“Nothing short of magical,” says Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson, Minnesota Opera’s latest Rigoletto

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Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson is currently performing a role near and dear to his heart at Minnesota Opera: Rigoletto. I am thrilled that Olafur was willing to answer a few of my questions about the role, the production, and what it was like growing up in Iceland.

Rigoletto is a role you’re intimately familiar with. How do you keep it fresh?

Rigoletto has turned out to be the role I have performed the most. Every new production brings new challenges. I have sung the role in three different languages and my Rigoletto’s have been blind, with or without a hump, and a recent one was even without arms. So, as you can see, one has to approach a new production open minded and being willing to explore new dimensions to the character. This demands that I try and keep it fresh every time.

Olafur Sigurdarson
Olafur Sigurdarson as Rigoletto in Minnesota Opera’s new production
Photo credit: Cory Weaver

Does directorial vision or other aspects of the production influence your interpretation?

Absolutely. It’s very exciting to meet a new director and learn his or her vision of the piece and of the character of Rigoletto. The best experience is when a director and conductor collaborate with the whole team to create a new production.

Do you think the relationship between Rigoletto and Gilda still resonates with audiences today?

While I would not wish upon anyone to live the lives of Rigoletto and Gilda, I do think their relationship is very real indeed. He does try to care for his daughter the best he can while trying to cope with his impossible circumstances as the Duke’s jester. Although the opera focuses on Rigoletto, as the title suggests, it is also very much the coming-of-age story of Gilda. Any parent can relate to the challenges in watching their children progress from young age into adult life. Their relationship therefore should most definitely resonate with audiences today.

Olafur Sigurdarson
Olafur Sigurdarson as Rigoletto and Marie-Eve Munger as Gilda
Photo credit: Cory Weaver

What’s the best part about singing Rigoletto?

For me it is making the most of this wonderful opportunity to challenge myself as a singing-actor. Even though we are referred to as opera singers all the time, the acting part of our work is just as important. Sure, we could deliver the piece in a concert performance and focus only on the musical side, but opera is about much, much more. Rigoletto is one of those roles that offer endless possibilities when it comes to interpretation, and each time it’s terribly exciting. I am still waiting for that one performance where I think I have done the role justice, but I have a feeling that day will never come. So, on with the job!

This is not a traditional production of Rigoletto. Stage director Austin Regan said, “I wanted to invigorate what was exciting and important about it to its original authors and audience, in a way that spoke to our times.” How does this production “speak to our times?”

Sadly, it is very easy to find resemblances to the story of Rigoletto, Gilda, and the Duke simply by turning on the news, and I don’t think I need to mention any names. We still live in a world where powerful men use their position to abuse others, not least women. And there are plenty of people battling with their conscience in their professional lives, while trying to be good people when it comes to their loved ones. The story of Rigoletto is basically all around us.

Sadly, it is very easy to find resemblances to the story of Rigoletto, Gilda, and the Duke simply by turning on the news.

Tell me about growing up in Iceland – were you surrounded by classical music? Did you attend the opera?

I did grow up with music all the time. My father and grandfather are both renowned musicians back home in Iceland. I would frequently visit rehearsals at the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra as a child as well as hide in the pit at the National Theatre while one of them, or both, were playing. I started working in my father’s recording studio as a teenager and did so for many years.

There are not many opportunities to see live opera in Iceland. Nowadays, there are normally two productions a year in Reykjavik. With a population of just over 300.000 people the market isn’t big enough to sustain more shows. As a result, I didn’t really see much opera when I was younger. When I moved abroad to further my studies I started going to the opera when possible which made a world of difference for me.

Are you enjoying your time in Minnesota? What sorts of things do you do on your off days?

I am very much enjoying getting to know Minneapolis and am looking forward to venturing outside the city on my days off between performances. I still have a list of things I’d like to do, including walks and museums. And I always enjoy good food and drink which I know there is plenty of in Minnesota.

To finish, I’d like to ask a question I ask everyone: what is it about opera that touches your soul?

Opera is a fascinating art form, bringing together music, theatre, design, costumes, dance, movement etc. It therefore caters for all our senses at once which is nothing short of magical.

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