“The opera is not just for snobs”

The baritone singer Oddur Arnþór Jónsson swiftly became a household name after an ingenious performance in Don Carlo by Verdi, the 2014 autumn production of The Icelandic Opera. He now plays the title role in The Icelandic Opera’s production of Don Giovanni by Mozart which premiered recently. Stúdentablaðið‘s editor met with Oddur over a cup of coffee on a bright winter day in Harpa, where they discussed his studies, life as a singer and Don Giovanni the libertine.

Oddur Arnþór Jónsson

Oddur Arnþór Jónsson

Oddur Arnþór Jónsson undeniably bears some of the charms of a singer, well-dressed, with poise and a harmonious voice. Still, Oddur wasn‘t always determined on studying classical singing. Before he started his studies in Austria he had already graduated from The University of Reykjavík with a Bachelor’s degree in business. Oddur nonetheless felt a strong desire to continue with his singing studies, after already studying it under the guidance of Ólöf Kolbrún Harðardóttir and Alex Ashworth at The Reykjavík Academy of Singing. “I just felt the need for singing and being on stage, I had desire and longing to take my singing further. I therefore decided to go abroad and see if I would be accepted into some school there, so I applied for schools in Salzburg, Vienna and Graz in Austria. This was in 2009 and I thought that if I couldn‘t get into a school now I’d just have to quit it altogether. So that was the decision I made. Since then it’s just been one step at a time.” Oddur was accepted into Mozarteum in Salzburg where his earlier studies were valued as two years completed of his undergraduate program.

Practices while travelling

Oddur Arnþór still lives in Austria since there’s much more work to be had for singers in continental Europe then in Iceland and also because his wife works in Salzburg. He doesn’t envision himself moving to Iceland anywhere in the near future but he still believes it is possible to make a living just with singing here at home. “Yes, it’s possible to make a living out of this here at home. If you wanted to be a professional singer in Iceland you would need to teach, sing in funerals and rely on always getting a part in opera productions. Then it maybe happens to be a production in The [Icelandic] Opera with no baritone parts and then there’s simply no project for you. Usually there are only two operas produced a year, but I’ve been lucky to have been allowed to take part in each production the last two years. But I don’t see it happening that I’ll move home.”

The life on the road not only requires time away from family and friends, it’s also a challenge to have to prepare for a role and rehearse while travelling.

Despite Oddur residing in Salzburg he’s been travelling constantly the last two years. “I think I’ve probably spent the least of my time in Salzburg out of all the places I stayed last year. I was here a lot because of The Icelandic Opera projects but I also stayed for quite some time in France, Spain and Germany.” A life of constant travel is a reality many young singers are familiar with. “If you’re in this opera business you’re either hired full-time with a particular theatre and then you’re only in that theatre, singing in maybe 5-8 roles a year, varied in size. For a beginner, that kind of work is simply very poorly payed, so you kind of have to choose if you want to be on a crappy salary in that kind of position for maybe two years in exchange for all the experience, or do as I did the last two years and travel so much. I do pretty much get the same amount of experience but you’re constantly travelling and you don’t see as much of your family as you’re used to. It’s no ordinary family life.”

The life on the road not only requires time away from family and friends, it’s also a challenge to have to prepare for a role and rehearse while travelling. “You have to find your own rhythm, a new rhythm for each place. People are very unlike, some need to move and do a lot and others like to rest more. When you’re in a city with a lot going on you maybe don’t rest very much. It can vary, how hard it is to find this rhythm, for example when you’re in a hotel room you can’t rehearse in and maybe even don’t get a rehearsing room at your workplace. It can happen and it has. Then you obviously aren’t going to be rehearsing very much.

It’s wonderful to sing in Harpa. It’s just a shame it wasn’t finished properly as an opera house and is really just a music hall.

Harpa not tailored for opera productions

Oddur has performed in a great number of opera houses around Europe and he thinks Harpa is definitely comparable, especially regarding the acoustics in the Eldborg hall. “It’s wonderful to sing in Harpa. It’s just a shame it wasn’t finished properly as an opera house and is really just a music hall. There’s no offstage area nor theatre curtains. No curtains to draw apart when the show starts nor to close when the show ends. But the acoustics in the hall are excellent plus it’s great for business to be able to fit 1600 people in there.”

Oddur thinks there little to be done to make the stage more opera-friendly. “I think it’s hard to do that afterwards. At the same time the building was being planned there were plans to build an opera house in Kópavogur. Ultimately that never happened but that’s the reason this place wasn’t made for that kind of operation.” Oddur also speaks about there not being enough rehearsal space and that it’s a problem that needs to be remedied. “There are pros and cons in showing here instead of Gamla Bíó.” 

Don Giovanni is a sex addict and a lunatic

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the Don Giovanni opera on little over a month in 1787. Don Giovanni is without a doubt one of the more infamous characters of opera’s literature, a known philanderer and ladies’ man. “Don Giovanni is very dangerous but doesn’t really realize it himself. He treats a lot of people really badly, actually he treats every other character in the opera badly and uses every situation possible to his own advantage. He’s just kind of disgusting, even though he has his charm. But he’s really just an asshole,” Oddur proclaims. He says the original character was even more grotesque then in The Icelandic Opera’s production. “To stay true to the original version written in 1787 we would have to portray Don Giovanni as a sexual offender, by today’s standards. We just can’t do it like that, in Iceland in 2016, especially after all these recent [sexual abuse] cases. So we’ll change the emphasis a little bit…have him more of a philanderer and less of a rapist! I’m not going to say much more about that, people will just have to show up and see it for themselves,” Oddur says. In Oddur’s opinion Don Givoanni is completely immoral. “There’s nothing good in him. You can kind of say he’s a sex addict and a lunatic. He’ll do anything to seduce a woman.”

Even though Don Giovanni’s womanizing is a central part of the opera Oddur thinks the plot describes a type of decline of the lead character. “In the opera it is revealed he has slept with 2065 women. The plot begins with Don Giovanni being with a woman, Donna Anna, but it’s not really clear what’s happening between them, if they are having an affair or if he’s, bluntly put, raping her. That triggers her father entering the stage and challenging Don Giovanni to a duel. Don Giovanni kills the father of Donna Anna but after this happening he can’t seem to get any woman. And to me, this opera is all about that, this decadence of Don Giovanni. The story isn’t about his high points as a ladies’ man, rather about his downfall. You can interpret it as he dies in the end or that this life, or lifestyle, of his comes to an end,” Oddur explains.

I think these types of characters still exist today. Even a lot of them, I think. Men just want to claim all women for themselves and sleep with them. But it’s also the thing with boys gaining respect for a high number of sexual partners but women being shamed for it, being called sluts.

Men similar to Don Giovanni exist in Iceland today

Oddur thinks it is easily possible to imagine the plot in a more modern setting. “In those times there were of course these aristocrats and then servants, farmers and peasants. Don Giovanni is of noble lineage so he’s born into a higher class, which he uses a lot to his advantage in the opera. It would be easily possible to use the same plot set in our times. You could just imagine him as some sort of well-known person in a similar situation,” Oddur says without naming names. He’s convinced that men comparable to Don Giovanni exist today. “I think these types of characters still exist today. Even a lot of them, I think. Men just want to claim all women for themselves and sleep with them. But it’s also the thing with boys gaining respect for a high number of sexual partners but women being shamed for it, being called sluts.” Oddur has a hard time glorifying the character. “I think he actually should be the antagonist of the opera.”

The opera is not just for snobs

Oddur doesn’t think people’s interest in opera and classical music is dwindling. “No, I don’t feel like the interest is diminishing. I sense a lot of interest from young people, especially in Europe. At home there’s of course the great interest in theatre. The opera is a theatre too and should actually be this perfect medium: Combining acting and music. It really is this approach I vision as an opera.” Oddur still thinks young people in Iceland are more active in attending theatre shows then opera productions or symphony concerts. “I just think young people don’t know what we’re doing, do people even realize we’re producing Don Giovanni and what that opera is about? I don’t think they realize how exciting this can be. And they definitely don’t know there’s a 50% discount for people under 25. I still think there are a lot of people who look at this as snobby and that it’s only for some kind of small elite, but it just isn’t like that,” Oddur says.

We encourage Háskóli Íslands students to use the 50% 25 year old and younger discount and experience the magic of the opera. Ticket sales are at harpa.is, and the opera’s showing on the 5th, 11th and 13th of March.

 

Interview: Nína Hjördís Þorkelsdóttir
Translation: Hjalti Freyr Ragnarsson
Photos: Håkon Broder Lund and Jóhanna Ólafsdóttir

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