Based on the Norse sagas and filmed partly in Iceland, a unique musical drama by award-winning composer, director, and producer Jeffrey Leiser is soon due for release.

Their stories, initially outlined nearly a millennium ago in the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, Freydís and Gudrid, have been written in the alliterative, epic-poetry style of the original Poetic Edda by this remarkable American polymath. 

As an award-winning composer, Jeffrey Leiser has expanded his repertoire with the operatic film Freydís and Gudrid, a unique musical drama based on ancient Norse stories. Photo: Albino Fawn Productions

The far travelers 

It focuses on two women, Freydís Eiríksdóttir and Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, one the daughter of Erik the Red and, therefore, the sister of Leif Erikson, the other the wife of their younger brother, Thorstein. 

Both traveled to Vinland, where Gudrid is said to have given birth, the first European to do so on American soil. But both were involved in some kind of feud, which fuels the narrative of Leiser's musical drama.

"The first time I ever went abroad," he tells The Viking Herald, "it was with my brother to Iceland in 2003." 

Eric Leiser is also a filmmaker, animator, and holographer. His exhibitions have been staged, and his films have been screened at major galleries and festivals worldwide. 

The brothers had suffered a personal loss, and Iceland seemed the most inspiring place to go. 

"It was just so stark and so different from what I had left behind," Jeffrey remembers. 

"When I returned, I immersed myself in the Penguin edition of The Sagas of Icelanders. I became fascinated both by the wonderful storytelling and the rhythm of the language, the Prose Edda." 

Setting aside his fascination for a few years while he created acclaimed musical scores for his brother's films, including Imagination in 2007 and Faustbook in 2011, Jeffrey returned to his operatic adaptation of the Norse sagas in 2017. 

Deciding that the characters of Freydís and Gudrid offered the most scope for interpretation, Jeffrey focused on their complex relationship. 

He also found that distant, unknown Newfoundland provided the perfect backdrop to highlight their strengths and frailties. This led him to create his opera around these two characters. 

Berlin-based American soprano Micaëla Oeste, known for her Germanic heritage and appearance, has achieved acclaim performing with renowned figures such as Plácido Domingo and André Rieu. Source: Albino Fawn Productions

The two sopranos 

Originally calling it Far Travelers, Jeffrey debuted his work for the live stage as Composer-in-Residence at the Guild Hall of East Hampton on Long Island on May Day, 2018. 

Initially, just under an hour long, it also brought to the fore the arrangements of Costa Rican orchestrator Andrés Soto. 

The pair then worked on a selection compiled from the opera for a performance at Carnegie Hall, with Soto's many global connections assisting in casting. 

Finding their two leading ladies, they gave Kirsten Chambers the role of Freydís, which she carried over into the current film version.

Lending what Jeffrey describes as "passion and understanding" to the role, Chambers had already made her debut at Carnegie Hall and sung the title role of Salome at New York's Metropolitan Opera. 

Another of the composer's talents is inspiring loyalty from the people he gathers around him and trust in his artistic integrity. 

Despite a hectic schedule that takes her to the most prestigious stages in the world, the soprano signed up for Jeffrey's film adaptation, work on which began in the pandemic year of 2020.

"There was a high risk of failure," admits Jeffrey, who recorded and filmed Freydís and Gudrid on a Brooklyn sound stage in under a week but then arranged for film shoots in Iceland. 

By then, he had found his Gudrid: Micaëla Oeste. Based in Berlin, this American soprano has performed with the likes of Plácido Domingo and André Rieu. 

Oeste, Germanic in looks and by birth, was prepared to fly to New York twice to team up with Jeffrey and the cast, immersing herself in the role by riding Icelandic horses against authentic Norse landscapes. 

Jeffrey is equally quick to praise Emmy-winning Director of Photography Sam Krueger for his sterling contribution. 

Realized with a limited budget of USD 100,000, the project extensively used Iceland's natural landscapes for filming and a Brooklyn sound stage for sound recording. Source: Albino Fawn Productions

From storyboard to screen 

After a grueling, two-year process, with budgeting constraints keeping the entire outlay down to a remarkable USD 100,000, the film version of Freydís and Gudrid now runs for 115 minutes. 

The credits highlight Jeffrey Leiser as responsible for directing, writing, producing, editing – and music. 

"Composing an opera is such a daunting task," he now says with hindsight. "Until now, I had only created the music for short films. This is feature-length, but I had more time to recalibrate what I could adapt from the source material." 

With two strong female leads, Jeffrey knew he had the right dynamic to create tension and drive the narrative, although he stresses that this is "not a tale of vengeance. I was interested in investigating the psychology of change and finding a place of reconciliation." 

As well as seeking a better life in what would later become known as the New World, the characters interact on the historic faultline between paganism and Christianity, with the mystical and spiritual still present in people's everyday lives. 

For guidance, Jeffrey consulted a range of specialists, including American author Nancy Brown (responsible for The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, of which you can read our review here) and Icelandic writer and musician Friðrik Erlingsson. 

Having started out playing with Björk in the early days, Erlingsson went on to write the libretto for the award-winning Icelandic opera Ragnheiður.

With Freydís and Gudrid now ready, Jeffrey is in the process of getting it distributed, as well as showcased at film festivals and on major streaming platforms. 

He is under no illusions about the niche nature of the audience that his work may attract:

"I'm not sure how this will land. Europe tends to be a lot more open and accepting. Certainly, they should be more receptive in Iceland, but then again, also more critical. It's going to be a harder sell in America. What if an Icelandic composer wrote an opera about a former U.S. president?" 

The official trailer for Freydís and Gudrid is available for viewing on YouTube and Vimeo

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