Thora Hallgrimsdottir: Interview

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Time Out talks beer, bands, Björk and lamb‘s balls with Reykjavík-born, London-dwelling opera singer Thora Hallgrimsdottir

  • Thora Hallgrimsdottir: Interview

    Icelandic opera singer Thora Hallgrimsdottir

  • You might have thought that an Icelandic ex-pat would find London weather thrillingly tropical: even the average winter here is balmy compared to Reykjavík’s -10°C. But not 30-year-old Thora Hallgrimsdottir, an Icelander who has lived in the capital for almost four years.‘I get really cold here because the air is damp. In Iceland, we crank up the heat because we pay very little for heating and our houses are well-insulated, but here I am always cold inside. On the other hand, London’s summers are boiling.’

    After studying to be a singer in Iceland, Hallgrimsdottir arrived in London in 2002, to pursue singing lessons with an Icelandic teacher based here, as well as take up a postgraduate position at Trinity College of Music in Greenwich. ‘I absolutely hated it,’ she admits. ‘I was so homesick. I thought: I’ll give it to Christmas and then I won’t come back, but I did – and I’m still here.’

    London is a major destination for Icelandic music students. ‘It’s classical singing, in particular, that brings music students here. The colleges are really good, and the UK’s not too far from Iceland,’ says Hallgrimsdottir, who also works for an Icelandic owned-music company in Surrey, which produces relaxation music.

    There are estimated to be around 2,500 Icelanders in London, many of whom are here with banks and retail businesses – Hamleys, Karen Millen and Iceland (yes, really!) are all owned by Icelanders. But the history of Icelanders in London can be traced much further back to the ninth century, when Vikings invaded the British Isles. It has even been rumoured that William Shakespeare had Icelandic ancestry. During the 1960s, young Icelanders were drawn to the capital in droves, attracted by the fashion and music scene. It is a relatively prosperous community, with pockets in areas such as Richmond and Acton.

    Nevertheless, if you’re from an island whose total population is 300,000, London can take some getting used to. ‘This city is absolutely enormous,’ says Hallgrimsdottir, who lives in Teddington. ‘It takes about 15 minutes to get across Reykjavík. When I first came here it drove me nuts having to wait for the train and taking it for such a long amount of time. Oh my God, I could have travelled across the island in that time!’

    Hallgrimsdottir, who has an English boyfriend, says there are differences of temperament too. ‘Icelandic men are a bit macho and not very romantic. English men are gentler and sweeter,’ she says – a fact that might surprise many British women. ‘Iceland is a tiny, mostly uninhabitable island, and that makes us tough and quite aggressive. We like to get what we want.’

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