‘Magnus-Maria’, a progressive new opera from Icelandic composer Karólína Eiríksdóttir and Swedish director Suzanne Osten, will make its Iceland debut at the Reykjavík Arts Festival. The opera tells the true story of Swedish-born Maria Johansdotter, who was born female but lived much of her life as Magnus Johansson in order to be an independent person and a musician in the early 1700s. Though set in the 18th century, the opera could not seem timelier, given today’s resurgent interest in gender rights issues throughout the world, and emphasis on pursuits of freedom of expression for all.
The idea for ‘Magnus-Maria’ came about from a group of creatives from the Åland Islands, who asked the composer if she would like to write an opera on the subject. Somehow by the first meeting, all the other pieces for a production fell into place—the director, the designers, the dramaturg. Karólína then went about setting the libretto to music. Tracing the musician’s life through personal and professional scenes, erotic intrigue, and inquisition, the text of the opera reads like a gripping thriller. When asked by a judge if she is a woman or a man, Magnus Maria answers “Both, however more of a man.” The audience will likely find it comforting to know that Magnus Maria’s life doesn’t end in complete and gruesome tragedy like that of many operas’ leading characters. Nevertheless, Karólína says that the intensity and diversity of emotional content of the scenes was both challenging and inspiring; she scored the piece for a small ensemble of string players and percussion to underscore and deepen the drama on stage.
Karólína’s music is known for its avant-garde vocabulary. Her chamber music and orchestral pieces include thorny dissonances that contrast with moments of refined and beautiful clarity. This is not the accessible chamber pop of some contemporary Icelandic musicians. The composer is reluctant to describe her own musical style too much, preferring to leave audiences to judge for themselves. “I think every listener has to find his or her own way to connect to it,” she says. Yet every project makes Karólína evaluate her musical approach. “Since Magnus Maria was a folk musician, I did make myself familiar with folk music from the area and used a folk tune in one scene. There is also a reference to church music, and in one place I could not resist quoting Mozart. Other than that this is just my own musical language, which tries to adapt to the story as it goes along.”
The genre of opera goes back centuries, stemming from long, historical productions with elaborate costumes and fixed forms like arias and spoken recitative. Opera was also a world dominated by men. But modern operas, like all musical styles, are evolving. Karólína enjoys the chance to explore a genre she loves, while also breaking away from tradition and showing contemporary significance. “’Magnus-Maria’ is about a subject which is relevant today,” Karólína says. “It is about human rights, it is about the right to be yourself, choose your own gender, choose your own line of work. It is about getting free from the ideas and roles society expects from you. It also tells you that human nature was just the same three hundred years ago as it is today. I think opera can be a very important genre today and have just as important weight as other art forms. All art forms have to evolve and change if they are to have any meaning for their time.”
Magnus Maria lived during a time when it was illegal to live a life dressed as the opposite gender, let alone flirt with women and perform music. In today’s Iceland, we can hardly imagine that kind of moral opposition. Still, struggles remain. Magnus Maria may not have intended to be a role model or have even known that his/her life would be passed down through history, but lucky for us we can witness this story. Through Karólína Eiríksdóttir’s musical lens, ‘Magnus-Maria’ is as much a production about “the right gender” as it is about the unwavering human spirit.
Magnus Maria will be playing on June 3 at 19:30 at Þjóðleikhúsið (The National Theatre).