Icelandic Opera’s “Madama Butterfly” Reinforces Racist Stereotypes, Critics Say

Íslenska óperan / Facebook

The Icelandic Opera’s ongoing production of Madama Butterfly is reinforcing harmful stereotypes of Asian people, local critics say. The opera, composed by Puccini in 1904, centres on the relationship between a white, US naval officer and a 15-year-old Japanese girl. The state-funded production has been accused of using yellowface and Chinese characters in its set design. Vísir reported first.

Laura Liu, a Chinese-American violinist in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, was the first to publicly draw attention to the issue in a Facebook post. “When you wear another race as your costume that’s called dehumanization,” she wrote. Pictures of performers in the production show heavy face makeup, including painted-on black eyebrows and moustaches as well as black wigs. Many people of Asian origin assert that the characters used in the set design are Chinese rather than Japanese.

The production’s conductor, Levente Török, initially commented on Laura’s post, denying that the production contained racist elements. He later deleted his comment, but a screenshot remains available.

A state-funded production

Daniel Roh, a Korean-American stand-up comedian and teacher living in Iceland has published an open letter to the Icelandic Opera with suggestions on how the company could respond to the criticism with changes to the production and other constructive actions. He points out that the Icelandic Opera is funded in part by public money and that “Performing yellowface in such a big production funded by the state is dangerous. Racism is real and present in everyday Iceland.” Such public displays of racism “can lead to real harm and alienation,” Daniel added.

Daniel is organising a protest of the production at Harpa Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon at 6:30 PM. “There are three performances left, more than enough time to take off some wigs,” he wrote in his letter.

Stage director responds to criticism

The production’s stage director and set designer Michiel Dijkema responded to Laura’s post with a lengthy comment. According to Dijkema, those responsible for the production “have not attempted to change skin color or shape of the eyes to make the singers look Japanese, but we have used elements from theatre makeup of Japanese theatre forms such as “Noh” and “Kabuki” that according to Dijkema “makes the singers actually much whiter.” Dijkema asserted that he had asked “several friends and colleagues of Asian heritage if they would consider such an approach racist, which they didn’t.” As for the characters on the set, Dijkema insisted they were “Japanese Kanji characters” that are “mainly identical to Chinese characters.” Others in the comments, including Japanese individuals, have argued these assertions.

In his comment, Dijkema invited Laura to have a private conversation about the production. In response to Dijkema’s comment, Guðrún Helga Halldórsdóttir wrote: “[The Icelandic Opera] has received grants from the Icelandic government and therefore I ask of you to respect that this should be debated publicly and not to look at this as one on one debate between you and Laura Liu. The Opera is showing for the public, and we, a part of the public are upset and demand a change.”

Iceland: Internal Documents May Shed Light on Sale of Public Assets

Iceland's Althing

Lindarhvoll, a company founded to handle public assets following the banking collapse, must hand over a 37-page internal report on its dealings, the Prime Ministry’s Information Committee (Úrskurðarnefnd um upplýsingamál) has ruled. Opposition MPs have demanded the publication of other internal documents from the company that pertain to the sale of public assets that fell into state hands due to the banking collapse. The document is expected to shed light on whether the company in fact sold public assets at the best possible price. RÚV reported first.

Read More: Opposition MPs Demand Access to Banking Collapse Related Report

Lindarhvoll was founded by the Finance Ministry in 2016 to handle assets acquired by the government after Iceland’s banking collapse. In 2020, Frigus II ehf. sued Lindarhvoll and the Icelandic state for ISK 651 million [$4.6 million, €4.3 million] due to the sale of Klakka ehf. to another company. According to Frigus, the company’s purchase offer for Klakka ehf. was rejected in favour of an offer that did not fulfil the conditions of the sale. If that assertion proves true, it would mean Lindarhvoll did not necessarily act in the public’s best interest in the sale of public assets.

Internal data handed over

Opposition MPs have been calling for a 2018 internal report from Lindarhvoll to be made public, but despite pressure, it remains an internal document. Last Monday, the governing majority also voted against permitting MPs to submit questions about Lindarhvoll in parliament, leading Social-Democratic MP Jóhann Páll Jóhannsson to ask “What is it that the public is not allowed to see?”

The ruling made by the Information Committee does not concern the 2018 report, but other internal documents from Lindarhvoll: a 37-page report and memoranda on Lindarhvoll written by the law firm MAGNA for the Speaker’s Committee of Parliament. These documents will now be handed over to Frigus, as per the ruling.

Record Population Increase in Iceland

pedestrian street Laugavegur Reykjavík

Iceland’s population increased by 3.1% between January 2022 and January 2023: the largest increase since 1734 or as far back as population figures for Iceland go. The population was 387,758 on January 1 of this year, and had increased by 11,510 from last year, according to the latest figures from Statistics Iceland. Population increase was proportionally greatest in the southwest.

Proportionally greatest population increase in the Southwest

The population in the Reykjavík capital area increased by 2.8% between the start of 2022 and the start of 2023 or an increase of 6,651 residents. The southwest region showed the highest proportional increase in population, at 6.7%, or 1,941 residents. The population increase was 4.2% in South Iceland and 3.1% in West Iceland, which was above the country’s average. The population growth was proportionally lower in the Westfjords (2.4%), Northeast Iceland (2.0%) and East Iceland (1.8%). The smallest increase was in the Northwest, where the number increased by only 27 individuals or 0.4%.

Population decreased in 8 of 64 municipalities

There were 64 municipalities in Iceland on 1 January 2023, which is a decrease by five, due to merger. The municipalities are diverse in size of population. Reykjavík was the most populous with 139,875 inhabitants while Árneshreppur had the smallest population of 47 inhabitants. Twenty-nine municipalities had less than 1,000 inhabitants, but only eleven had 5,000 inhabitants or more. While the country’s overall population increased, the population decreased in eight of the country’s 64 municipalities.

Nearly two thirds of the population live in the capital area

About 63% of the population lived in the Reykjavík capital area at the start of this year, that is within the connected municipalities stretching from Hafnarfjörður to Mosfellsbær. This is a total of 242,995 people of the total population of 387,758. The second largest urban area in the country was Keflavík and Njarðvík, with 21,950 inhabitants. Akureyri, North Iceland and the surrounding area come in third at 19,887 inhabitants. Inhabitants in all of Iceland’s rural areas, defined as the countryside or localities with less than 200 inhabitants, totalled 22,752 individuals or 5.9% of the total population.

Iceland to Relax Work Permit Regulations for Foreigners

Iceland’s government will make sweeping changes to its work permit system for foreigners from outside the European Economic Area. The changes are intended to attract foreign workers from outside the EEA, including entrepreneurs, and retain students from outside the EEA who have completed studies in Iceland. The proposed changes were presented by three government ministers in a press conference yesterday.

Current system inefficient and restrictive, government says

“There is a need for a new approach for people from outside the EEA who want to move to Iceland, live, and work here,” a government press release on the initiative states. “Iceland is well behind the leading countries in international comparisons when it comes to attracting immigrants and making it possible for them to become full participants in society. The current arrangement is complicated and built on inefficient processes, decision-making within it is random as it is based on an unclear evaluation of the labour market and the restrictions for the granting of work permits are too narrow.”

In order to streamline and improve the current system, a working group proposed loosening regulations on residence and work permits, simplifying and digitising the application process for residency permits, combining residence and work permit applications, and ensuring predictability with projections of labour needs.

Permits attached to the individual, not their employer

Under the current system, foreign specialists from outside the EEA need to have a contract with an Icelandic employer in order to receive a work permit. If they lose their job, they also lose their permit to work in Iceland. The proposed system would still require non-EEA specialists to have a work contract in order to be granted a permit, but they would not lose their work permit if they stopped working for that initial employer.

Students granted three-year work permits

Students from outside the EEA who have completed studies in Iceland would also be granted a work permit for up to three years after leaving their studies. “We are educating foreign university students in our universities for our tax money, but we only allow them to be here for six months to settle in, find work, and have the possibility of some sort of work permit,” stated Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, Minister of Universities, Industry, and Innovation. “We are changing this and I am especially pleased that we will extend that time to three years.” Áslaug added that this three-year permit would also be granted to entrepreneurs starting their own businesses.

In addition to increasing the opportunities for students and specialists from outside the EEA to work in Iceland, the new regulations would provide opportunities for artists and people in other fields as well. Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson stated that the changes should help reduce social dumping and that additional analysis of the labour market will help identify where there are labour shortages.

Iceland needs foreign workers

Recent analyses have shown that Iceland will need 15,000 workers in the coming years to maintain economic stability and quality of life. Only 3,000 local residents are expected to age into the labour market during that period, meaning that the country will need some 12,000 workers from abroad to fill vacancies. Foreign workers have been a driver of economic growth and prosperity in Iceland in recent decades. Integrating and ensuring the rights of immigrant workers does pose challenges, however, including providing accessible Icelandic language education.