Conductor Antonio Pappano hailed her powerful voice as “one in a million.” Esa-Pekka Salonen said she was “going to go very, very far.” And Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb described her as being “in a league of her own.” She is 36-year-old Norwegian-born soprano Lise Davidsen, and since winning two major vocal competitions in 2015 — Operalia in London and the Queen Sonja Competition in Oslo — the singer has been on quite a roll. That roll continues when Davidsen makes her West Coast debut at Santa Monica’s BroadStage on Sept. 17 in a recital accompanied by pianist James Baillieu.
How, then, did the girl who grew up in a nonmusical family in Stokke, a small town in Norway, and who had never even seen an opera until she was 20 become what Kevin Ng in the Financial Times called “the opera world’s next great hope for the big Wagner and Strauss roles”?
More interested in playing the guitar and wanting to become a singer-songwriter at age 15, Davidsen then realized that she liked singing in high school choirs and Christmas pageants. She enrolled at the Grieg Academy of Music, where she received a bachelor’s degree before continuing her studies at the Royal Opera Academy in Copenhagen. After receiving a master’s in 2014, Davidsen was awarded a Léonie Sonning talent prize and the Danish Singers Award. Fast-forward a year to her competition wins, and voila, a star was born.
This season alone Davidsen has starred in the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms, as well as made role debuts as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at the Met and as Elizabeth in Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House. In addition, the soprano has graced the stages of the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, the Bavarian State Opera, and the Aix-en-Provence, Bayreuth, and Glyndebourne Festivals.
Davidsen, who divides her at-home time between London and Norway, has also had great success in the recording field. Her eponymous 2019 debut album for Decca, which featured music of Wagner and Richard Strauss, hit number one on the U.K. Classical Charts. Since then, Davidsen has released two more solo albums, including a Edvard Grieg recital with famed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.
SF Classical Voice had the chance to speak with Davidsen over Zoom from London, discussing, among other topics, her upcoming recital, how she prepares for a role, and her practice regimen.
I understand how a tenor becomes a baritone — more than likely later in his career — but how does a mezzo-soprano, which is what you were at first, turn into a soprano, which you did with the help of your voice teacher, Susanna Eken, in Copenhagen?
That’s not a misunderstanding, but it’s important to know when it happened, which was after my bachelor’s studies. Looking back — and I say this to a lot of students — it’s a part of your development. A voice like mine, with long muscles, in the end it becomes a big voice. You can’t do it all at once. You have really trained your low register, but now it’s time to mix it together into a lighter soprano and then, slow and steady, build it the other way. As a professional, it’s even more tricky and vocally needs more time. It felt big at the time and [is a] big part of my journey to be where I am today.
You made your Met debut at 32, only a decade or so after seeing your first opera. How is that possible?
I think that I saw it late [because] I grew up in a place where we didn’t have an opera; we had to travel. I don’t think we had an interest or money to go at the time, [which] is also why it took time. But I had a very, very good teacher who helped me, [and] the Royal Opera Academy in Copenhagen was also very good. After the Domingo competition [Operalia], my whole career changed, and I reached my Met debut earlier than I expected. Everything went fast.
Let’s talk about your upcoming recital with pianist James Baillieu. It features works by Grieg, Puccini, Verdi, Schubert, Beethoven, Jean Sibelius, and others and includes Wagner’s “Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser, which you performed during Operalia. How did you choose the works?
It’s a mixed program — both opera and lied — [and] it’s to show a lot of what I am, what I do in the opera world, or what I will do. A lot of my audience knows what I do — mostly opera at the Met — but I haven’t done any recitals in this way. Then, [there are] some songs I do in a lot of recitals and have recorded. I will sing [“Sola perduta abbandonata”] from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Otello, “Pace [pace mio Dio”] from La forza del destino, and something from Un ballo in maschera. It’s a big mix, and these are arias people have heard.
You’ve worked with your pianist, James Baillieu, before. What makes for a good accompanist?
I first met him in 2013, but we didn’t start to work together until 2015 or 2016. He’s a close friend and a brilliant accompanist; we do a lot of recitals together, mostly lieder.
It’s a mix. He’s not just a brilliant pianist — that’s something you have to be — but he knows exactly where to balance it, in a way. With a voice like mine, you can hammer it out; you don’t have to think about dynamics. The second thing is that I love the [exchange] with him. We follow each other very well, and that comes from years and years of working together. It’s a lot of fun doing that. The third thing is he’s very calm [and] a good support offstage and on. He doesn’t stress about things. He’s very helpful.
I probably can stress about things, and that would stress me if we were two people who would both stress. I don’t think I’m stressed on the actual day of the performance; I’m nervous and focused, but in advance, I need to find time for rehearsal and to go through the program properly. He doesn’t mind that, and we find [the right time for] the programs we do.
You must get asked this all the time, but how did winning both Operalia and the Queen Sonja Competition in 2015 impact your career?
Because there were two in one summer, that made [my career take off] even faster. I was very, very surprised. I was happy I got to be a part of [Operalia], and when I got to the final, I was thinking, “What am I going to do? I have to buy a new dress.” I never thought I would have to do the final, so I didn’t bring any [more dresses]. I don’t mean to be shy, but at the time I was really, really surprised. Then in Norway, I knew I could do it. But then expectations were also so big [because] it was in my home country and all of that. It was life-changing and career-changing, and after that, it went faster than I ever thought it could go.
How do you prepare for a role?
I prepare quite similarly for all my roles. If it’s long, I have to start earlier. For Verdi’s La forza del destino, I know the two big scenes, and some [of the arias I’ve already sung] with orchestra. I start with the text. If it’s in German, I speak enough German, but for Italian, I have a coach and have a break and take it up again. If it’s Forza in concert, I spend a lot of time with the pianist. It’s tricky; it always takes time, [but] the process is more or less the same.
Hearing your debut album with Decca in 2019, some writers critiqued your singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs, saying you were too young at 32. How do you respond to those reviewers?
I can understand if you’re much older than me and have listened to these songs your entire life. But if you’re thinking back and know these feelings and these emotions, they are not age-related. The words might be in terms of how you feel, but we’ve all lost someone, and we’ve all thought about where we are in life, where we’re going. In many ways, these songs are about that. Just because you’re older doesn’t give you the [exclusive] right to have these emotions and feelings.
You once said, “Curiosity is not my forte.” What do you think is your forte if not that — being curious about new roles, new productions, and the like?
I find a lot of singers and musicians like to have a lot of hobbies. They cook and a lot of that. I don’t have hobbies. But I do think my forte is the fact that I like practicing, which is a nerdy thing to say. But I really enjoy that, especially if it’s with good people. I could be in a practice room forever. I don’t find it hard to sacrifice social things — [such as] you can’t go out and party — as long as it’s not family. I don’t mind the resting; [the career] demands you be on your own, and I find that OK.
What advice do you have for aspiring opera singers?
My main advice is to take time, to be patient — that’s a problem for everyone today. We’re used to a quick fix — Amazon delivers in 24 hours. It takes time, daily practice, to be where you want to be, when you do your work. Today, everything we do, we do fast. But when it comes to training, learning something, memorizing something, there’s no quick fix.
There are tools that might be quicker for you in terms of training your muscle. But I can’t imagine it. I think it’s why we can touch people, why we can connect through opera. We go to the theater to do something other than look at our phones and our screens. That’s what I love the most — to turn it all off and share together.