For the latest episode of the Performing Arts Centre Iceland podcast, Salka Guðmundsdóttir met up with classical singer Guja Sandholt. A true powerhouse on the Icelandic opera scene, Guja is known not only for her voice but also as artistic director of Reykjavík Opera Days, a festival which has blossomed in the six years since it was first held.
I want to start with Opera Days because that's probably where your head and heart are at the moment since this year's festival is just closing. Tell us about the festival's core mission and the motivation behind getting it up and running.
Reykjavík Opera Days were founded in 2016, and I started the festival out of frustration because I felt that there was a need for something else in Icelandic opera and the classical vocal scene. The festival involves both classical vocal arts and opera. In 2015 I did an experimental production with my coworkers at a bar in Kópavogur, and we had a lot of fun. Arna Schram who was then cultural head of the town invited me to create a small festival, which became the Opera Days. And yes, the core mission of the festival is to be an experimental platform and a common platform for singers, for classically trained singers in Iceland and their collaborators. We want to share our passion and make our art for more accessible and more visible in Iceland while building relationships between local artists and also with the international scene.
We also have a strong social focus. We try to go out into society and perform at different venues, in the more conventional ones and also in unexpected places.
Yes, there is a clear outreach element to the programming, both in terms of specific events and also venues. To name an example, you held this year's opening festival in Mjóddin, an indoor shopping street in the Breiðholt part of the city. Why do you think outreach matters and can you feel it working, in terms of encountering your audiences, now that you've been running the festival for several years?
Yes, I think it's working because it awakens curiosity and we meet people in their daily life. I think it can add a little spice to everyday life when you see a performer somewhere unexpected. And sometimes we find a new audience there. It’s also just exploring the possibilities of open spaces. There are actually great acoustics in Mjóddin! It's wonderful to sing there. So why not sing there and make it a music hall? We got inspiration from the opera in the Netherlands – there's no opera house in Rotterdam but they changed the city into an opera stage. We were playing with the idea of changing Mjóddin into an opera house because we don't have an actual opera house here in Reykjavík either. So why don't we use what we have and experiment?
The program of the festival was very diverse this year. Guests were able to take in such events as a Mozart's Requiem sing-along, a symposium on classical singing in the Nordic countries, a micro-opera and an opera for babies. How do you go about curating the festival now that it's growing? Do you work thematically or is it a matter of finding the most dynamic groups or artists at each point in time?
This is just something that happens organically – throughout the year and sometimes more than a year ahead, I start to get the feeling of what the next festival will be like. And also what has happened is that a lot of projects come to us because it has become a common platform. Many of the projects are not ours, but projects of our collaborators. When I have a sense of what we have each year, I try to find a thread that can connect the projects and then try to put focus on that. And this year we were working with a theme of “We Are All …” It was inspired by the opera As One, which tells the story of the transgender character Hannah and her search for herself.
Like you said, we don't have a designated opera space here in Iceland. I think maybe the stereotypical assumption would be that you see opera in one of the conventional spaces such as Harpa or The National Theatre, even though these are not specifically designed for operatic music. What about finding spaces and venues here in Reykjavík for singing?
Well, every time I go into a new venue or a new space, I click my fingers and make sounds to see how the acoustics are. People might think it’s a little bit mad but I'm interested in finding new unexpected venues. Of course, I love the more conventional productions and spaces, but one doesn't exclude the other.
Of course, everyone on the performing arts scene is talking about the lack of spaces and venues, and this is a fact. So of course we would welcome a fantastically equipped opera house, but that's just not the reality now. So we use what we have and use our imagination and our creativity.
You put on such different productions in terms of scale and therefore in terms of acoustics. I was fortunate enough to see the baby opera Heart Sounds at the Nordic House, and I was very pleasantly surprised by what they did with the soundscape. I suppose people working on the independent scene must all be used to adapting their performances to different spaces.
Well, Opera Days is currently one of Reykjavík’s designated city festivals between 2023 and 2025. Presumably and hopefully that has provided the festival with a more solid financial footing for at least these particular seasons. But what is it like running an independent arts festival in the current performing arts landscape here in Iceland? Have you found it to be a realistic environment in which to operate or is it risky business?
I would say it's a very risky business. You start from square zero every time. This year is a bit different because we've got this contract with the city of Reykjavík, and we are extremely grateful for that. I also got some grants from abroad and I'm working with collaborators from abroad, which helped. I think everyone who is working with those independent art festivals – really, it is a struggle, but somehow we seem to keep going because we enjoy it and we think it's important work.
You mentioned international collaborators. What about networking and bringing international productions to Iceland? Are there networks and support structures in place?
This year we focused on Nordic collaborations got some grants to bring quite a few Nordic partners in. There are for sure opportunities for artists in Iceland to explore those funding possibilities and seek partners abroad. I think this enriches the festival incredibly. We had a collaboration project with Herning Opera Festival in Denmark. For the next two years, 30 young singers are singing in a professional choir and performing at Reykjavík Opera Days and the Herning Opera Festival. So they get to know each other and form bonds and network among themselves and other artists at the festivals. These kinds of projects really are magical because they form new connections. And the most rewarding thing for me as the artistic director is when artists from the festival work together somewhere else, it's so beautiful.
Festivals are such an important part of our work as artists. There's so much work to be found within the festival scene. So if singers realize that at a young age, this is something that they might focus on – to seek out festivals and create something by themselves.
There have been a lot of changes to the opera scene here in Iceland in recent years, and of course elsewhere. We have an excellent and surprisingly large group of young and youngish opera and classical singing professionals, which you're a part of course, and you have also worked to foster that community. But there has also been turmoil and tensions in the world of opera, often relating to the Icelandic opera but also to the general question of how to proceed with professional opera, which structures to build and maintain, how to fund it, how to nurture the independent scene.
After much debate, the Arts Ministry is now working towards the creation of a national opera, but there are still so many questions unanswered, and I would love to hear your take on all this. What is happening, what has changed and why is there a demand for changes at this point?
So the Icelandic Opera has been a very important part of the scene, the most important institution for decades. There are changes on the horizon, and they are talking about changing how it's run, going from what is a private foundation to a national institution. The Icelandic Opera receives most of the money that goes to the art form. I think most of the singers in Iceland have very warm feelings towards this institution. I myself started there as I was working on the text machine when I was 20, when I was still studying, and I love the Icelandic Opera, but there has been some turmoil around it in the last decade or so. Many people are now hoping that it'll become the National Opera, which will mean fixed positions for singers, a more professionalized infrastructure, a little bit more like the National Theatre. I think that this would be a very good change. I fully support it, and I'm hoping that it will start running in 2025. But changes are always a bit complicated. These are big changes. So many people are afraid that it won't work or they mourn for the Icelandic Opera. There are feelings, strong feelings, and of course we are all opera singers, so there are big feelings!
Since I've been working within this field for a long time, I've been talking about how wonderful it'll be if singers could apply for a fixed position, at least for a limited amount of time, a little bit like in Germany or the houses which have ensembles, because now there's not one fixed position in Iceland for a singer. And I hope that it will work in cooperation with independent scene and the grassroots. We should work together towards the common goal of promoting our art form and making it relevant in cultural life. I think that in the last years we have missed some opportunities to bring it to the new audiences. There has not been a lot of children's programming, for example – I've done my best through the festival, but that's just once a year for 10 days. Also to work a bit with the chamber opera form, so that you can experience and explore the operatic form throughout the year, not just once or twice a year on a big scale. So I think there are exciting times ahead.
And what about the grassroots scene? It seems to be thriving despite difficult practical conditions. There's been so much happening in the past few years.
There are young artists who have returned home from studying abroad, chosen to live here and been very visible within the scene in the last few years. They're doing amazing things using their creativity, thinking in solutions and finding ways to bring their art form out there. It's very inspiring. And I also feel that there's a bit of a generational change in that there is just much more dialogue between people. I don't get the same sense of competition that there used to be. People are encouraging each other, they really feel that when we stick together, we are so much stronger.
You are currently based in Amsterdam and travelling regularly back here to Iceland for work. Like a lot of the young professionals, you have lived and studied abroad but also brought your knowledge and skills back here. I think this is a good time to move on to discussing your own career as a singer. It's quite astonishing to look at the many places that you’ve studied – here in Reykjavík at the Reykjavík Music School, then at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, the Mozarteum University in Salzburg and the Utrecht Conservatory. You have also attended private lessons with a tutor in Düsseldorf. That’s quite a CV. Have you been following different kinds of threads to these different places?
Like many young singers, I was looking for the right teacher, looking for the right place. And when I finished my diploma singing diploma here in Reykjavík I went straight on to Guildhall to do a master's degree. So I went to London, and coming from Iceland where you think that you are quite good and you're confident … and then you come to London and there are so many fantastic singers and you're like, oh my God, I’m just one of so many. And that was a very healthy shock for a young artist. Like, okay, I have to work hard if I want to make this work. Being in London was incredible. But when I finished my course there I wanted to continue, was not ready to go to audition for professional parts. So I went to Salzburg in Austria and got a place there at the master's program and did my opera education there. And after that, there were two years when I also felt that I wasn't ready, so I was just seeking. I think you can get quite lost as a young singer if you don't find your teacher. I always emphasize that now when I'm speaking to the young singers: just find your teacher first and the schools don't matter so much. It's really the voice teacher. That is the most important thing. And it wasn't until I went to the Netherlands that I found the teacher who helped me step into the professional world.
I learned a lot – the opera oratorio that I learned in Germany and Austria, it was an enriching time. But it was in the Netherlands that I found my teacher who taught me a good sound technique and I started working. I now go to coaching regularly, just to have an extra pair of ears and to maintain the instruments.
I was actually going to ask you about your instrument, because I suppose with all forms of art there has to be a marriage of technical skill and expression, but it seems particularly important with classical singing – on the same level as dance, perhaps. The physical meeting with the spiritual. You've mentioned that you continue to attend lessons, but how do you continue to evolve your relationship with your voice? Does it change as you grow older, both in terms of physicality and experience?
Yeah, very much. My voice is a bit complicated in that it's not a small instrument and it has been growing. So I'm now singing stuff that I would never have sung 10 years ago. That's also why it's important to get help to get the technique in place. This is common with Nordic voices, the Nordic big instruments that are quite long. We have a wide range – we can go low and we can go high. And sometimes it's complicated to get these voices in place and technically secure, they can be a bit all over the place. Five years ago, I had a son, and that also matures the voice and it changes. So it is an instrument that is always changing and you're always negotiating with it. It's a bit like having an extra something living inside of you that you have to take care of.
You have to deal with what you've got and make the most out of it. With instrumentalists, they can get a new instrument if it breaks, but we don't have that option. We have to find our way to put our instrument in place and to train it and also to know how to trust it. That can be a big challenge. Will my voice do what I ask it to do? Am I technically equipped to do the things that I would like to do with my voice? What can I sing? And sometimes you would like to sing repertoire that maybe doesn't suit the voice and it will do it harm. So it's a beautiful journey for every singer, but can be an extremely challenging one as well.
I have noticed that you, like more and more singers, don't explicitly define your voice. You must be doing this on purpose.
I have been singing as a mezzo soprano for most of my career, but the last few years I've been singing a broader repertoire. And since I started singing, people have had very strong opinions on whether I’m a soprano or a mezzo soprano. Now I just say I'm a classical singer. If I would go to audition in Germany, I would have to define it, put me in a box, because they very much work that way. You go to an audition and you have to say, I'm a dramatic soprano, or I'm a lyrical mezzo, or whatever. But I feel that the singers who get on top of their field have more flexibility. So yeah, I have started to just say that I'm a singer and I sing what I want to sing and what suits my voice at any given moment.
What drew you to Amsterdam?
While I was studying in Utrecht I lived in Amsterdam and just continued to live there because I had quite a lot of work and there are many opportunities there. I have a 50% job with the Netherlands Radio Choir, and this is also why I'm always speaking about it here in Iceland – how it would change the working conditions of singers to have a professional choir. I have experienced first-hand how wonderful it is to work in a classical choir. It's a bit like being an instrumentalist in a symphony orchestra. You have your colleagues, the professional infrastructure and your projects, but you can also work on your own projects or freelance as a soloist. And most of the singers in the Netherlands Radio Choir are soloists working both internationally and in the Netherlands.
We perform the symphonic repertoire and also a capella. We sing it all, in a way: operas, oratorios, big symphonic pieces. Sometimes we go on tour, we're going to Hong Kong next year. We are working with best conductors and the best soloists. Having this opportunity to grow as a musician within the choir has been a very enriching experience for me as a musician. I feel that it has matured me and helped me very much as a soloist.
You obviously are exploring a very diverse range of work with the choir as well as in your capacity as an artistic director. But as a soloist, what kind of music do you feel yourself drawn to? What is your happy place as a soloist?
I love the oratorios and the pieces that we perform in churches, like the passions – The St Matthew Passion, St. John's Passion, all the requiems. I got my music education also in Langholtskirkja, I was brought up there in the Graduale choir. This sound of voices in the church acoustics has always appealed to me very strongly. It has some kind of a spiritual dimension that I'm very much drawn to in my life, both as a soloist, as a musician, and just as a person. So I love that, but I also love being on the stage and playing a part.
Not all singers enjoy acting on stage, some seem to have quite a complicated relationship with it. Have you always been comfortable with acting?
I have always been curious about it, but I think we could go through more acting training as singers, and you can really see some singers aren’t very comfortable. I think actors make fun of us when we act – it’s a friendly feud! But at the festival this year, we had a performance with Tinna Þorvalds Önnudóttir who is both a trained singer and an actor. And it was beautiful to see that in one person. She has acted a lot and has gone through the whole actor's training. And I was like, okay, yeah, I see the point. I can understand what the actors are talking about. It's a very exciting combination.
There's also, I think, an element of being brave because of the physical side of acting and being used to performing with your own instrument where you have these extremely physical techniques – and then you throw acting into the mix, which probably can just knock your whole technique off balance.
Yes, and some directors don't have the understanding of what a singer needs in order to sing well, and where to put what comes first. Is it acting or is it singing? For the singers, it is the singing, but they need to find a way to combine the two. I know this can get very complicated if you're working with a director who doesn't take this important part into consideration and maybe asks a singer to do a headstand or something ...
Maybe this is one of the areas where a National Opera could help us. We have some great opera directors, but it would be nice to give newcomers a place to grow and learn. There are certainly several young theatrical directors who are very interested in this form and some of them have taken steps into the field already. And I think to grant them some sort of an opportunity to train would be fantastic.
I think this is so important, just so our art form will thrive. Because it's not just the singers. We don't own this art form. There are the directors and the set designers and all the other professionals within our scene. This is maybe what has really been lacking in the last few years here in Iceland – there has not been a strong dialogue with those professionals and we need to make sure that they realize all the possibilities that lie within the operatic form, that it's actually very exciting.
Well, I have a recurring question on this podcast that I ask all my guests. If you could change one thing about the performing arts scene here in Iceland, if you had a magic wand to wave, what would you change and why?
I think I would ask the authorities to have the courage to really invest in our scene and to notice what is happening internationally, how we are creating a lot of attention. Just this year, there have been two big articles in The Guardian about the classical music scene in Iceland. Why is Iceland producing these artists who are on top of their fields internationally? Why do we have a superpower here? I would love the authorities to recognize it and take advantage of it, for their own good as well. This could be one of our specialties – it already is, but we could do so much more to create working conditions that Icelandic artists can thrive in. We need the facilities and we need the working conditions. So if they would make a conscious decision – hey, this is a superpower and we are really going to invest in it – I think this is what I would change.
Thank you so much for joining me, Guja, it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you. To our listeners and readers, please keep following us for new episodes of the Performing Arts Centre Iceland podcast.