Icelandic is a good language for singing
By Gunnar Gunnarsson
August 23, 2019
Iceland’s landscape and culture inspired the American composer Evan Fein when he composed the music for his opera “The Raven’s Kiss,” which will be shown in Herðubreið in Seyðisfjörður over the weekend. He says there is an interest in rare languages, including Icelandic, among singers from North America.
“We were staying with friends and family members in towns around the country when we were writing the opera. The landscape and local topography therefore entered into the text of the opera.”
“Then there are various pieces of people’s personalities and the interactions between us as well,” says Evan.
He composed the music for “The Raven’s Kiss” and is the director and conductor of the production of the work in Seyðisfjörður. Thorvaldur Davíð Kristjánsson is the co-librettist of the work. They met at The Juilliard School in New York, where Evan currently serves on faculty. He can certainly be placed in the category of “Íslandsvina” (“Friend of Iceland”) as he has come to the country annually for the past ten years.
Those visits have made a mark on his musical creations. “The landscape here is so different from where I grew up in Ohio. It is primal and barren but also incredibly beautiful. I try to evoke this effect in my music. It’s definitely safe to say that Iceland has had a great influence on my compositions over the past decade.”
In “The Raven’s Kiss” you will find references to Icelandic culture, for instance the scene with the traditional “Marital Bliss Cake,” the memory of a flirtation in the blueberry bushes, and the continual drinking of coffee.
“We tried to imagine things that the characters might have done or experienced. I remember being with some friends in the West Fjords. One picked a forget-me-not and stuck it to my sweater. I would never have thought to do that, but it seemed such a timeless gesture, I immediately decided to use it in the libretto.”
“We also depict coffee drinking. Icelanders are famous for their hospitality. I remember visiting Fáskrúðsfjörður with Thorvaldur for French Days (an annual festival weekend). His family is from that town, so we went around to each of their homes to pay them a visit. At each home, I was offered strong coffee and after some conversation, I would play the piano for a while to say “Thank you.” After five or six such visits, my hands were shaking so badly from the caffeine, I could barely play!”
The opera is in English, but there are Icelandic place and personal names. Evan points out that it was Thorvaldur’s job to choose or create the names (some of which refer to fictional places), but that they had to be suited for singing. “Some Icelandic names, such as ‘Hreinn,’ lend themselves poorly to being sung. We also considered that when the opera was first staged, we knew it would be by American singers. It came in handy to have also worked with Thorvaldur on some Icelandic songs so I could help coach the singers with their pronunciation of certain words,” says Evan.
An Interest in rare languages
Operas are often sung in Italian, French, or Russian. Evan says, however, that Icelandic is well-suited for singing and that there is an interest in “minority” languages among singers and vocal music enthusiasts.
“I think Icelandic is a good language for singing. The vowels are very clean and it follows clear rules. Certainly, there are sounds in the language that opera singers have not encountered in their studies of other languages. For instance, some elements of Icelandic appear German so many singers try those sounds at first, and these habits have to be unlearned. I hope someone takes the opportunity to write a book on Icelandic diction for non-native speakers, as such a resource exists for many other languages.”
“My Icelandic art songs are among the most frequently performed of my works, particularly by American singers. I hope Icelandic composers will make the effort to make their work more accessible to American singers and to promote their work to American artists, as they would find an enthusiastic audience there.”