A week with Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir


I wake up bright and much too early for my own good with a couple of solutions to challenges that felt unsolvable when I went to sleep. I am very grateful for my subconscious mind working the night shift and God forbid that it ever goes on strike. I am an incurable optimist, but I have trained the realist in me so now they live together in harmony with some healthy exceptions.

We have the premiere of Madama Butterfly next Saturday, so this week is sure to be both colourful and exciting. Tonight we have the first rehearsal in costume and it will be great to experience the full effect of the brilliant staging by Michiel Dijkema who also designs the set. Levente Török conducts our orchestra that we place behind the set on stage for the first time, but the main hall in Harpa has outstanding acoustics, so I am sure it will sound wonderful. Levente is one of the best conductors we have had and the orchestra has loved working with him.

In the world of opera everything is extra large and the stakes are very high, but no joy is greater than seeing the results of many years of dreaming and preparing become a reality. That’s the magic of it all and what I hope will happen on Saturday.


My mother passed away recently on her 94th birthday. Today is her funeral, so I take time out from the premiere preparations to give her a beautiful farewell with the assistance of some of the singers from the production and some dear friends who I have worked with for years as a concert pianist in my “previous life” before I started my career as an Artistic Director.

Life has a funny way of showing us how sadness and joy are eternally connected. The opera is the most powerful art form there is and constantly provides us with a date with our most profound emotions. Today was not the easiest in my life, but certainly one of the most precious ones.


I am back in my office and after a production meeting with a couple of fires to put out I take a walk by the seaside near Harpa to look up and see the big picture that can get so easily lost in the day-to-day challenges. A premiere week is bound to be challenging but the team spirit and positive energy in this production has been extraordinary and that makes it all worthwhile. 


Tonight is the general rehearsal with audience in the hall and I cannot wait to experience their reaction. It is always a moment of truth when we share our productions with audiences for the first time, but judging by their positive responses we have every reason to be optimistic for the opening night. 


The singers have a day off which is a blessing since this opera is a difficult one, especially for the soprano Hye-Youn Lee who sings the title role. What an extraordinary artist! I have made it a tradition to book no meetings on Fridays, so they are my FFF (future facing Fridays) to focus on my artistic vision and planning and I intend to keep that tradition.

We go over the last-minute plans for the premiere and the celebration afterwards and I treat myself to a trip to Sky Lagoon, an outdoor spa in Reykjavík with hot thermal water and seven rituals of hot and cold water and sauna. It is a relaxing and wonderful experience.


It’s the big day and I wake up with a good feeling and butterflies in my stomach. One of the choir members has Covid. I try not to worry if more singers have contracted the virus. At this point my optimistic nature comes in handy since it is pointless to worry anyway. I decide to practise my serenity and look forward to the evening.

The premiere is an overwhelming success with an immediate standing ovation and not a dry eye in the audience. I feel deep gratitude for the responses of the audience and a huge relief.

My dreams did indeed come true and all my expectations and hopes regarding this production were fulfilled. I cannot ask for more.


It’s a beautiful day after a harsh winter and spring is in the air. We receive a five-star review in Fréttablaðið, a leading newspaper, with the headline: “Madama Butterfly at the Icelandic Opera is full of magic.” I rest my case. I feel a great sense of relief, gratitude and pride. So many have worked so hard to make this production so successful and magical and I am so happy for them all.

Hardly touching the ground, I take one of my granddaughters to a premiere at the National Theater, seeing a new Icelandic musical called Draumaþjófurinn (or Thief of Dreams), and we have a great time. The message of the musical is that only when we look out for each other can we create a better world. I cannot agree more.

Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir is CEO and Artistic Director of Icelandic Opera