New National Opera to Launch Next Year

Icelandic Opera

A new National Opera will begin operations next year as a division of Þjóðleikhúsið, the National Theatre of Iceland. The opera will stage its shows in Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík, as well as Hof in Akureyri and other venues across the country, Mbl.is reports.

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, minister of culture and business affairs, has introduced a draft bill on the new opera, which estimates operating costs of ISK 800 Million [$5.8 Million, €5.4 Million] per year. The opera will employ 12 solo singers and a choir of 16 part-time employees, as well as other staff. The opera will also be responsible for educational activities, collaboration with music companies, theatre companies, and choirs outside of the capital area, and other grassroots work. The opera should aim to stage at least one Icelandic work every year.

Opera in flux

A national opera has been in the pipeline for years as a part of the government coalition platform. A director of the opera will be appointed for a five year term, and will have artistic and operational independence to run the opera, despite ultimately answering to the artistic director of the National Theatre. Two more members will be added to the National Theatre’s board, both of whom should have experience with operatic works.

The state of opera in Iceland has been in flux in recent years. The Icelandic Opera, the leading opera company, lost its public funding last year after the union of opera singers criticised its administration. The union supported a national opera being founded in its stead.

Reykjavík to Address Short-Term Rental Market Disruption

iceland refugees

The number of apartments available for short-term rental in Reykjavík has risen sharply in recent years, paralleling the increased flow of foreign tourists into the country. Many such apartments are owned and operated by companies rather than individuals. Due to a regulatory change from 2018, companies do not have to register such units as commercial properties, allowing them to evade higher property taxes and making them harder for municipalities to track. RÚV reported first.

Short-term rentals occupy entire buildings

Kristrún Frostadóttir, chairperson of the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin), voiced her concerns about the impact of short-term rentals during a question period in Parliament last week. She pointed out that many apartment buildings that had been zoned as residential were largely, or entirely, occupied by short-term rentals. This has a negative impact on the real estate market, according to Kristrún. The MP also pointed out the difficulties municipalities face due to these apartments not being registered as commercial properties.

As noted by RÚV, the regulation was altered during Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir’s tenure as Minister of Tourism. Speaking before Parliament yesterday, Þórdís stated that she had considered updating the regulation but stressed the need for municipal responsibility.

“Given the recent media reports, it’s apparent that the situation is not ideal. I urge the honourable member of Parliament to consult with her peers at Reykjavík City Council about managing Airbnb activities in the capital,” Þórdís stated.

Reykjavík seeks regulatory amendment

Reykjavík Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson described the 2018 regulatory change as problematic. He stated that it made it more difficult to track short-term rentals and enforced regulations, “especially our ban on year-round short-term rentals in residential areas. We advocate for reverting this legislation and maintain that local authorities should oversee this sector, currently managed by the district commissioner,” Dagur told RÚV.

Dagur also mentioned his intention, on behalf of the city, to formally request Tourism Minister Lilja Alfreðsdóttir to amend the regulation. “Addressing such issues, where regulations lead to unintended consequences, is a crucial collaborative effort,” he added.

Icelandic Language Strengthened in “Landmark” Initiative

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, Katrín Jakobsdóttir

The Icelandic government has announced what it is calling a “landmark” initiative to strengthen the Icelandic language. The initiative includes 19 measures to support the preservation and development of Icelandic, many aimed at supporting immigrants’ language learning. Expected to cost at least ISK 1.4 billion [$9.9 million; €9.1 million], the initiative will receive additional funding over the coming years.

The initiative was announced at a press conference yesterday by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Culture and Trade Minister Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, and Social Affairs and Labour Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson. It is a collaborative project between five ministries and was developed in a cross-ministerial committee on the Icelandic language established last November. The initiative will be introduced to Parliament as a parliamentary resolution in the coming days.

Icelandic as a second language support

The 19 measures of the initiative include work-related Icelandic lessons for immigrants alongside work, improving the quality of Icelandic education for immigrants, and establishing online studies in Icelandic and Icelandic as a second language. One of the measures is supporting Icelandic language education for staff of preschools and after-school centres. The initiative also aims to provide additional support for Icelandic language technology as well as Icelandic subtitling and dubbing.

Iceland Review has regular coverage of the latest in Icelandic language programs and policies. For more on the government policy surrounding Icelandic language education for immigrants, read Nothing to Speak Of.

Journalists Criticise Grindavík Access Restrictions

Rescue workers assist Grindavík residents

The restricted access for journalists to the town of Grindavík is undermining the media’s role in reporting and accountability, two editors stated in an interview with RÚV yesterday. The Minister of Culture and Business Affairs has called for safe and reliable reporting from the area.

Restricted access since last Thursday

Journalists and reporters have not been allowed to enter the town of Grindavik since last Thursday when a system was implemented allowing only one cameraman and one photographer access to the area. They were then tasked with sharing their material with other media outlets. 

Yesterday, access for media personnel was completely restricted due to poor weather conditions. As noted by RÚV, the Union of Icelandic Journalists is considering actions in response to this ban. 

Media’s role being undermined

In an interview with RÚV yesterday, Erla Björg Gunnarsdóttir – editor of the newsroom of Vísir, Stöð 2, and Bylgjan – stated that the role of the media was being severely undermined: “The role of the media is to gather information, disseminate information, allow the public voice to be heard, and hold authorities accountable. These restrictions in Grindavik entirely prevent the media from fulfilling this role.” 

Þorsteinn Ásgrímsson Melén, assistant news editor of Mbl.is, agreed with Erla’s observations: “It’s not just that an entire town has been sidelined, it’s also the construction of these protective barriers, which are a massive undertaking.” 

“There’s a lot that needs to be monitored, and it’s natural for the media to keep an eye on things. Both for the residents, to be their eyes and ears on the ground, but also to check the power of the state,” Þorsteinn added.

Consideration is not everything

When asked whether the difficult circumstances facing Grindavík residents, and recent criticism of the media not showing adequate consideration, could have something to do with these restrictions, Þorsteinn replied: “Of course, consideration should always be shown, but if we always had to report on things from that standpoint alone, a large part of history would not be recorded.”

“Our journalists have heart,” Erla added. “They take precautions and show caution. The voices of Grindavík residents in recent days, those Grindavík residents who have participated in interviews, are so important. This is crucial for the public to gain some insight into the lives of these people.”

Both Erla and Þorsteinn expressed regret at the fact that there had been no consultation with the media regarding the current arrangement. “We are simply informed of how the arrangement is – and the arrangement is not suitable for the media,” Erla commented. “We need to stop treating the media like naughty children on a field trip to Grindavík. We cannot provide a convincing account of what is happening in Grindavík if we are not permitted entry”

“First and foremost, I would like to see this ban lifted,” Þorsteinn added. “I can see no reasonable explanation for the drone ban over the area, for example. No justification has been given.”

Restrictions contributing to misleading coverage

Speaking to RÚV yesterday, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, the Minister of Culture and Business Affairs responsible for media affairs, expressed concern about the misleading coverage of the geological unrest in Reykjanes, especially in foreign media. She conjectured that this could be attributed to the media’s restricted access to Grindavík.

“I believe that enhancing safety measures, which I see as a priority, will benefit everyone. Once safety is assured, it’s crucial to improve the dissemination of information about the area. To achieve this, we need to ensure clearer access,” Lilja stated. “In my role as the Minister of Media, I place a strong emphasis on the importance of safe and reliable media coverage of the area. Regrettably, access has not seen the necessary improvements.”

When asked about improving access, Lilja stated that there had been extensive discussions among her fellow ministers about this issue, which had been brought up during a government meeting yesterday morning. 

Minister Questions Rising Prices Amid Strengthening Króna

The Minister of Culture and Business Affairs is seeking clarification from major grocery chains on why the prices of perishable goods have risen, despite a strengthening króna and a global downturn in inflation, RÚV reports.

Impact of Tourism on Inflation

On Wednesday, the central bank increased its key interest rate by 0.5%, bringing it to 9.25%. Leaders from the Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ) and the VR union have expressed concerns about the tourism industry’s rapid expansion, arguing that it has led to an overheated economy. However, Minister of Culture and Business Affairs, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, who also manages tourism matters, countered some of these claims in an interview with RÚV. She pointed out that the expected number of tourists for the current year mirrors 2018 figures, indicating that the growth isn’t as significant as some suggest. Furthermore, increased tourism means a stronger króna.

“Because the tourism sector has been doing well, it has funnelled substantial foreign currency into the country. This inflow of foreign funds has actually helped curb inflation by strengthening the króna,” Lilja Alfreðsdóttir noted.

Unexplained Rise in Price of Perishable Goods

Lilja found it noteworthy that, according to the Monetary Policy Committee of the Central Bank, the price of perishable goods has surged by 12.2% year-over-year. This is perplexing, given that the króna has appreciated by 6.6% and global inflation rates have fallen. She has called upon the key market players to provide an explanation for this unexpected trend.

“Meetings are scheduled with major vendors of perishable goods early next week, and we will also consult additional sources, such as Statistics Iceland, to understand the situation better,” Lilja stated. “The main objective for society is to rein in inflation, thereby paving the way for lower interest rates and providing households with financial relief. Any anomalies contributing to inflation, particularly when the currency is strengthening, require meticulous examination.”

Vesturport to Produce TV Show on President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

Vigdís FInnbogadóttir's first inauguration as president

The government has approved an ISK 5 million [$36,000 / €34,000] grant for the production of a TV show revolving around the life of former President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. The show will comprise four episodes and will be aired on RÚV.

Nína Dögg to play Vigdís

At a meeting yesterday morning, the government approved the proposal of Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Minister of Culture and Business Affairs Lilja Alfreðsdóttir to greenlight a grant of ISK 5 million [$36,000 / €34,000] to the theatre group Vesturport for the production of a television show about former President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.

The show, which will comprise four episodes, will cover Vigdís’ life from her teenage years until she became the first female democratically elected head of state. According to an announcement on the government’s website, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir will play the role of Vigdís in the series, which will be directed by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson and Tinna Hrafnsdóttir. The show will be aired on RÚV and other Nordic national television stations.

Vesturport produced the acclaimed Blackport series, which aired on RÚV in 2021.

Global Price Reductions Must Be Passed on to Icelandic Consumers

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir

The Minister of Culture and Business Affairs has encouraged Icelandic petrol companies to do their part in the effort to curb inflation. The minister calls for the reduction in the price of fuel on the global market to be passed on to Icelandic consumers, RÚV reports.

More competition needed

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, the Minister of Culture and Business Affairs, maintains that it is urgent that the Icelandic petrol companies take part in the fight against inflation – and return price reductions on the global market to Icelandic consumers. According to the minister, the companies have not provided adequate explanations for price differences in Iceland and Denmark.

“The global inflation rate is falling because oil and energy prices are falling globally. And we demand similar price reductions in Iceland,” Lilja stated in an interview with RÚV. The minister pointed out, by gesturing towards data from the Competition Authority [and basic economic principles], that when the competition has increased, prices have fallen.

“Which tells us that vigorous competition is important. It must also be said that when you look at prices in Iceland and Denmark, the difference, in my opinion, is too great for the petrol companies to explain,” Lilja added. She encouraged petrol companies to participate in the fight against inflation.

“What I think is most important is that the price reduction that is taking place on the global market is passed on to Icelandic consumers. The ministry has been looking into this market, and the same hold for the Competition Authority, and we will, of course, continue to monitor this market. But I think it is very urgent that the petrol companies take this to heart,” Lilja concluded.

CEO of Skeljungur denies that prices have been kept high

In an interview yesterday, the Director of the Competition Authority (Sammkeppnisstofnun) argued that greater competition in Iceland would translate into lower petrol prices. The CEO of Skeljungur, Þórður Guðjónsson, denied the claim that the petrol companies have been keeping prices unreasonably high:

“Iceland is not a big country,” Þórður told RÚV, “and I think it’s certainly inaccurate to speak of a kind of multi-competition, which is the antonym of oligopoly. There are four companies that import petrol in Iceland. There are five companies that sell petrol at their gas stations. So I think there is a decent competition there.”

When asked if the companies were still keeping the prices abnormally high, Þórður responded in the negative: “No, I wouldn’t say so.”

As noted by RÚV, the companies that import petrol to Iceland are Skeljungur, N1, Olís, and Atlantsolía. Þórður stated that it was unfair to compare price trends of petrol in Iceland with global market prices for crude oil as there are no oil refineries in Iceland:

“No one imports crude oil into Iceland, for there are no oil refineries in Iceland. We need to import refined petroleum products. These petroleum products come from Norway – from Mongstad in Norway – where Equinor is the only supplier in Iceland; it has a pretty good hold on the country. There is no possibility for us, the petrol companies, to get oil from anywhere else. All of us have to buy separately, as competition does not allow joint purchases of fuel, which would strengthen our position in the importation of fuel.”

As to Lilja’s point about price differences between Iceland and Denmark, Guðjón gestured towards the fact that there are oil refineries in Denmark, which allows Denmark to purchase crude oil.

GPT-4 to Aid in the Preservation of the Icelandic Language

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

As noted in an article published yesterday, Iceland has partnered with OpenAI (the company that developed ChatGPT) to use its next-generation version of GPT in an effort to preserve the Icelandic language – and to turn “a defensive position into an opportunity to innovate.” The Minister of Culture and Business Affairs told RÚV yesterday that the partnership had proved that small nations could, if they had “done their homework,” use AI and language technology to aid in the preservation of their languages.

Turning a defensive position into an opportunity

Yesterday, OpenAI released GPT-4, the fourth in a series of the company’s multimodal large language models that powers ChatGPT, an AI chatbot launched last November. GPT-4 will initially be available to ChatGPT Plus subscribers (who pay $20 per month for premium access to the service), and it is already powering Microsoft’s Bing search engine platform.

As noted in an article published on OpenAI’s website yesterday, among those parties using GPT-4 to its advantage is the Icelandic government, which is employing this next-generation version of GPT to preserve its language. GPT-4 has made significant improvements in its ability to respond in Icelandic, improvements that are partly the result of a collaboration inspired by an Icelandic delegation’s visit to OpenAI ’s headquarters in May of last year. The delegation, consisting of Iceland’s President and government ministers, met with OpenAI’s founder, Sam Altman.

“Iceland […] partnered with OpenAI to use GPT-4 in the preservation effort of the Icelandic language – and to turn a defensive position into an opportunity to innovate. The partnership was envisioned not only as a way to boost GPT-4’s ability to service a new corner of the world, but also as a step towards creating resources that could serve to promote the preservation of other low-resource languages.”

The article also quotes Jóhanna Vigdís Guðmundsdóttir, CEO of Almannarómur (a non-profit language technology center): “We want to make sure that artificial intelligence will be used not only to help preserve language, culture, and history, but also to underpin economic prosperity.”

Better, but still flawed

As noted by the New York Times, GPT-4 has shown impressive improvements in accuracy when compared to its predecessor (GPT-3.5): it’s gained the ability to summarise and comment on images, summarise complicated texts, and is capable of passing a bar exam and several standardised tests; however, it still shows a tendency to hallucinate answers.

Likewise, GPT-4, while much better at Icelandic than GPT-3.5, still produces Icelandic with “grammatical errors, ‘translationese,’ and incorrect cultural knowledge.” To make further improvements, Vilhjálmur Þorsteinsson, CEO of Miðeind (a privately owned software company based in Reykjavík that specialises in language technology), assembled a team of 40 volunteers to train GPT-4 on proper Icelandic grammar and cultural knowledge.

In a process called Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF) human testers give GPT-4 a prompt, and four possible completions are generated. After reviewing the four responses, testers choose the most suitable answer and refine it to achieve an optimal completion. The insights derived from this procedure are subsequently utilised to enhance the performance of GPT-4, enabling it to generate more refined responses in the future.

As noted by OpenAI, RLHF produces results with just 100 examples, which makes it “more feasible for other low-resource languages, with less digital language data available, to replicate the process.” Prior to RLHF, the process of fine-tuning a model was labour and data-intensive. Þorsteinsson’s team had initially attempted to fine-tune a GPT-3 model with 300,000 Icelandic language examples, but the results were “disappointing.”

“Now we can just jump directly to the general capabilities of the large models,” Þorsteinsson is quoted as saying on OpenAI’s website, “and enable things with our language that used to require a lot of manual labour, data preparation, and resource collection for each use case.”

With a single round of RLHF complete, the model still has some room for improvement, which provides ongoing work for the Icelandic team: to continue to train GPT-4 with sufficient examples so that the model can power “the most complex and creative applications in Icelandic, rather than defaulting to English.”

The aim is to allow the entire country to interact with OpenAI’s models in their own language, which would, for example, save Icelandic companies from relying on English-speaking chatbots on their websites.

A “very happy day”

In an interview with RÚV yesterday, Minister of Culture and Business Affairs Lilja Alfreðsdóttir stated that she was very happy with the government’s partnership with OpenAI:

“This is what we’ve been aiming for over the last five years. The government has invested over ISK 2 billion ($14 million / €13 million) in creating this basic language infrastructure so that we can get to this point,” Lilja stated, adding that over sixty experts had been working on the project for the last four to five years.

“This was always the goal: that we could introduce our efforts to companies using artificial intelligence and language technology. We met with OpenAI and this was the result: that we’re the first language besides English that they plan to introduce. So we’re incredibly happy.”

Lilja explained that during their first meeting with OpenAI, it was clear that the company was interested in introducing a language that was not as widely spoken as English: “To show that the world is not just English. We somehow managed to talk about it in cultural, historical, and literary terms.”

Lilja added that this partnership was of great significance in an international context.

“We’re proving that small nations, if they’ve done their homework, can use AI and language technology to preserve their languages. And what our collaborators thought was so amazing was seeing all the work that we had already done – creating this infrastructure so that this technology may be harnessed.”

Legislation Still Pending on the Taxation of Facebook and Google

Imposing a tax on ad revenue collected by foreign tech companies such as Facebook and Google is urgent, the Minister of Culture and Business Affairs told RÚV yesterday. Ad payments to foreign companies totalled approximately ISK 369 million ($2.6 million / €2.4 million) in 2009 and have gradually increased to total nearly ISK 9.5 billion ($67 million / €62 million) in 2021.

Taxation still the plan, Minister of Culture and Trade says

Efforts have long been made to impose a tax on foreign tech giants such as Facebook and Google, which collect a large share of domestic ad revenue – but pay no taxes in Iceland. This creates something of a void in the operation of Icelandic media companies, as well as the state treasury, RÚV notes.

In September 2018, then Minister of Education Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, called a press conference to discuss plans to strengthen the Icelandic media environment by reducing RÚV’s activities in the advertising market and by imposing taxes on foreign tech companies.

“This is precisely why we’re proposing a uniform tax on national and foreign online media because a lot of this ad revenue is leaving the country. It’s not just us who are facing this challenge but our neighbouring countries, too,” Lilja observed just over four years ago.

RÚV echoed these statements to Lilja Alfreðsdóttir – who now serves as the Minister of Culture and Business Affairs – in an interview yesterday. The minister responded thusly:

“We decided to provide operational support to private media companies in Iceland, which was an important step. We’re currently reviewing the tax environment of media companies and taking into account developments abroad. But as I stated in 2018: the time is now, and we’re still working according to that plan.”

Foreign ad revenue rapidly increasing

As noted by RÚV, Statistics Iceland has compiled an overview of the distribution of advertising funds between domestic and foreign media. In 2013, the ad revenue of foreign media increased significantly at the expense of domestic companies. That trend has continued. In 2021, for example, when profits were expected to rebound following COVID, domestic ad revenue increased by 14%, while the ad revenue of foreign companies increased by 34%.

Statistics Iceland has also monitored ad payments to foreign companies, which in 2009 were approximately ISK 369 million ($2.6 million / €2.4 million) but increased to almost ISK 9.5 billion ($67 million / €62 million) in 2021. The institution honed in on ad payments made via credit cards, usually originating from smaller companies, or smaller ad campaigns, where foreign tech giants like Facebook and Google play a significant role. Their share of ad revenues has increased from 29% in 2009 when the total revenue was ISK 153 million ($1.1 million / €991,000); to 89% in 2011, when the total revenue was ISK 371 million ($2.6 million / €2.4 million). In 2021, their share of ad revenue was 95%, when total payments amounted to ISK 4.6 billion ($32 million / €30 million). The two companies paid no taxes in Iceland.

Uncertain whether legislation will be passed this year

Given the global nature of the issue, RÚV notes, the government has collaborated with other countries within the OECD on how to tax this revenue.

“I hope that we’ll find a solution because there are many domestic companies that rely on a fair competitive position against these international giants,” Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson told RÚV in 2021.

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir stated that resolving the issue was an urgent matter but was unwilling to promise that such legislation would be passed this year.

“It’s difficult to say. I hoped it would see the light of day in 2019, and then the year after. But then, of course, the attention of most governments shifted to the pandemic. But I feel like there’s a greater understanding of how urgent this is today.”

Annual Artist Salaries Allocated for 2023

The Ministry of Education and Culture’s annual Artist Salary allocations were announced on Friday. RÚV reports that 236 artists across six disciplines were awarded salaries for periods of two to twelve months. This represents but a fraction of the 1,083 applications—from 972 individuals and 111 performing arts groups—that were received.

See Also: Icelandic Government Raises Artist Salaries

Salaries are awarded for periods of two to twelve months. At the beginning of the year, Minister of Tourism, Trade, and Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir announced that funding of artists salaries would increase with individual monthly stipends being raised to ISK 428,000 [$3,330, €2,908] per month during 2022. In the coming year, the monthly stipend will increase to ISK 507,500 [$3,551; €3,354].

Both well-known and emerging artists are among those awarded salaries this year. Those who received a full year’s salary include (but are not limited to) designer Hanna Dís Whitehead, visual artists Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir and Sæmundur Þór Helgason, actor Arnar Jónsson, saxophonist Óskar Guðjónsson, and composer Viktor Orri Árnason.

Writers’ salaries

Allocations for writers’ salaries are always a hot topic of debate and conversation, not least because this discipline has the most allocations. This year, a total of 555 months’ salaries were allocated to writers. (The next largest number of allocations, or 435 months total, was made to visual artists; a total of 50 months were allocated to designers, 190 months were allocated to both theatrical performers and composers, and 180 to musicians.)

A full year’s salary was allocated to twelve authors, many of whom are available to English-language readers: Auður Jónsdóttir (author of Quake, trans. Meg Matich); Gerður Kristný (author of Bloodhoof and Drápa, both translated by Rory McTurk); Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir (The Creator; trans. Sarah Bowen); Hallgrímur Helgason (Woman at 1000 Degrees; trans. Brian FitzGibbon; A Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning); Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Heaven and Hell; Summer Light and Then Comes Night, both translated by Philip Roughton); Kristín Ómarsdóttir (Swanfolk, trans. Vala Thorodds; Children in Reindeer Woods trans. Lytton Smith); and Steinar Bragi (The Ice Lands, Trans. Lorenza García; The Haunting of Reykjavík).

Other authors familiar to English-language readers also received funding for the coming year. Andri Snær Magnason (On Time and Water, trans. Lytton Smith), Bragi Ólafsson (The Ambassador, trans. Lytton Smith), Einar Már Guðmundsson (Angels of the Universe, trans. Bernard Scudder), Kristín Eiríksdóttir (A Fist or a Heart, trans. Larissa Kyzer); and Oddný Eir (Land of Love and Ruins, trans. Philip Roughton) were all among those receiving nine-month salaries.