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, 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.

Icelandic Government to Stop Funding Icelandic Opera Company

Scene from the Icelandic Opera's 2017 staging of Tosca

The Icelandic government is planning to establish a national opera company to start operations in 2025 and will consequently stop funding the Icelandic Opera. The company’s director has described the decision as a cultural disaster and says that without public funding, the Icelandic Opera will have to cease operations. Iceland’s Minister of Culture says the decision has been a long time coming.

The Icelandic Opera was established in the late 1970s and is the only professional opera company in Iceland. It has produced over 85 operas since its foundation and since 2011 its home venue has been Reykjavík’s Harpa Concert Hall. The Icelandic Opera is a not-for-profit company but it receives public funding as well as corporate sponsorship. Last year public funding to the Icelandic Opera amounted to ISK 216 million [$1.64 million, €1.5 million].

Decision a long time coming

The Ministry of Culture and Trade has established three working groups to do the groundwork for establishing a national opera company in Iceland and has informed the Icelandic Opera that it will cease its funding contributions to the company after 2024. Minister of Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir stated that the decision to stop funding the company should not come as a surprise, as the government has long talked of reviewing the current arrangement and founding a national opera company. Lilja stated that the Icelandic Opera would receive a total of ISK 334 million [$2.53 million, €2.3 million] in funding this year and next year in order to be able to fulfil its obligations.

Cultural appropriation and wage disputes

The Icelandic Opera made headlines earlier this year when its staging of Madama Butterfly was accused of reinforcing racist stereotypes. In 2020, Icelandic opera singer Þóra Einarsdóttir sued the company, claiming they underpaid her and several other singers for their work in a 2019 production. In 2020, Iceland’s government also appointed a committee to begin researching the possibility of founding a national opera.

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.”

In Focus: Cultural Appropriation at the Icelandic Opera

madame butterfly reykjavík

On March 3, the Icelandic Opera premiered its production of Madama Butterfly, authored by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and first performed publicly in 1904.  The opera is set in Japan in the early 20th century and centres on the relationship between the US naval officer Pinkerton, portrayed by the Icelandic tenor Egill Árni Pálsson; and […]

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Icelandic Singer Dísella Lárusdóttir Wins Grammy

Dísella Lárusdóttir

Classical singer Dísella Lárusdóttir was awarded a Grammy last night in the Best Opera Recording category. Dísella snagged the award for a live recording of Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten. The opera was written in 1983 and is about the life and religious convictions of Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten.

Dísella (b. 1977) is a critically-acclaimed soprano, who has performed in New York’s Metropolitan Opera as well as in Italy. The New York Times has used the words “beauty, ease, and artistry” to describe her singing, as well as calling it “reliably breathtaking.”

Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds was also nominated for two Grammies this year, in the categories of Best Arrangement, Instrument and Vocals, and Best Dance/Electronic Recording.

Dísella Lárusdóttir / Instagram.

Singers Criticise Management of Iceland’s Only Opera Company

Icelandic Opera

The Professional Association of Classical Singers in Iceland (Klassís) has issued a declaration of no confidence in Icelandic Opera’s board and director Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir, RÚV reports. In a statement, Klassís criticises the opera’s management in recent years, accusing it of undermining solidarity among singers and suggesting soloists who seek their rights are denied work at the company as a result. The statement comes on the heels of a ruling by the Reykjavík District Court in the company’s favour.

Soprano Þóra Einarsdóttir sued the Icelandic Opera last year, claiming the company underpaid her and several other singers for their work in its 2019 Marriage of Figaro production. Several of the production’s soloists complained about an excessive workload and turned to the Icelandic Musicians Union (FÍH) for support. The union’s chairman Gunnar Hrafnsson says the singers’ combined wage demands were around ISK 4 million ($31,000/€26,000).

Court Acquits Opera Company

Last Friday, the Reykjavík District Court acquitted the Icelandic Opera in the case, though it also waived Þóra’s legal costs. Þóra declined to discuss the ruling in detail, but stated it raised many questions. No decision has been made on whether the ruling will be appealed.

The case centered on clarifying whether the Icelandic Opera had an obligation to pay singers according to union rates. The company argued that it did not, as the singers were hired as contract workers. FÍH claimed the Opera Company never officially terminated the permanent contracts it had with singers prior to the Marriage of Figaro production and must therefore pay them according to union rates.

Singers’ Salaries Have Fallen

Klassís asserts that singers’ salaries have fallen in real terms over the past several years and points to the Icelandic Opera’s management and policy as the cause. The group’s statement also accused the company’s board of deliberately barring eligible singers from taking a seat on the board, “for example by changing its bylaws in a closed meeting.”

The Icelandic Opera is Iceland’s only professional opera company. Iceland’s government has, however, appointed a working group to research the founding of a national opera company. In its statement, Klassís called the move a “turning point” stating that with the founding of a national opera company: “Singers hope that management practices such as those that Icelandic opera singers have had to accept on the part of the Icelandic Opera in recent years will thus be eradicated and professionalism resumed and respected.”

Sues Icelandic Opera Over Wage Dispute

Scene from the Icelandic Opera's 2017 staging of Tosca

Opera singer Þóra Einarsdóttir is suing the Icelandic Opera, claiming the company underpaid her and several other singers for their work in a Marriage of Figaro production in 2019, RÚV reports. The opera company claims that since the singers were hired as contractors, it was not obliged to pay them union rates. Þóra expressed disappointment that no representatives of the company attended the principal proceedings in the court case, which took place last Friday.

The Icelandic Opera premiered their production of The Marriage of Figaro in September 2019. Several of the show’s soloists complained about an excessive workload throughout the production and turned to the Icelandic Musicians Union (FÍH) for support. The union’s chairman Gunnar Hrafnsson says the singers’ combined wage demands were around ISK 4 million ($31,000/€26,000).

Þóra argues that the Icelandic Opera did not pay singers according to FÍH’s rates. The company argues, however, that the rates only applied to singers permanently employed by the opera. The opera now only hires singers are contract workers and therefore the rates are irrelevant, according to the company. Gunnar stated, however, that the Icelandic Opera never officially terminated the permanent contracts it had with singers and therefore the performances in question must be paid according to FÍH’s union rates. Þóra has stated she believes it is important to clarify the issue so singers know where they stand.

Young Singers Lack Support, Says Plaintiff

In a public Facebook post, Þóra decried the lack of opportunities and support for emerging opera singers in Iceland. According to the singer, when the Icelandic Opera contracts Icelandic soloists who live abroad, it does not pay their travel expenses or room and board, rather singers get a one-time contract fee of ISK 300,000 ($2,350/€1,940) before taxes for around six weeks of work, six days per week. She also charged the company with failing to respect occupational safety and health regulations.

Icelandic Opera’s lawyer Viðar Lúðvíksson stated that his client believes the issue will be clarified through the evidence presented and considered it unnecessary to attend the proceedings last Friday. About the case, Viðar said “It is simply a dispute between a contractor and buyer over the content of contracts.” He stated that the company’s director did not receive an invitation or summons to the court proceedings.