Iceland: The Icelandic Opera

Next season The Icelandic Opera will stage Verdi’s Don Carlo – the first time the opera has been performed in Iceland. Starring Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, the production will take place in Harpa’s main auditorium, Eldborg, which seats an audience of up to 1,400.

It’s one of two main stage productions that the small nonprofit company will stage in the forthcoming 2014-15 season, the other being a revival of the 2013-14 premiere of Icelandic opera Ragnheidur by Gunnar Thordarson and Fridrik Erlingsson. ‘Based on historical events from the 17th century, both the opera itself and the production were highly praised and drew a larger audience than any Icelandic opera ever before,’ says artistic and general director Stefán Baldursson.

The popularity of the work was a particular success for the Reykjavik organisation, given that it rarely programmes new opera. ‘The audience wants to see classical opera, so that has been a big part of our repertoire over the last few years – Mozart, Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi,’ says Baldursson. ‘Our aim is to offer modern, fresh and innovative productions of these classics.’

Relocating to the city’s impressive new arts venue, Harpa, has had a significant impact on The Icelandic Opera’s audiences, but funding the productions remains a challenge. ‘For 30 years we were housed in an old cinema with only 470 seats,’ says Baldursson. ‘Since moving to Harpa, we have had a great increase in audiences. But because of high production costs, we’re far from breaking even and so we are in continuous financial difficulties.’

‘We are supported by the state through a contract with the Ministry of Culture,’ Baldursson continues. ‘After the financial crisis in Iceland in 2008, we had our state contribution cut by 25 per cent a year. Since almost half of our state contribution goes to paying the rent at Harpa, we find ourselves short of money. But on the positive side, we have increased our income from ticket sales and received great praise for all our productions, both from the general public and Icelandic critics, as well as those abroad.’

Ragnheidur © Icelandic Opera o Gísli Egill Hrafnssson2
Ragnheidur © The Icelandic Opera / Gísli Egill Hrafnssson2

Widening access to opera is a key priority for the company. Flash mobs and introductory concerts are a regular fixture on the programme. ‘In many cases we stage productions in everyday locations to take away from the solemnity of traditional opera,’ says Baldursson. ‘These have been successful not only with newcomers, but also with the veteran operagoers.’

The Icelandic Opera also takes part in European Opera Days, an initiative that encourages opera companies to invite audiences to participate in the art form. ‘We’ve been taking part for the last few years in different ways,’ says Baldursson. ‘This year we opened our doors to the public and allowed them to look at our costumes and props. In 2010 we went out with four singers and a pianist, and took people by surprise in malls, markets and in the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal outdoor baths.’

The Icelandic Opera features the country’s singers in most of its productions. ‘Believe it or not, for a nation of 330,000 people, there are around 10 to 15 opera singers working professionally in opera houses all over the world,’ says Baldursson. ‘Most of them like to come and sing occasionally for the Icelanders. We also have between 20 and 40 opera singers living and working in Iceland. Many of Iceland’s finest singers have made their debut at The Icelandic Opera, to later become well-known singers in the international opera world. Occasionally, we take in foreign opera singers, directors or designers for inspiration, but most of the time we work with Icelandic artists.’