Lise Davidsen interview: ‘I really miss people coughing, I really miss people making that sound!’

Neil Fisher
Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Lockdown has been tough on Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen but she was able to perform Wagner to live audiences in Berlin, plus a new recording sees her step outside her comfort zone with relish, finds Neil Fisher

Lise Davidsen [photo: James Hole]

Lise Davidsen and I are bonding over some of the worst audience members we’ve encountered. The noisy ones, the fidgety ones, the ones who furtively check their email … even the ones doused in way too much perfume. And, gosh, how we miss them all. ‘To be in a room experiencing something, even if it’s crowded, it’s annoying, it’s noisy – it’s still life!’ she exclaims. Those of a nervous disposition may wish to skip to the next paragraph as she tells me what she said to James Baillieu, her regular accompanist: ‘I really miss people coughing, I really miss people making that sound!’

The great Wagnerian mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier once told me she was a ‘stage horse’, an expression that may have sounded better in German but neatly summarised her work ethic. Interviewing Davidsen, the great Wagnerian hope of her generation, I think of the same expression – except that right now the horse is impatiently pawing the ground in her stable, waiting to be let out into the paddock again. The pandemic has eaten away at the 34-year-old’s (previously rammed) schedule. Amid a few salvaged performances – including, against the odds, a run of Die Walküre to real audiences in Berlin – has come the odd streamed concert, broadcast on the internet with no live audience. This format, she says, ‘works best when it’s live. Because when it’s live you know it matters. It’s at least a bit closer to reality.’

Her 2019 Bayreuth debut was as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser; the 2020 revival had to be cancelled [photo: Enrico Nawrath]

Have there been any upsides to taking a break? Davidsen is speaking to me via Zoom from her flat in Oslo, where she has lived for only a year after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, a Danish director, and leaving Copenhagen. ‘In this apartment I haven’t felt the same way as my colleagues who have said they can now spend time with their husband, or kids – take part in “daily life”. My daily life is travelling, constantly working.’ Davidsen has to put her voice through its paces every day: ‘Not to practise would make me completely cuckoo.’ Unfortunately, without even being allowed to rent a practice room in lockdown Oslo, that means bothering her neighbour, who, it seems, does not care for opera (some would pay to hear live Wagner through their walls these days, so this is bad luck). ‘I think I have chosen the least soundproofed apartment in the city. I’ve soundproofed the entire room with curtains, carpets, but from time to time ... there’s an issue.’

Few careers in the history of opera have been launched at the pace or intensity of Davidsen’s. In 2015 the soprano from the small town of Stokke in rural Norway announced herself (at the age of 28) by winning three of the most important singing competitions: Queen Sonja (Oslo), Operalia (London) and Belvedere (Amsterdam) – being awarded three prizes at each of the latter two. She sang Wagnerian repertoire, notably Elisabeth’s ‘Dich, teure Halle’ from Tannhäuser; and sizing up this 6ft 2in singer with a huge yet warm and strikingly even voice, thrillingly resonant in its lower register as well as soaring comfortably up high, casting agents descended in droves. Decca signed her up swiftly. Her first album, featuring Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder and arias from Tannhäuser, came out in spring 2019.

As Fidelio in Tobias Kratzer’s Covent Garden production of Fidelio, March 2020 [photo: Bill Cooper / ROH]

Davidsen is booked up for years, with plum Verdi, Wagner and Strauss roles all waiting in the pipeline at big, prestigious houses. ‘Everything that’s happened since 2015 has just been going at super speed,’ she says. Enforced time off has at least given her ‘time to think about it, time to appreciate it, time to look forward to getting back on with it’ – and, she admits, ‘Sometimes that’s what I’m most afraid of.’

It’s a small miracle that – set against a global hiatus in the performing arts – her second studio album, featuring works by Beethoven, Wagner and Verdi, has been delivered at all. ‘I didn’t picture “the pandemic album”,’ Davidsen says, ‘but it will definitely be remembered by me for being that.’

The bridge between stage and album is Beethoven’s Fidelio. Given how many Beethoven celebrations in the composer’s anniversary year were scrapped, the Norwegian soprano actually did rather well by him in 2020. In March, she sang her first opera-house performances as Leonore, starring in Tobias Kratzer’s production at the Royal Opera House, London, conducted by Antonio Pappano, with Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan. Only the last performance was cancelled, after the first British lockdown was implemented, and one show (with David Butt Philip standing in as Florestan) was recorded by the BBC (at the time of writing, it’s still available on iPlayer).

It was the first time the orchestra had been back together since lockdown. I felt very emotional that we could do it

Lise Davidsen

Looking back on the experience now, she’s so grateful for it. She’s reminded of what can be overlooked: ‘I can forget that I’m so privileged to work with such great people – you move from project to project, and then you’re suddenly at home, where it all feels quite far away. But with Tobias Kratzer and Pappano, with these great people, in London, a city where I feel at home, everything was set up to be very good.’

She did, however, catch Covid during rehearsals, along with many others involved in the production (‘Everyone was sick,’ Amanda Forsythe, who sang Marzelline, told The Times). Davidsen experienced ‘a light version’ of the coronavirus: ‘I was mostly tired, had the lack of smell and taste. My voice and my lungs were all fine.’ It was fatigue that stuck: ‘I remember sleeping three or four times a day.’ She recalls waiting off stage for an entrance and feeling how hard her body was working to sustain the effort. ‘When I get nervous, I sweat more and use more energy, but this was insane, this felt like I’d done interval training or something.’ She admits that at the height of it she wondered, ‘Maybe this is too much – I’m too tired.’

At the time, however, none of this registered with audiences or critics. ‘Davidsen, more than fulfilling the high expectations placed on her, makes a phenomenal Leonore,’ reported The Guardian. The visceral excitement of her singing carries over into the new album, which opens with ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’, the notoriously difficult Act 1 aria. It’s striking how vividly, even on record, Davidsen traverses the heroine’s mental journey here, in which she resolves to risk her life to save her husband’s, overcoming her own fear and ‘feminine’ vulnerability in the process. ‘It was such a core role debut for me last year, that it would have been weird not to have included it on the album. It was fun to record that, after I’d done it on stage – the more you do it the more comfortable you get.’

Davidsen should have gone straight from Fidelio on stage to recording the album in London, but the planned recording sessions in the spring were cancelled. A different Fidelio project did happen as planned. ‘Actually, I recorded the whole of Fidelio in June with Marek Janowski in Dresden (the first time I travelled after lockdown). The soloists were in the balcony, the orchestra was downstairs. Still, at least we were in the same room.’ The recording is expected on Pentatone in the summer.

Difficult decisions had to be made about the Decca recital album. What would have been the second session, in August in London, became the first one, where the ‘smaller’ repertoire – ‘Abscheulicher!’ plus the composer’s concert aria Ah! perfido, which makes a natural partner; Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder; and Cherubini’s ‘Dei tuoi figli la madre’ from Medea – was recorded with a socially distanced London Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder. ‘The communication was very challenging,’ Davidsen says (she ended up singing towards Elder’s back), but nonetheless, the mood was joyous. ‘Any “back at work” thing just wasn’t there. It was the first time the orchestra had been back together since lockdown. I felt very emotional that we could do it.’

The next session took place at Watford Colosseum, chosen because of its size, because the larger orchestra required for the Verdi and Mascagni arias could still distance themselves. A chorus was ruled out and so ‘La vergine degli angeli’ from Verdi’s La forza del destino was swapped for ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio!’ In that aria Verdi sets the soprano against the harp alone for the opening section, but with the distancing in place in a vast auditorium, Davidsen felt she and the harpist were virtually in different postcodes. ‘I said to Mark, “I’m sorry, there is no way we can communicate at this distance, I know she’s in her ‘normal’ place, but she needs to come closer to me. If not, we’ll spend a lot of time just … trying to keep in time.” So we made it possible. My trust in Mark was one of the reasons it ended the way it did.’

Davidsen has sung Medea before. Other roles included in the album are yet to come, although Leonora from La forza del destino is in the calendar. She agrees that the operatic morsels on the album could be seen to be ‘a little like an advertisement … a combination of a wish list and a “things I will do” list’. One role that probably won’t make either list, realistically speaking, is Desdemona from Verdi’s Otello, a pity when she’s the perfect age for the part and sings ‘Ave Maria, piena di grazia’ on the album in the most elegant of legato phrases, the LPO strings beautifully cradling her voice. But no doubt even the most Heldentenor-ish of Otellos would baulk at strangling a Desdemona who can also sing Sieglinde. She laughs. ‘Yes, it’s one of the roles I would love to do, but I know I can’t.’ It could be added to the entire category of roles that already passed her by before she turned 30. ‘When I auditioned with Fiordiligi six or seven years ago, an intendant said: “Yeah, you’re just born 20 years too late, because the Mozart roles are no longer cast with your voice type.” C’est la vie.’

If I could choose, of course, sometimes I would love to sing some Bach or other things, but that’s just for fun

Lise Davidsen

Davidsen is acutely aware of the danger of Wagnerian type-casting, of all roads leading to Wotan’s rock. This, to some extent, was the fate of Birgit Nilsson, who struggled to persuade opera houses to hire her for spinto Verdi roles; Wagner’s demanding music, sung against large orchestras, dominated her schedules. She was in a better position to protect her voice than Davidsen, who is under greater pressure in today’s classical music world. Productions are now more taxing, travel is more frequent and burnout much more of a threat.

Wagner was, after all, far from Davidsen’s thoughts when she started out in her training in Norway and Denmark as a mezzo-soprano with her eye on Baroque concert repertoire. Shifting her focus – and stepping onto what she calls a ‘ladder’ that will ultimately lead her to Brünnhilde and Isolde – has required a big change of mental gears. ‘My way into music was through Bach and the oratorios. Maybe it took some time for me to find the passion for the repertoire that I “should sing” or “am meant to sing”. If I could choose, of course, sometimes I would love to sing some Bach or other things, but that’s just for fun. I am extremely grateful that I can do Wagner and Strauss and Verdi. It’s just that the younger me fell in love with classical music through that different area. Maybe that shows up from time to time.’

One way in which she has definitely put her own stamp on her career is through song repertoire. The inclusion of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder on the new album is not meant to suggest ‘starter Wagner’ but reflects Davidsen’s fascination with song. She enjoys the cycle for its ‘directness’, and has plenty of experience performing it. ‘They are very pure, very honest songs. It’s not a thousand words to describe one thing. It’s very different from and at the same time very close to what Wagner wrote in opera.’

Perhaps for the next album Decca will have the confidence to let Davidsen explore other reaches of the song repertoire. She has struck up a fruitful relationship with South African-born UK-based pianist Baillieu. ‘Given that there are so many things that I can’t sing in opera, but so many that I would like to sing, I would like to introduce my feeling that in Lied we should not have the same strict boxes that we have in opera.’

If this involves dismantling some boundaries, that’s a process that needs to happen for some audiences too. At recent recitals, Davidsen and Baillieu have explored other ways of presenting song, including with video backdrops (a high-tech performance of Sibelius’s Luonnotar), with surtitles on screens (commonplace in opera, not in Lieder) and with spoken introductions, ‘to give just a hint of what it’s all about or why we chose the repertoire’. It has led to the odd complaint from older patrons, but Davidsen is unrepentant. ‘When I talk to my mum about poems, she says things like, “Well I don’t know how to read a poem, it feels strange.” And then you add a foreign language! I don’t think it’s a given that we all know what it is about – well, it’s a given for you and me and maybe the readers of Gramophone, but not for an audience.’ She adds that even seeing faces in the audience looking up towards the surtitles is an improvement on seeing hundreds of heads buried in programme booklets.

There’s a circling leitmotif in our conversation: the tension between the received wisdom of how a Wagnerian’s career is grown and a young singer building her own musical personality, bringing fresh energy to hallowed music. A lot of Davidsen’s Wagner was cancelled in 2020, including double performances at Bayreuth (as Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser) and performances in Rome as Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg under Pappano. But in the autumn, Davidsen was able to come to Berlin and perform – to reduced audiences – in her staged role debut as Sieglinde, in Stefan Herheim’s new production of Die Walküre at the Deutsche Oper. ‘It’s thanks to the miracle of two scientists. We were tested for Covid every day by gargling water for 30 seconds. We delivered the tests at 8am, had the results back at midday, and could rehearse from 1pm to 9pm. So we turned up on the first day, and then we realised we could hug – which was very weird.’

Outside in Berlin, there was still a form of lockdown – in fact, for the cast it was an even more restrictive one, because they knew that if they took the slightest risk they might jeopardise the entire production. ‘I was so afraid of ruining it. I told my family, who could have come to Germany at that time, “I don’t want you to come. I’m not sure I can see you, because I will have to keep to myself.”’

[photo: James Hole / Universal Music Group]

But if this led to some lonely few weeks off stage, inside the opera house exhilaration kicked in, and any apprehension about getting back on the treadmill was banished. ‘That we could work was such a positive thing – that we could sing. Then when the orchestra came, and then we did the opening … the audience were applauding – I wanted to say to them, “Thank you that you are here!” It felt close to normal, even though the audience was a third of what it could have been, and despite the masks and the endless dry hands.’

She is visibly moved now, blinking back tears (it’s not a blurry Zoom connection). Fair enough, as her only current audience is one grumpy neighbour with his earplugs. ‘It was just so surreal – to be on stage for a role I’d been planning to do so many times.’

For all the positive aspects of a recharge and a rest, Davidsen is now ready to pick up where she left off. On with the spear and helmet! ‘It’s been good for me to slow down,’ she concludes. ‘But I think most of all what I’ve realised is how much I want this. How much I love it.’

This interview originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue of the world's leading classical music magazine – subscribe today

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