A SNOW-COVERED sculpture garden designed by Kain Tapper entitled ``Prelude'' and a modernly designed arch emblazoned with the Finnish word ``Ooppera'' welcome visitors to the recently completed home of the Finnish National Opera.
Designed by Finnish architect Eero Hyvamaki, this is the first hall to be built in Finland specifically for opera and ballet productions.
Eighteen years in the making from the time a design competition was announced and its completion in December, the building is an impressive structure of white marble, granite, and glass.
The opera house joins several other important civic structures that line the gently curving shoreline of Toolonlahti Bay in central Helsinki: Sibelius Hall, home of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; the National Museum; and the City Theater.
From the bay-side entrance - for those arriving by car - or through the pedestrian entrance one story higher, high-vaulted glass foyers barely separate opera-goers visually from the outdoors. From the north foyer, all of central Helsinki is visible.
The walls of the entrance areas are essentially white plaster and tile, with floors of light-blue, veined Italian Carrara marble (the only building material used that is not of Finnish origin).
Rose-tinted beechwood tables in the cloakroom areas prepare visitors for the predominant wood color in the main auditorium. Specially commissioned paintings and sculptures adorn the walls of the intermission areas and help create a warm, artistic ambience in these large spaces.
Less than half the structure is visible from the outside. Only the glass-enclosed foyers and stage tower can be seen from afar. Theater working areas are mostly underground: loading docks, scene-construction shops, costume wardrobes, property-storage rooms, and scenery-storage areas.
The house has two theaters. The main auditorium, used for opera and ballet, seats 1,365 on the main floor, two curved balconies, and a gallery. The orchestra pit can accommodate 130 musicians.
The acoustics - always a serious concern with the opening of a new hall designed for music performance - are excellent. The view of the stage would have been better, however, if the main floor had been raked at a little steeper angle.
Because of the overall contour of the auditorium with its four levels, no patron is far from the playing area of the stage, thus giving a feeling of intimacy.
A smaller hall, called the Alminisali, is named for Alfons Almi, who long championed the need for a permanent home for Finnish opera. It was designed to be highly ``adjustable.'' Seating capacity can vary from 180 to 480. The stage can extend to the size of the main auditorium or shrink to a tiny area only a few feet square.
The hall's acoustics vary from a resonance time of 1.5 to 3 seconds. The Alminisali is used for rehearsals, experimental productions, and educational programs.
FINANCIAL problems were responsible for most of the 18-year delay in building the structure.
The project was pushed from one government office (the Ministry of Education) to another (the National Board for Public Works). The opera company is run by a government-established foundation that receives most of its money from the Ministry of Education through profits earned by the national lottery.
When construction finally began, it coincided with the frantic boom period in the building industry, raising costs above the amount estimated. This, in turn, necessitated elimination of an exhibition area and some scenery-storage space from the plans.
An extraordinary number of subcontractors were brought in, and, toward the end of construction, the project was overshadowed by a global recession. Bankruptcies and delivery difficulties further delayed the opening two years.
Since Finland is beset by recession, unemployment, and soaring public debt, a small band of protesters demonstrated against the high cost of the structure outside the opera house on opening night. Now, unless the government can find additional funds to increase the budget, 30 orchestra musicians and 20 chorus singers will soon need to be released, significantly paring down a company that had 480 employees in 1993.
Performances during opening week featured ``Kullervo,'' an opera commissioned for the gala festivities; ``Carmen,'' the world's most frequently staged opera; and the ever-popular Tchaikovsky ballet ``Swan Lake.''
Architect Eero Hyvamaki sums up the meaning of the new opera house when he says, ``It's meant for all Finns.''
General director Walton Gronroos adds, ``For the first time in the history of the company, we now have the chance to present opera and ballet on their true scale in a theater specifically built for the purpose.
``The building is society's gift to us as a company. What we fill it with will be our gift to society,'' he says.