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Odysseus Reborn: Daníel Bjarnason Brings His Wartime Opera Home

Odysseus Reborn: Daníel Bjarnason Brings His Wartime Opera Home

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photos by
Rut Sigurðardóttir

Published June 1, 2018

Daníel Bjarnason has presence. He exudes the sort of poise you notice from across a room. When he talks, he’s prolifically calm, his voice tinged with the type of sincere honesty that makes every conversation seem intimate.

It’s interesting, then, how incongruous his music is with his personality. Stormy, dramatic, and emotionally demanding, Daníel’s compositions are the kind you have to sit down and breathe after. He’s one of Iceland’s rising musical stars, and for good reason. Once you hear his work, you’ll never forget him.    

The natural composer

Daníel started taking piano lessons aged six, but quit only years later in favour of sports. As a teenager, his interest in music reignited and he began composing. “The idea of composing just interested me,” Daníel says, sitting in a corner nook of Harpa’s backstage area. Behind him, the sun gleams on the harbour. “I found that it suited me, and I had some talent for it. Piano was much harder because I had stopped when I was young, so I wasn’t any kind of musical wunderkind there.”

He raises his eyebrows and laughs. It’s unexpectedly tonal, especially for someone who just described themselves as not innately musical. He takes a sip of coffee and then quickly cuts in. “I mean I can play piano,” he says, making eye contact as if just to confirm. “But composing played to my strengths. It just felt natural.”

In those formative years, he was quickly drawn to the darker side of the Romantic period. “Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’ really fascinated me. I also remember listening to a lot of Shostakovish,” Daníel says. “I think that’s a really good age to get into Shostakovish, as a teenager.” For reference, the Russian composer is known for his dramatic, broody, and tonally subversive works. It’s more or less the classical music equivalent of getting heavily into Sartre.

“There’s a ritual to the process of going to a concert and sitting silently.”

In the intervening decades, the composer and conductor has gone global, working with symphonies all over the world. He’s made a name for himself with his characteristically tempestuous and emotive style, as well as his tendency to take on wildly disparate projects. In recent years, he’s done everything from releasing classical electronic albums to debuting works with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. If there’s one word you can use to describe Daníel, it’s unexpected. He’s a natural shapeshifter.

Last year, he presented his first operatic effort, ‘Brothers’, in Copenhagen. The show is based on Susanne Bier’s 2004 film of the same name. The opera received massive acclaim, and in honour of this years Reykjavík Arts Festival, the composer presents its heavily anticipated Icelandic debut.

The operatic umbilical cord

Opera is one of the few—perhaps the only—genre that’s difficult for those not acquainted with it to separate from its history. They see the word ‘opera’ and immediately conjure up images of women in horned hats, even though modern opera is as far away from that as modern plays are from Oscar Wilde. Video games aren’t constantly talked about in relation to Pong, nor paintings to Caravaggio. For modern operatic composers, this situation is, at best, nonsensical.

“In ‘Brothers’, the abstract horrors of war will be shown as they are.”

“If you’re writing a novel today, you’re not constantly thinking about ‘Anna Karenina’,” says Daníel. “If you’re writing something for an orchestra, you’re not worrying about Brahms fourth symphony. You don’t go there. In the same way, I don’t even think about my opera in the same world as ‘La Traviata’.”

However, he does acknowledge that it’s difficult for those unfamiliar with the art form to view it as a contemporary form, and even harder for old works to be experienced in new contexts. “Opera is different,” he says. “You can take Shakespeare and make it modern, but you take Verdi or Puccini and you always have that historical umbilical cord that it’s hard to get away from.”

Despite its difficulties, Daníel does harbour a deep and abiding love for that umbilical cord. “Of course, there can be some stuffiness and perhaps it can seem a little bit old-fashioned, but I kind of like that old-fashionedness,” he smiles. “I don’t think it’s all bad. There’s a ritual about the process of going to a concert and sitting silently. It’s one of the few places you can go and just listen. Most other concerts are loud and people are talking and drinking.” He pauses as if trying to find the right words. “The act of focused listening can be pretty amazing.”

A ghostly return

Modern opera is exactly that—modern. And just as other art forms rearrange to reflect our changing world, so has opera. From the savage and furious works of George Benjamin to Marc-Anthony Turnage’s recent production about the life of Anna-Nicole Smith, modern opera has stayed thematically relevant and relatable. And while opera has always been centred around human emotion, modern opera has turned that into an exploration of ambiguity and emotional complexity.

‘Brothers’ is born from this world, but also pushes the psychological limits of it further, bursting the dam on the difficult discussion surrounding trauma and PTSD. The story explores two brothers and their experiences during and after combat in Afghanistan. One brother, Michael, is a prisoner of war presumed dead by his family. In captivity, he’s tortured and forced to kill another captive. The other brother, Jannik, is a lost cause vagabond fresh out of prison who vows to take care of his brother’s wife and children in his stead. When Michael returns home alive, both have to reconcile with the choices they made during the soldier’s absence and the consequences of them.

“What drew me to ‘Brothers’ was that it’s such a universal story,” says Daníel. “There’s something timeless about its core. It’s rooted in mythology, you know, the return of the soldiers, like ‘The Odyssey’—this person who comes back after being lost and can’t get back into his old life. He finds that his world has moved on and he’s become somewhat of a ghost.” Daníel’s perpetual calmness makes this interpretation eerie at points, but his voice is overlaid at all times by a sense of pure empathy. It’s clear he feels deeply troubled by but at the same time intimately connected to each character, despite their fundamental flaws.

Apotheosis of aggression

The opera takes nothing but the skeleton of the story from the film. All the text is original, the chronology changed, and the concept adapted to fit the medium of opera. This primarily means that, as an opera, ‘Brothers’ uses a male and female chorus—more or less in the Greek sense of the word—to comment on and push the drama.

“People who play in orchestras or write classical music, those who have gone down that path, they didn’t grow up on some remote island listening only to, you know, Bach preludes.”

Their text, written by librettist Kerstin Perski, is bleak. For instance, the female chorus starts off the show with a question: “Man goes to war in a faraway place/To fight for a cause soon forgotten/To protect someone from someone else/But who will protect Man from himself?” The men answer: “Protect yourself with forgetfulness./For those who have seen/and those who have yet to see,/both the past and the future lie ahead.” It’s an ominous prelude that nimbly sets the stage for the stark honesty of the show. In ‘Brothers’, the abstract horrors of war will be shown as they are.

But it is Daníel’s musical interpretation that deftly wrenches the already troubling story to fervorous heights. It’s unnerving throughout, managing to walk the line between hair-raising beauty and outright discomfort. Aggressive, tense, explosive, it brings to mind works like Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’—difficult to experience, but impossible to walk away from.

“This story is very dark,” Daníel says. “It goes to some dark places and it never really lets you go. There’s not a lot of relief in it.” He pauses. “Opera is a weird art form, of course, but it can do something no other art form can. And in some weird way, it suits me. There’s something about it that feels natural.”

No labels needed

That sentiment could be used for many genres in relation to Daníel. Though he’s primarily a classical composer and conductor, Daníel’s career has broken free of all classifications. Along with his works for classical settings, which include pieces for orchestras, solo ensembles, choruses, dance, and more, he’s also released albums on the iconic avant-garde Icelandic record label Bedroom Community and scored films—most recently, ‘Under The Tree’, for which he won the Harpa Award earlier this year. Daníel’s acclaimed collaboration with noise musician Ben Frost on the album ‘Sólaris’, and the live performances that followed, included visual manipulations by Brian Eno and Nick Robertson.

He has been notably celebrated for his unique approach in recording classical music in a studio setting. Time Out New York declared that on his debut effort ‘Processions’, Daníel, creates “a sound that comes eerily close to defining classical music’s undefinable brave new world.”

He laughs when the quote is brought up, perhaps in modesty. “Jesus, I have no idea. I guess if I could tell you exactly what that brave new world is, it wouldn’t be very brave or new,” he says. “It would be defined and we would already be moving on.” It’s clear the unabashed flattery of the review took him off guard.

But then he shrugs. “I suppose what the writer meant was that there was a different mindset on that album, that I approached it more as studio producer rather than a composer, but maybe that there was also a mindset of being at home in various styles.” He raises his eyebrows, clearly uncomfortable complimenting himself so audaciously. But his assessment is correct. The album, though a genre-bending ride on the cusp of electronic and chamber music, feels completely natural. There’s nothing forced about it. He was at home.

Ticking the boxes

When asked if there’s a genre he hasn’t yet been involved with but wants to, Daníel doesn’t miss a beat. “Country,” he states, completely deadpan. He lets the word sink in with complete seriousness as if forcing the listener to imagine his sound meshing with the cheesiness of country. But then his face cracks and he breaks into that tonal laugh. “No, right now there is a project I am planning which is just an album of songs, short songs with singers. A song cycle, you know,” he stops. “Yes, that’s not a genre in itself, but it’s different from what I’ve done.”

“I am not trying to, you know, tick the boxes.”

This genre-bending career path was never a conscious decision. “I am not trying to, you know, tick the boxes,” Daníel shrugs. “Having a musical life that happens to be multi-faceted was just how it turned out. And for me to turn my back on collaborations or projects because I feel like I shouldn’t be doing that, I don’t know who I would be pleasing. I just do what feels natural.” Hence, his entry into the world of opera.

In ‘Brothers’, Daníel proves once again that he is a chameleon, deftly managing to seamlessly meld his signature tumultuous melancholy with a new genre. But whether he’s doing opera or a concerto or a collaboration with Sigur Rós, Daníel is one of those artists whose touch and mindset you instinctively recognise. It’s visceral. He deeply knows and trusts himself, and that self-awareness and respect shines through all of his compositions. In any musical field, that’s a rare quality, but there’s just something special about Daníel. He’s got that x-factor.

Bach’s remote island

That said, while Daníel is an especially prolific genre-crosser, it’s true that divisions have recently been blurring in modern classical music. Minimalist pioneer Philip Glass scored ‘The Hours’ and collaborated with Aphex Twin. Harpa recently screened ‘Lord Of The Rings’ along with live accompaniment. Everyone from Rod Stewart to Meat Loaf to Metallica has made albums backed by famous orchestras. Daníel is clearly not alone. He’s part of a revolution—a frontrunner in a musical Bastille Day tearing down the ivory tower that has long surrounded classical music.

“I think it’s in many ways natural,” Daníel says. “People who play in orchestras or write classical music, those who have gone down that path, they didn’t grow up on some remote island listening only to, you know, Bach preludes.” He emphasises Bach preludes in a jokey tongue-in-cheek manner, disrupting his usual calm. It’s true though—you can’t get more stereotypically classical than Bach. “These are people who have grown up in society. They are part of culture,” he says. “Hey, they probably do karaoke.”

It’s a thought-provoking—albeit playful—sentiment. Classical musicians are not immune from the barrage of music everyone else encounters and artists are the sum of their own experiences. Daníel is upfront with the varied mix that formed him. “I mean when I was a kid, my Mom was an opera buff and she listened to a lot of opera. I was really crazy about Mozart. ‘The Magic Flute’ and such,” he says. “But I listened just as much to Michael Jackson and Duran Duran. They were just as big a part of my musical diet.” He notes, with a grin, that he also does karaoke. “I usually start with ‘Hello’ by Lionel Richie, but karaoke is not something you should plan, it’s more fun if you just walk into it.”

Step by step

Within the context of Icelandic opera, Daníel sees ‘Brothers’ as somewhat of an anomaly. “Here in Iceland, they don’t get a lot of chances to see modern operas,” Daníel admits. Of course, Harpa has an opera company, but they only perform around two productions a year. Moreover, Iceland doesn’t have a big history with the genre. “‘Brothers’ stands a little apart or alone,” he says. “It’s a grand opera. There’s a full orchestra, chorus, many singers, it’s not something you could do with a few people in a small venue.” This is more reminiscent of current Icelandic opera scene. “I hope it will clear the path though, for others,” he says, “but honestly, writing an opera is a crazy thing to do.”

“The journey of one thousand miles starts with one step. You have to start by writing one note.”

“It’s just crazy work,” Daníel continues, looking out the window while shaking his head and grinning. It’s clear he finds the whole concept in some ways ludicrous. “You have to secure at least one performance if you’re going to do it. It takes a long time. I underestimated it,” he says. Daníel then begins to open up about the immense stress he was under during the writing process. It’s rare for an artist to admit they felt rushed, but Daníel is forthright about the fact that he wishes he had half a year more to create ‘Brothers’.

“It’s daunting, and it’s very daunting to take those first steps when you know you have such a long way to go,” he says. “The journey of one thousand miles starts with one step. You have to start by writing one note.” Then he pauses, as the boisterous voice of a male singer fills the hall—perhaps that first note. “But it went well. I enjoyed it,” he says,  deservedly proud of his accomplishment. “It would have been nice to not have that stress though, but that’s how it goes.”

Scary and fascinating

The other massive difference between working with orchestras or solo performers versus creating a staged show is the release of control to other parties. While the composer writes the music, the director decides the actions. The art director sets the mood. The head of lighting creates drama. The singers choose the emphasis. The end result can be quite different than what the composer originally imagined.

“It’s scary but it’s also fascinating,” Daníel says of that specific process. “When you’re writing an opera, you’re in a way directing it as well. You’re laying out the whole psychological structure of the piece, but then when the director and singers come in, it takes on its own life…” He’s interrupted again by the male singer, this time with a short melody. “It’s wonderful actually. You start to see things you hadn’t realised were there or could be approached in a different way. There are all sorts of sides of pieces that even the composer doesn’t see. It’s a journey of discovery.”

Finding the light

“In the future, I’d like to do something a little less dark,” Daníel says calmly. It’s as if he hasn’t thought about another opera until this moment. “It’s very hard to find a good opera subject, but I’d like to do something that had lighter, brighter colours in it.” Lighter and brighter have never been words you’d associate with Daníel’s compositions, but as he’s proved time and time again, he’s adaptable. He’ll find a way.

‘Brothers’ will debut on June 9th at Harpa at 19:30. Tickets are 4,900 to 11,900 ISK and can be bought here. For more information on the Reykjavík Arts Festival, click here, and for our coverage, picks and interviews from the festival, click here


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