: An International Prima Donna].
The subject of Svetlana Toivakka's doctoral thesis is one of Finland's most successful international singers, the coloratura soprano Alma Fohstrom (1856-1936). Alma Fohstrom studied singing, among other subjects, in St. Petersburg, and while young first appeared in Helsinki on the stage of the Finnish Theatre, where in the 1870s they performed the opera classics. Her international career started in the Kroll Theatre in Berlin and continued after that on stages in Italy, London, Bucharest, Russia, South America, and the Baltic States. In the mid-1880s, Alma Fohstrom took part in a tour of the U.S. organised by the impresario Colonel Mapleson. The tour was not an unequivocal success but it is to be noted that Alma Fohstrom stood in as Adelina Patti's replacement on the tour. Adelina Patti was undoubtedly the international singer that Alma Fohstrom was compared to, as were so many other sopranos at the turn of the nineteenth century. Later Alma Fohstrom took up teaching and was, for instance, a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire from 1909 to 1918; after leaving Russia as a result of the Revolution she continued as a professor at the Berlin Stern Conservatoire between 1920 and 1928. After this she continued to teach singing in Helsinki until her death.
The use of a diverse range of source material covering many languages is one of the most notable aspects of Toivakka's thesis. Her work is significant and even groundbreaking in bringing Russian sources into the study of Finnish music, which has traditionally focused on Nordic and Central European roots. Hopefully in the future, the results of this research will be made available to an international audience. An important material source has been the Alma Fohstrom album, housed in the National Library in Helsinki, which contains, among other items, concert programmes, drawings, and poems dedicated to Alma Fohstrom. This can be compared to many other similar albums of female singers of the period. Alma Fohstrom's life and art is reconstructed in the thesis through letters and other archival material, photographs, newspaper and periodical reports, scores, textbooks--especially Alma Fohstrom's teacher Henriette Nissen-Saloman's Singing School of 1881--and some preserved recordings of Alma Fohstrom.
Toivakka's research adheres to the three current trends in Finnish musicology: microhistory, performance studies, and academic biography. Microhistory's key and accepted premises (amongst others "exceptionally typical") are supplemented by Lev Gumilev's methodological ideas, which emphasise the cohesion between micro- and macrohistory. It has long been the case in Finland that biography is a feature of popular literature. In the last few years, however, many biographical studies have been published which are, without doubt, academic in nature. Performance studies has been on the rise in Finland in the last twenty years and Toivakka's research, in this respect, is firmly anchored in current musicological questions.
Toivakka is supported by a number of new international studies that have focused on individual prima donnas or more broadly on the prima donna phenomenon. The prima donna concept and controversies are well covered in the text and the author has a solid understanding of singing history and opera literature. Adelina Patti was perhaps the most celebrated singer of her time and, as a prima donna, unique. Sometimes it seems that in Toivakka's study Patti is too dominant and in some ways portrayed as the ideal prima donna type: Patti's stature was dominant but, perhaps, because of her fame she was not a typical prima donna.
The chosen emphases and chronological solutions in the thesis are in part bold and I missed a little more historical self-reflection, which would have clarified the direction of the study. It is recommended that the readers acquaint themselves with the appendices which include exact and valuable information concerning Alma Fohstrom's life, concert appearances, and repertoire. The microhistoric approach has influenced the choice of the central characters and elucidates in an interesting way, for instance, the role of Alma Fohstrom's sister Augusta: her sister's support and assistance on her tours abroad, but in her own life remained totally in her sister's shadow.
The generalisations and conclusions arrived at from the material might be problematic from a microhistorical viewpoint of which the aim is to elucidate the course of everyday history from the grass-roots level. The conclusions reached by Toivakka reach higher than a historical narrative and are believable since they tie in logically with her text. Alma Fohstrom's life is portrayed realistically, which is not always typical for biographies of many well-known artists.
Toivakka's doctoral thesis is not only a reminder of the connection between the Finnish performing arts and the Russian music sphere and more widely the contact base between Central Europe and Russia during the period under consideration, but also a reminder that in Finnish music culture there is much more than solely Sibelius ideals. The Italian opera culture was surprisingly nearer that of Finland partly due to the proximity of St. Petersburg but also because of the international merits of prima donnas such as Alma Fohstrom.
Matti Huttunen, Professor emeritus Helsinki, Finland Trans. Dr John Nelson