ICELANDIC RELATIVES STEFÁN RAGNAR HÖSKULDSSON AND DÍSELLA LÀRUSDÓTTIR SHARE THE SPOTLIGHT AT THE MET
by Stephanie Mortimore, principal piccoloist
It’s a common joke among Icelanders that everyone from their country is related. Iceland is a very, very small place. With a land area of only 40,000 square miles, it is similar in size to the state of Kentucky. Its population is just 320,000, roughly the same as that of St. Louis. And so, it was with a little twinkle in my eye that I called my friend and colleague Stefán Höskuldsson at the break for the first rehearsal of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions to tell him there was an exceptionally beautiful and talented Icelandic singer, Dísella Làrusdóttir, on the program. “Dísella, did you say?” Stefán replied in all seriousness. “I think we’re related!” Indeed they were – second cousins once removed, to be exact. (It took me quite a while and consultation with several genealogy websites to figure this out!) Though Stefán and Dísella grew up more than ten hours away from each other and met only once as children, their shared roots and similar career trajectories seem almost karmic.
FATHER KNOWS BEST
Stefán’s and Dísella’s fathers were first cousins once removed, and also, as it happens, very close friends. Stefán’s father, Höskuldur Stefánsson, was born in 1930 and Dísella’s father, Làrus Sveinsson, in 1941, both in the tiny fishing village of Neskaupstaður. Along with four other locals, including a fisherman and the town baker, they played in a jazz band together in the ’50s.
“I remember your dad so well, even though I was just a baby,” Dísella tells Stefán the other day when the three of us sit down together. Stefán elaborates, “He was the life of the party…and your dad as well. They were kind of hooligans!”
Dísella’s father, Làrus, won the principal trumpet position in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in 1967 and moved with his young family to Mosfellsbær, just outside of Reykjavík. He had previously studied in Vienna and was offered a job with the Vienna Philharmonic. Though he loved his time in the big city, Làrus turned the job down. He found the idea of being away from Iceland for the rest of his life too painful. “In that time, you would have to make a decision that you would never see your family again, and he couldn’t think about that,” Dísella explains.
Stefán’s father, Höskuldur, owned a furniture business but was an enthusiastic and talented amateur musician, even giving Làrus his first trumpet lessons. He was a proficient pianist, extremely comfortable sitting down and playing from memory almost anywhere. I had the good fortune of witnessing this on several occasions and was amazed at the ease, humor, and grace with which he approached the instrument - he was a natural. He also played accordion, organ (at his local church), and trombone (starting his hometown marching band), and did all the arranging for the jazz band he and Làrus played in. “He did want to be a professional musician,” Stefán says, “but the 1930s and ’40s were very difficult times in Iceland, coming out of the depression and then the war, and he wasn’t encouraged to pursue music. But he picked up songs from the radio and he picked them up exactly the way they were because his ear was so fine-tuned.”
Both Stefán and Dísella credit their fathers as their primary musical influences. Stefán, who is now 39, started playing the recorder at age six and showed talent for it at an early age. When he was eight, his father encouraged him to borrow a relative’s flute. He advanced quickly and soon outgrew the local teachers. Höskuldur was so dedicated to the advancement of his son’s musical talents that once a month for six years he and Stefán made the 10-hour drive to Reykjavík for lessons with the principal flutist of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. “That was my father’s mission: to get me a good education,” says Stefán.
Dísella, 37, started her musical pursuits at the age of eight, following in her father’s footsteps with the trumpet and then taking up the piano as well. Làrus initially was not thrilled with the idea of his daughter taking after him in her career. “Whatever you do, Dísella, don’t become a musician,” he would tell her. But he had a change of heart when he saw the emergence of her innate talent and clear love of performing. “I was an accompanist for my dad’s choir,” Dísella recalls, “and when they sang a capella, he was like, ‘Why don’t you join the sopranos?’ It always seems like my dad was behind everything. I didn’t even realize it until I’m talking about it. He said, ‘You have a really nice voice, Dísella. You should study how to sing.’ ”
Dísella wasn’t certain what she wanted to do at that point, so she decided to take a year off from school to work at the local supermarket. “And then one day I was on a coffee break,” she says, “and I just called the Singing School of Reykjavík and asked for an audition. It had been in the back of my mind but I had not really thought it out. After I did it I was like, ‘What just happened?’ ”
Dísella moved quickly through her studies, completing five levels (out of eight) in just over two years. And then her dad died. “After that there was no going back, because just before he died my dad told me how incredibly proud of me he was. I really wanted to keep going because of him. Plus, I discovered that I really loved it!” Dísella completed her degree at the Singing School, went on to receive a master’s degree from Westminster Choir College of Rider University, and began her career at the Met by winning the 2007 National Council Auditions.
Höskuldur was also exceedingly proud of Stefán as he continued his musical studies in Manchester, England, at the Royal Northern College of Music. In 2001, Stefán decided to move to the United States to try his luck here. He worked for several years as an office manager at the Flute Center of New York, selling instruments to other flutists and playing the occasional gig. And then he won the position of second flute with the Met in 2004. Almost immediately, part of his duties became moving over to play principal flute on a moment’s notice. This was just a year before his father died. “The first time I played principal was for La Bohème and I was so nervous,” Stefán says. “But my dad was so proud to see me play at the Met. It brought his investment in my education and career full-circle and it was amazing that he could be there for that moment in my life.”
ON (AND UNDER) THE STAGE
Imagine how proud Höskuldur and Larus would be of their children now. Stefán won the position of Principal Flute with the Met in 2008 and is now a sought-after soloist throughout the U.S., Europe, South America, and Japan.
Dísella, having started covering roles at the Met in 2010, made her stage debut in Francesca da Rimini in the 2012-13 season and has followed that with appearances in Das Rheingold, Götterdämmerung, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Rusalka and La Sonnambula. She has two commercial CDs, both of which topped the charts in Iceland.
Not only are Dísella and Stefán both successful, they both deeply love what they do. "I am always fascinated with the sound the flute can make,” says Stefán, “and operatic music constantly provides me with inspiration for that. Each opera is an opportunity to develop a different kind of sound to suit the particular style."
“I love the making of the music and the contact with the conductor,” says Dísella. “And I sing for the physical action of singing. I mean, it’s organized screaming basically. There are vibrations that go through your body with the music. It’s a lot of energy that you’re putting out and it feels good to sing.”
A VIKING TAKEOVER?
The two cousins speak about their shared history with clear love for, and pride in, their homeland. I was curious to know how growing up in such a small society affected each of the them as artists, and whether they feel there are any uniquely Icelandic qualities that they bring to their art.
“Coming from such a small place, we have to fend for ourselves and survive,” says Stefán. “I think part of being Icelandic is finding a sort of strength within to keep moving forward and making things work. There is a very important Icelandic saying, ‘Thetta reddast,’ which means ‘It’s gonna be okay; it’s gonna work out.’ Deep down, we Icelanders really believe that. We just carry on and do what we do. For example, I was working at the Flute Center of New York and I didn’t know what I was going to do: go into the flute selling business or what. I had taken several auditions and nothing worked. I didn’t get anywhere. So the Met audition came up and I just thought, ‘What the heck. I’m gonna try this.’ I just had this attitude that it’s going to be okay. I’m going to do this. And it worked out! It’s interesting. ‘Thetta reddast!’”
Dísella has a similar take on things. Due to Iceland’s small size, specialization is not a luxury many musicians have, so musicians tend to work in diverse styles, ranging from pop to classical, in order to make a living – to make things work out. “I have this mentality,” Dísella says, “that I can be versatile. I like singing classical, pop, musical theater, jazz, and cabaret – it’s all part of surviving in the small yet very competitive music business in Iceland. So along with this attitude of ‘Thetta reddast,’ I say, ‘Yes,’ and I make it work.” Indeed, Dísella has enjoyed great success in varied genres – Eurovision enthusiasts will be pleased to learn, for example, that she reached the semi-finals of the 2006 Song Competition.
“Also,” says Dísella, “‘Thetta reddast’ applied to me as I moved to New York with my baby (Bjartur, now 4) to start working for the Met. My son was only 18 months old and the two of us came here with just one suitcase, three plastic bags full of toys and, most importantly, a coffee maker! Keeping ‘Thetta reddast’ in mind really helped me get through this exciting but slightly scary time. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”
When asked of the possibility of collaboration, the cousins were talking over each other with enthusiasm.
“It’s on my mind all the time!”
“There’s so much great repertoire.”
“There’s absolutely a concert with the two of us in the near future!”
I, for one, am going to be the first to buy a ticket!
For more information about Dísella, visit www.disella.org
To learn more about Stefán, go to www.stefanflute.com