Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen taking on new challenges on two continents

Sep 6, 2023, 7:04 AM

NEW YORK (AP) — Embarking on her most ambitious season yet, Lise Davidsen is giving a solo recital at the Metropolitan Opera, making her Carnegie Hall debut, and performing three major roles she’s never sung in staged productions.

At 36, the Norwegian soprano will become the youngest singer in recent Met history to perform such a recital when she takes the stage on Sept. 14 with piano accompanist James Baillieu for an evening of songs and opera arias.

“Recitals at the Met are pretty few and far between,” said Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager. “We reserve them for artists who are truly extraordinary, and she’s a multigenerational talent. I wanted her New York recital debut to be at the Met and not anywhere else.”

As for Davidsen, she said her first reaction when Gelb invited her was: “Really? Are you serious?” But once she got over her surprise she “just jumped on it” and began planning the program.

“Of course it’s scary because it’s a huge room,” she said of the 3,800-seat Met. “I’ve been joking about what if it’s just 100 people there. It would be a very small audience.” (In fact, tickets have been selling briskly although there are plenty of seats still available.)

Like most opera singers, Davidsen said she finds giving recitals a very different challenge.

“It’s surprisingly fragile, just me and the pianist,” she said in a Zoom interview last month from Turku, Finland, where she was preparing for a concert.

“There’s something very direct from me to you compared to an opera where I’m someone else,” she said. “… I can’t hide behind the role. It’s a much more direct view into the person that I am.”

From the moment she burst onto the international scene in 2015, Davidsen has awed critics and audiences alike with her enormous voice and effortless high notes. One of her early roles was the title character in Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos,″ and when she performed it at the Met, Zachary Woolfe wrote in The New York Times that her sound was so “arrestingly powerful and visceral” that “you feel it as almost physical presence — pressing against your chest, raising the hairs on the back of your neck.”

This past season, however, another aspect of her artistry came to the fore as she took on parts that called for a more nuanced approach.

Her triumph at the Met as the Marschallin in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” last spring surprised some listeners since much of the role is sung in almost a conversational style. “For me the extraordinary part of her performance was her musicality,” Gelb said, “and though she has a voice that is literally more powerful than any other singer you could hear on the stage of the Met, she was able to modulate her singing so that she didn’t blow the other singers off the stage.”

A few months later she took on the role of Elisabeth of Valois in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Royal Opera House in London, and won raves for her dramatic intensity as well as her singing — particularly the many soft high notes the part requires.

That’s something Davidsen acknowledges she has worked hard to master.

“It’s definitely easier to sing the high notes full out,” she said. “I think my control in piano is much better now than it used to be. It’s something I worked on.”

Freddie De Tommaso, , a young British tenor who has partnered with Davidsen in recitals and did two concert performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” with her this summer in Bergen, Norway, said that “sometimes if we’re singing something together and I have to start, I forget to sing — I’m so enthralled listening to her.”

“The things she can do with such an instrument … it’s incredible,” he said. “But it’s the quiet high I find spellbinding. To be able to sing high and quiet for any singer, that is the Holy Grail.”

Her new roles this season should give her ample opportunity to display the diversity of her art.

In November, she’ll debut at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in the title role of Janacek’s “Jenufa,” a part she performed in concert in Amsterdam in 2021. Her co-star will be the great Swedish soprano Nina Stemme.

She’ll return to New York in the winter for Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino,” the company’s first new production of the work in nearly 30 years. She’ll have one opportunity to try out the role of Leonora beforehand with a concert version in Oslo in October. While she’s in rehearsal in New York, she’ll appear at Carnegie Hall for the first time, singing Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder,” songs that contain thematic material he would later use in “Tristan und Isolde.”

Then it’s on to Paris for one of the highest-profile roles for any soprano, Strauss’ “Salome.” The one-act opera ends with a solo lasting more than 15 minutes sung to the severed head of John the Baptist.

Davidsen will perform that final scene in concert in Madrid in January but otherwise will be tackling the role for the first time.

“It’s quite intense, but it’s a shorter role. Shorter and bigger at the same time,” she said. “I look on it like a race where you have to pace yourself.”

While she’s taking on a new Strauss role and doing more Verdi and Puccini, much of the opera world is waiting for the day she begins singing the two Wagnerian parts that represent the pinnacle of the dramatic repertory: Isolde, and Brünnhilde in the “Ring” cycle.

“I can say that I haven’t started studying them yet, but I have started planning them,” Davidsen said. One of those roles — she won’t say which — is likely coming in the next four to five years.

“One of the reasons I’m waiting is because a part of me is afraid that when I do that, that’s all I’ll be doing,” she said. “Maybe that is fine, but maybe I still want to do other things. Then I just have to work hard and prove to them that I can.”

Davidsen has a lot to celebrate these days in her personal as well as her professional life. She recently became engaged to a former TV producer who first encountered her, appropriately enough, at the opera.

As she tells it, he had gone to London’s Royal Opera House to hear star German tenor Jonas Kaufmann singing in Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” Kaufmann’s co-star happened to be a certain Norwegian soprano.

“He contacted me, and it was surreal that I answered him because I don’t answer people on my social media in that way,” Davidsen said, “He asked for a coffee and I thought, yeah, maybe, and we met.”

Now he travels with her as she keeps a dizzying schedule.

“He loves to support me and be with me, which I never thought existed,” she said. “I remember saying to a friend of mine that I could never find someone because they would never be able to travel and live my life.

“And then I met him.”

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Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen taking on new challenges on two continents