‘I feel grateful that people really value the arts in Sweden’

'I feel grateful that people really value the arts in Sweden'
Emily Honeyman plays the bass in the Royal Swedish Opera. Photo: Private
MY SWEDISH CAREEER: "Music has never really been a choice that I've thought about; it was always what I wanted to do, but it was out of my control – in a good way," says 32-year-old Emily Honeyman, a bassist in Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Opera.

“When I was really little, I would always ask my dad to put on the 'beautiful music' which is what I called classical music. For some reason there's always been that connection between me and music, and I was lucky that my parents always supported that, because it's not the most stable career,” she remembers.

As a musician, she explains, you usually have to go where the job is, so she ended up in Stockholm “almost accidentally”. After studying for three degrees in music, the audition in Stockholm was her 19th in around five years, but she's extremely happy that it brought her here.

The idea of luck comes up several times when Honeyman speaks. She feels lucky to have had found the cheap flights that persuaded her to take a chance on the overseas audition, to have performed well on the day, and ultimately, lucky to be living in Sweden. 

Although she had been interested in moving and working abroad for a while , the difficulty of flying with a bass made it hard to attend international auditions. When she found affordable flights with Norwegian Air, which offered a generous policy on transporting instruments, about three weeks before the audition, she booked them on a whim.

“The audition goes like this: there are three rounds over two days, with a preliminary round, semi-finals, and a final. I think it went from 26 musicians down to eight, to the three finalists in the last round,” Honeyman explains.

Unusually, each of the three rounds was carried out 'blind', with the musicians performing from behind a screen in order to avoid conscious or unconscious bias in the process. “So they picked me and saw who I was for the first time – this American girl with no connection to Stockholm at all!” says Honeyman. 

During the Swedish winter. Photo: Private

After getting the offer in November, she agreed to start work in February – in a place she knew nothing about. It was only when she arrived that she realized she hadn't even looked up the basics of the Swedish language in advance, since the main priority had been finding a place to stay and working out other logistical issues such as taxes.

“I didn't have an answer for 'why Sweden?'. I know a lot of people move abroad and are miserable or just don't fit in to the culture. I don't fit in here at all, but I feel like there's room here to not fit in, so I feel really lucky that I love it here.”

Working life in the orchestra is “unique”, Honeyman says, with regular rehearsals in the daytime and performances in the evening – occasionally up to four different productions happening simultaneously. The orchestra is the second oldest in the world, and will turn 500 in 2026.

“I never imagined I'd play in such a historic orchestra in my life,” the bassist says.

The instrument she plays on is a very tangible part of that history. Sweden's King Gustav III was murdered at a masked ball in the Royal Opera House, and Honeyman's bass – which was specifically commissioned for the opera and bears the opera's stamp – was playing in that orchestra. 

“I own my own bass but I never want to play it again because it's nothing compared to the opera bass!” she laughs, showing a picture of the instrument. “It's the nicest instrument I've ever played, with a really warm and big sound; it fits me physically and as a player.”

The bass. Photo: Private

Playing in an opera orchestra, as opposed to symphony or radio, is different and at times more demanding, particularly due to the length of performances.

“An average opera performance is three hours long and you can't be focused that entire time so it's an ebb and flow, whereas a symphony concert is usually two hours with an intermission in the middle,” she explains. “In a live performance anything can happen. You have to focus and listen to the singers, the conductor follows them and we follow the conductor – there are so many different elements involved.”

Another thing she appreciates about working in Sweden is the high standing of opera and classical music in society. “Most people you meet here have been to a classical concert or an opera at some point in their lives, whereas the US is a way bigger country so it's harder, but a lot of people don't even know that you can be a classical musician for a job. I feel grateful that people seem to value the arts in general in this country,” she says.

This is also reflected in the high levels of government funds available to the orchestra in Sweden, whereas American orchestras are often privately funded. 

The Royal Swedish Opera is currently going a kind of generational shift, with many players nearing retirement and Honeyman one of the first of a wave of new hires – which has also included her husband, a violinist. She says this creates a mix of youth and experience that makes work exciting, and describes her colleagues as “work family”.

Over 600 people work at the opera, and Honeyman says she has been pleasantly surprised by the warm atmosphere there. “Everyone is really friendly and welcoming, so when I heard stereotypes of Swedes being reserved, I was surprised. When I listen to my colleagues talk to each other, I feel like they're really listening to each other in a polite and genuine way,” she says.

With the instrument. Photo: Private

Despite this, the musician says she has also experienced cultural differences between the US and Sweden, particularly in the way people communicate.

“I'm opinionated and I'm not afraid to share my opinion, in a respectful way. With the election, in the US people talk really openly about who they're voting for and I'm curious about Swedish politics, especially as an American because we only really have two parties and here there are so many. But people just don't seem to talk about who they're voting for. So with things like that, if I'm being myself and saying what I'm thinking, people can be surprised. That's a big difference,” she says.

But while she is curious about cultural differences, these haven't caused her any problems, and she plans to stay in Sweden long term. Some of the things she most enjoys in Sweden are the national traditions, from food (with Lilla Ego and Omnipollo two Stockholm favourites) to the different customs around national holidays, which she says came as a contrast to America's much more modern culture. 

“Sweden feels more and more like home: when I leave, I feel excited to come back. I don't super fit in here but I also don't really fit in back home any more, I'm in this in-between place, which I like. I often remind my husband how lucky we are to live in this country, and Stockholm is perfect in terms of size and all the stuff there is to do. Both places can be home,” she sums up.

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