Iceland’s Most Popular Musical Ends its Run

Musical Níu líf at Borgarleikhúsið

The 250th show of Níu líf, a musical based on the life of singer Bubbi Morthens, will be its last. The musical has been running at Reykjavík City Theatre since early 2020 when its run was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic after only three shows.

The show follows the many public personas of Bubbi during his colourful musical career, hence the title which in English translates to Nine Lives. Director and playwright Ólafur Egill Egilsson and actor Esther Talía Casey, a married couple and collaborators in the show, were interviewed by Vísir on the occasion of the show ending.

Unexpected success

“It will be an emotional moment, that’s for sure,” Esther said. “We’ll likely cry our eyes out and shake. We’re a closely knit theatre family and we’ve faced many challenges during this time, so it will have been a rollercoaster ride.”

They say they never expected the show to be as successful as it’s been and for it to break attendance records and still be running four years after its premiere – albeit with a pandemic delaying part of its run. “We always knew that Bubbi had a special place in the nation’s heart, so we knew that his fans would show up,” Ólafur said. But we couldn’t foresee the show getting such a warm reception.”

Perfect attendance

Esther said that she’s the only cast member, including the live band, who has been at every show. She plays a number of roles, including Bubbi’s mother and Hrafnhildur, his wife. “I was lucky that every time I was sick, it was in between shows,” she said. “This show will alway have a special place in my heart.”

“It’s a story of time periods and social upheaval, of a person’s freedom to be whoever they want, finding the courage to face their destiny and stand tall in the face of challenging life experiences,” Ólafur said. “We’re very happy to have been able to cover Bubbi’s career, life, and values, while telling a story that most people can identify with.”

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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.

Tjarnarbíó Theatre Will Not Have to Close This Fall

Tjarnarbíó theatre Reykjavík

Reykjavík’s leading independent theatre space Tjarnarbíó will remain open this fall thanks to the promise of additional funding from the Icelandic state and the City of Reykjavík. Tjarnarbíó Director Sara Marti Guðmundsdóttir announced last month that existing funding would not suffice to keep the theatre open and that it would close for good this September. Sara stated that authorities have promised to ensure the theatre can remain open, but have not told its staff exactly what form their support will take.

“We haven’t been told exactly how they’re going to carry it out but we have been promised that it won’t come to us having to close this fall as we assumed we would,” Sara told Vísir. The theatre was set to close this fall despite hosting a record number of theatre companies and performers and record ticket sales. The grant funding the theatre was receiving was not enough to remunerate its four full-time employees and carry out much-needed maintenance of facilities. “Because the building is so old, we keep having to spend money on things for which we shouldn’t be paying. The building and the scene itself have been neglected for an awfully long time, which is why we’ve reached this point now,” Sara stated last month.

Read More: Tjarnarbíó to Shut up Shop Without Increased Funding

Sara added that the state, city, and theatre staff will now carry out a needs assessment for the operation of independent performing arts in Iceland. She added that she is relieved at the outcome. “It was very difficult to not know before the summer vacation whether we were going to have jobs again in September. I’m extremely relieved to know, both for the sake of the staff and also the independent theatre scene as a whole.”

Tjarnarbíó Theatre to “Shut Up Shop” Without Increased Funding

Tjarnarbíó theatre

In an interview with Vísir yesterday, Sara Martí Guðmundsdóttir, Director of the Tjarnarbíó theatre in downtown Reykjavík, stated that despite a record-breaking year of sales, current grants would not suffice for the continued operation of the theatre. Without increased support from the City of Reykjavík or the state, Tjarnarbíó would have to close for good this September.

Theatre to close September 1

Over the past year, organisers, staff, and actors of Tjarnarbíó have tried to draw attention to the poor state of the theatre, Vísir notes. The building has long been too small and run-down; the equipment outdated; and, despite vigorous operations, the theatre has not received sufficient funds to continue to operate.

Yesterday morning, Sara Martí Guðmundsdóttir, Director of Tjarnarbíó, sent an email to all parties involved in next year’s performances to inform them that the theatre would close in September.

“It’s just very sad. Considering how little we need; it’s ridiculous that we have to close. We’re shutting up shop. Simple as that,” Sara Martí told Vísir. “Tjarnarbío will have to close in September if no help is received. After September 1, I can’t afford to pay our staff a salary, and then a whole acting year goes to waste,” she added.

Shutting up shop despite record sales

Sara told Vísir that demand for venues in the performing arts scene had long since outpaced supply, adding that almost no other theatre aside from Tjarnarbíó had attended to the needs of independent troupes. Furthermore, expenses had gone up while the operating subsidy that the theatre receives had remained the same.

“Salaries have increased. The cost of supplies has increased. Everything has gone up. Although we’ve just had a record year – with a record number of viewers – this is the reality that we’re facing.”

“Our scene has long since become too big,” Sara Martí continued. “There are a lot of performing artists who need space. We’re not only referring to theatre troupes but also dance troupes, stand-up comics, and sketch shows. There are a plethora of people who need a stage, and we’re the only theatre attending to their demands. So if the state and the city want a performing arts scene, they need to do something.”

Sara revealed that Tjarnarbíó had been in contact with the City of Reykjavík. “And the last thing we heard was: ‘We can’t help; we can’t come up with the measly ISK 7 million ($51,000 / €47,000) to help you for the rest of the year. Let alone everything else you need to run the business properly.’ And we haven’t heard a thing from the government, even though we’ve sent a memo to them recently.”

“Years of neglect”

As noted by Vísir, Tjarnarbíó has served as one of the few refuges for independent theatre troupes in Iceland; only a small number of grantees from the Performing Arts Fund are accommodated by the big theatres, so Tjarnarbíó has been their home turf.

When asked how the theatre had managed to operate thus far, Sara Martí responded that Tjarnarbíó had managed with the operating grant received from the City of Reykjavík, which amounted to ca. ISK 22 million ($160,000 / €148,000).

“But it’s not enough to remunerate the theatre’s four full-time employees. Because the building is so old, we keep having to spend money on things for which we shouldn’t be paying. The building and the scene itself have been neglected for an awfully long time, which is why we’ve reached this point now. Either someone does something or we have to shut up shop. Because we’ve certainly done everything in our power,” Sara Martí remarked.

She continued by saying that the theatre had accommodated an unprecedented number of troupes during the winter season. With activities from 9 am to 4 pm and evening performances, the theatre operated at full capacity. “I’ve not had a night off throughout the year,” Sara observed.

Numerous troupes left “homeless”

Sara concluded by saying that the closure of the Tjarnarbíó theatre would not only mean the loss of the venue but would also leave numerous troupes “homeless.” Furthermore, the closure would result in the wastage of tens of millions of króna that had already been invested in the performing arts economy.

According to Sara, this would have significant implications, affecting the livelihoods of around 300 performing artists and hundreds of others involved in the industry. She entreated the Minister of Culture, the Mayor of Reykjavík, and the head of the Department of Culture to intervene.

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 Had Third-Highest Spending on Culture in Europe

Design March Fetival 2019 Hönnunarmars

Around 2.5% of Iceland’s total general government expenditure in 2018 went toward cultural services. Iceland’s government spending on culture was the third-highest in Europe that year, surpassed only by Hungary (2.7%) and Latvia (2.8%). Nearly one third of this funding went toward culture workers’ salaries, though it also supported museums, theatres, broadcasting, and publishing.

hagstofan culural expenditure
Hagstofan.

Municipal Budgets Devote More to Culture than State

Culture funding has remained at similar levels in the past 10 years, ranging between 2.2% and 2.6% of general expenditure. A larger proportion of municipal government spending went to culture than state spending in 2018. While municipal governments devoted 4.7% of their general expenditure toward culture that year, the state proportion was 1.5%.

When both municipal and state spending is considered, 31% of all culture spending went toward compensation of employees. The largest proportion, 42%, went toward the use of goods and services, including purchases and expert services from non-employees. The third-largest portion, 12%, went toward subsidies, which include Artists’ Salaries.

Higher Spending on Broadcasting

When it comes to broadcasting, 0.5% of Iceland’s total general government expenditure went toward broadcasting and publishing services, above the EU-27 average of 0.4%. This figure has remained similar since 2009, though it reached 0.8% in 2015.

The data was published yesterday by Statistics Iceland as part of the institution’s work towards increasing the visibility of statistics regarding culture and media.

East Iceland Performing Arts Centre Gets Green Light

Egilsstaðir

Construction of a new performing arts centre in Egilsstaðir, East Iceland, will begin this year, RÚV reports. The project, which includes a black box theatre and an exhibition space, will receive 60% of its funding from the state, while the National Power Company of Iceland will also be a major sponsor. The new facilities have the potential to give new life to the region’s performing arts scene.

Björn Ingimarsson, mayor of Fljótsdalshérað, hopes professional theatre companies from Reykjavík and elsewhere will bring their productions to the new stage. “What we’ve sensed from professional theatres is that this will open doors for their operations here in the area… it’s a truly exciting project.”

In 2018, the Icelandic government announced an investment of ISK 300 million ($2.8m/€2.4m) to enlarge the East Iceland Heritage Museum and build up Sláturhúsið Cultural Centre in Egilsstaðir, East Iceland. The agreement is the result of an old promise to build cultural and arts centres in all regions of the country. The federal government will fund 60% of the project, which is expected to cost around ISK 500 million ($4.7m/€4m).

The National Power Company’s investment in the project involves paying ten years of rent upfront for the new exhibition space, where it will collaborate with the municipality to create an exhibition on green energy. Björn did not divulge the exact amount that the National Power Company was contributing to the project, but said “it’s an amount that makes a difference.”

Staging stories

At the time of our interview, Brynhildur Guðjónsdóttir has been the director of the Reykjavík City Theatre for exactly five days. She’s known that the job was hers for only ten days: the former director left before her four-year term was over and asked to be released immediately. As I congratulate her and ask how it’s going, her first reaction is the following: “Well, my calendar is full, that’s for sure.” Despite the busy times ahead, the development is a positive one. “There’s a lot of action and movement in Iceland’s theatre life. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years.”

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Icelanders Sing for Seniors, Live Stream Theatre to Lift Spirits During Pandemic

Iceland’s artists and cultural institutions are finding ways to lift the nation’s spirits during the four-week gathering ban that began on Monday to slow the spread of COVID-19. Whether its bringing music to nursing homes on lockdown, or live-streaming book readings, Icelanders are finding new ways of sharing culture from a safe distance.

Musicians cheer seniors

Many of Iceland’s nursing homes have been closed to visitors for several weeks due to the coronavirus. That didn’t stop musicians from showing up to cheer residents of nursing homes across the country yesterday. In Akureyri, North Iceland, singer Friðrik Ómar Hjörleifsson sang outside the Hlíð home for the elderly as residents and staff listened from windows and balconies. In the Reykjavík capital area, a group of musicians performed for the residents of Ísafold in Garðabær.

Both performed the song Í fjarlægð (In the Distance), by Karl O. Rúnólfsson. The song’s lyrics, written by Valdimar H. Hallstað, are apt for the circumstances: they express longing for a distant loved one.

Theatres move to internet, radio

Reykjavík City Theatre has announced it will be streaming live readings of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century novel The Decameron throughout Iceland’s gathering ban. The novel is a topical choice: it is a collection of 100 tales told by a group of young men and women secluded outside Florence to escape the Black Death. The group tells each other stories to provide entertainment and relief from the crisis. Musician Bubbi Morthens, whose career was the subject of a newly-premiered musical at the City Theatre, will be live streaming concerts from its stage every Friday during the gathering ban.

The National Theatre and national broadcaster RÚV are collaborating to bring the nation poetry readings during the gathering ban. Icelanders can send in poem requests or choose from a list of suggestions. Every weekday during the gathering ban, one individual will be invited to the National Theatre for a private live reading of their chosen poem. The performances will also be broadcasted from Tuesday to Friday on RÚV’s radio program Víðsjá.

Icelandic Chess Championship Featured on London Stage

Spassky vs. Fischer

Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky are the main characters of a new London play that tells the story of their World Chess Championship match, held in Iceland in 1972. Occuring at the height of the Cold War, the match became known as the Match of the Century when the American Fischer broke the Soviet’s 24-year winning streak. Vísir reported first.

The play Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer, written by Tom Morton-Smith, premiered at London’s Hampstead Theatre at the end of November. The character of Spassky is played by Roman Raftery, while Fischer is played by Robert Emms, whom readers may recognise from films such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) and War Horse (2011).

Two Icelandic characters, based on real people, are also written into the play. The first is Guðmundur G. Þórarinsson, president of the Icelandic Chess Federation at the time the match took place. Guðmundur is played by English-Icelandic actor Gunnar Cauthery. The other Icelandic character is Fischer’s former bodyguard Sæmundur Pálsson, also known as Sæmi rokk, played by Gary Shelford.

Vísir tracked down the real-life Guðmundur to ask him whether he knew about his feature in the play. “Yes, someone called me. I thought it was a joke. But I doubt that I’m an important character in it.” Guðmundur says he wasn’t invited to the play, but that it “shows how this duel inspires people endlessly. Now it’s almost been 50 years. Fischer dies in 2008. And still people are coming and television networks getting interviews about him and the duel of course.”

Bobby Fischer became a target of the US government after he participated in a match in Yugoslavia in 1992, then under a United Nations embargo. He was eventually granted Icelandic citizenship by a special act of Alþingi, and he lived out his last years in the country. The South Iceland town of Selfoss, near which he is buried, has a museum dedicated to Fischer.

Guðmundur says the Ministry of Culture is working to put up a monument to commemorate the match between Spassky and Fischer near Laugardalshöll, where it took place.