Were a thousand people to see Eivør Pálsdóttir perform in Tórshavn, the capital of her homeland, that’d be a full eight percent of the city’s population. Elsewhere, that crowd is nothing quite so unusual for the Faroe Islands singer.
Eivør, who performs under her first name, consistently sells out concert venues in Denmark, and elsewhere across Europe. Her February 27th performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. was much smaller than a thousand, but nearly all several hundred seats were filled.
Eivør performed as part of the Nordic Cool festival at the Kennedy Center, which celebrates Nordic art. The Faroe Islands, a self-governing country under Danish sovereignty is represented in the Nordic Council, and so was invited to participate in the festival. And while Eivør’s concert alone did not surpass the attendance at some of her Danish venues, the recognition in the United States might have been worth the trip.
Eivør’s music is representative of the many Nordic cultures coming together, which is just what Nordic Cool wants to highlight. Most of her songs are in Faroese, the native language of the Faroe Islands, but many are in Icelandic. She has recently begun writing in English as well.
While Scandinavia technically only consists of the Nordic monarchies – Sweden, Norway, and Denmark – the term is often used to refer to Nordic countries as a whole.
Baltasar Kormákur, an Oscar-nominated Icelandic filmmaker, noted that more emphasis is placed on the performing arts in Nordic countries than in the U.S.
“You can expect more people to come to a play than to a film,” Kormákur said. “You can make plays that easily do 40,000 admissions in [Iceland,] a country of 300,000. Very rarely do films exceed that.”
However, the small crowd at Eivør’s Kennedy Center performance was more typical than sold-out concert halls in Stockholm and Copenhagen.
“We will put on shows for years,” Kormákur said. While the venues are actually quite small, “you can fill up five hundred seats for a long time.”
“People have valued the arts more, as the other tangible goods have failed.”
Part of Eivør’s success in Scandinavia comes from the merging of multiple cultures. The 2003 Icelandic female singer of the year claims to draw influence primarily from her own homeland. But her Icelandic title was bestowed when she lived in that country, and she now lives in Denmark where she tours the most.
“I think people want to hear their own language,” Kormákur said. However, international influence is strong in Nordic countries – especially Iceland. “We are right in the middle of everyone.”
Pirietta Mulari, the international affairs manager of Dance Info Finland, noted that even though Scandinavia is sparsely populated, they place huge importance on theater. The importance is reflected in expenditures.
“You might call us a welfare state,” Mulari said. “But the social-democratic governments consider spending on theater to have high returns.”
Hanne Tømta, the artistic director of the National Theatre of Norway noted that 65 to 80 percent of theater budgets are subsidized by the Norwegian government. This is compared to 50 percent in the Faroe Islands, and 2 percent in the U.S.
Even during Iceland’s 2008 financial crisis, which greatly affected the Faroe Islands, theater subsidies remained high, and attendance at the theater actually increased.
“We like to think that this is because people have valued the arts more, as the other tangible goods have failed,” Tinna Gunnlaugsdóttir, artistic director of the National Theatre of Iceland, said.
Scandinavians and Nordics might quibble at times over being lumped together, and argue over the nuances of their languages. (A popular Scandinavian quip is “Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish.”) However, few deny the pervasiveness of each other’s cultures.
“We have a lot of influences,” Kormákur joked. “One day we float too close to America, and then the wind changes and we head back to Europe.”