|Olavinlinna Castle - Home of the Savonlinna Opera|
It would probably shock the heck out of Danish knight, Erik Axelsson Tott, who founded Ovalinlinna Castle in 1475, to learn that what started out as a defensive fortification has since become the home of a summer opera festival that draws thousands of opera lovers from all around the world to the lovely lake country of southeastern Finland.
Through the centuries, Ovalinlinna (literally St. Olaf’s Castle) was added on to and assaulted by foreign invaders several times, but it still stands, a massive stone citadel that claims the title of the northern-most, still-standing Medieval stone castle.
Remarkably preserved and built on a small granite island and surrounded by Europe’s fourth largest lake, Lake Saimaa, the restored castle offers tours daily that give visitors a look inside the circular towers, the king’s massive dining room, the central courtyard as well as several other rooms large and small. Just be prepared to climb up a stone staircase or two along the way that can be a formidable task for the physically challenged.
Today, Ovalinlinna’s major claim to fame its opera festival, held each July when the evening sky can still be lit by the fading rays of the sun until 10:30 or even later. Because the castle is connected to the mainland town of Savonlinna by two footbridges that cross the lake, both the well-heeled and those of lesser means approach the festival on foot. No fancy limos pulling up to the entrance way here.
Still, for all, it’s exhilarating to make the march to the castle, where the Finnish flag breezes from the top of one of its three towers. People like to stop along the way and take one another’s photo with the castle in the background, listen to a group of talented children singing nursery rhymes on the access island, then enter the castle courtyard through a massive portal.
The initial idea for the Savonlinna Opera Festival came from Finnish opera diva and ardent patriot, Aino Ackte, in 1907, the year Finland democratically elected its first Parliament by universal suffrage. While attending a political meeting in the castle, Ackte saw the possibility of staging an opera festival in this very romantic setting.
The first opera festival was staged in 1912 and grew in renown until the First World War and ensuing economic difficulties put the festival on hold for nearly four decades. Ardent supporters, after years of planning, staged a televised production of "Fidelio" in 1967 that put Savonlinna back on the operatic map.