Some people seem to think that sex was invented in the 1960s; Icelandic history has some evidence to the contrary. In 1661 the bishop in Skálholt demanded that his daughter take an oath that she was a virgin and “as free from all dirty deeds as she was when she was brought into this world.” Nine months later she bore a child.
This was a real scandal. The child, a son, was taken away from her, and she never saw him again. A year later she died of some serious epidemic. Her older brother died a few years later and the old bishop, having lost all of his children, decided to adopt his illicit grandson, then six. The boy was extremely bright and lively, but at the age of 11 he too got tuberculoses and died. Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson, had lost everything that was dear to him, his wife, seven children and his beloved grandson.
This is the score of the opera Ragnheidur, by Gunnar Thórdarson and Fridrik Erlingsson. Gunnar became famous all over Iceland with the “Icelandic Beatles” Hjómar from Keflavík. His hit song Bláu augun thín (Your blue eyes), is still a favorite song of a whole generation. He has written hundreds of pop songs, but lately he started experimenting in classical music and a few years ago he decided to compose an opera. He got together with Fridrik Erlingsson and the chose the famous tragedy of Brynjólfur, his daughter Ragnheidur, and her teacher Dadi.
This real life tragedy almost sounds too sad to be true. Brynjólfur was the most learned man in Iceland and was chosen bishop at the age of 35, when he could have a career in universities in other countries. In 1660 he chose his trusted student Dadi as tutor for his only surviving daughter, Ragnheidur who was 18 at the time. Rumors started that the teacher pupil relation was too close for decency, and Brynjólfur took the ill advised decision to let Ragnheidur take the infamous and humiliating oath. The oath was taken in the church of Skálholt and the daughter had to be stripped down to the waist in front of the whole congregation. Nobody can ever say whether the oath was true or false that day, but the son was born nine months and six days after the oath.
To add insult to injury, Dadi the trusted tutor, fathered twins by a “lowly working woman”, as the story goes, in Skálholt, a year before his son with Ragnheidur was born. For years Dadi was not able to get priesthood because of his missteps. He finally did become a priest and lived until very old age. He did get married and had three daughters that lived. Unlike Bishop Brynjólfur, he has many living descendants in Iceland, including both myself and my wife (we trace our root to him through different daughters, and this was 350 years ago!).
The opera appropriately premiered in Skálholt August 16-18, this summer. The church was packed three times and people left with tears in their eyes. Critics loved it, one giving five stars out of five and another critic gave four and a half stars out of five. The music of Gunnar Thórdarson, the old pop star, was touching and catching.
Many hope that the opera will soon be staged at Harpa, Iceland’s opera theatre. If so it will be worth a trip to Iceland to see and hear this fabulous work.