Artist of the Year:
Lise Davidsen

By Rebecca Franks

Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen has taken the world by storm with acclaimed performances from New York to London. While she’s been described as the voice of a lifetime, she still finds it a struggle to avoid being pigeonholed as simply a Wagnerian singer. Analytical in rehearsal, she’s happiest laying herself bare in front of two thousand people.

2024 Muscial America Artist of the Year:<br>Lise Davidsen
© James Hole

I was in the land of swimming pools and inflatable flamingos,” Lise Davidsen tells me when I ask her what she’s been up to recently. No, the Norwegian soprano isn’t talking about a new opera production. The 36-year-old has just been on a much-needed summer holiday, after the first half of 2023 saw her make two big role debuts, as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and as Elizabeth of Valois in Verdi’s Don Carlo at London’s Royal Opera House.

“Relaxing is the hardest thing. Being a freelancer is intense, and you have to keep track before your body says, hello, I’m stopping you right now,” she explains over a decaf coffee in a hip café-bar in Spitalfields, London, at the end of a busy day working on a new role. “It was the first time off I’ve had in a very long time. I practiced Salome an hour a day, and did my vocal technique beforehand, but then I wanted to go back to the pool.”

Davidsen’s approach to her craft is analytical and methodical—when she’s preparing a new role, like the antiheroine of Strauss’s Salome, she likes to “think through all the possibilities, to be prepared for the unexpected”—but the results are electrifying. Critics describe her as “the voice of a lifetime” (The Observer) and “one of the greatest vocal talents to have emerged in recent years, if not decades”  (Gramophone); all the more remarkable given she didn’t initially set out to be an opera singer. 

When she heard her first opera (Der Rosenkavalier) as a conservatoire student in Norway, she was planning to be a baroque choral mezzo-soprano. Fast forward less than a decade, to 2015, and Davidsen, whose voice by then had developed into a soprano thanks to a shrewd teacher, swept the board with her performance of “Dich teure halle” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the world’s biggest opera competition, Operalia. She won the First, Audience, and Birgit Nilsson Prizes. Davidsen has been fulfilling her promise as a lyric dramatic soprano ever since, on stage at the major international opera houses, and on record with Decca Classics.

“Career wise, I don’t think I understood in the beginning how Wagnerian my voice was. I’m still not sure I understand it that way,” Davidsen says. Her reviews inevitably mention the sheer, remarkable power of her spine-tingling voice, capable of carrying over the largest orchestra. “But I am [a Wagnerian], and I love that world. I’m not a Lord of the Rings type apart from in opera. And Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and Sieglinde [in Die Walküre] have been so important for me: with Bayreuth, my recordings, with competitions.”

Yet much as she loves the German Romantic composer’s music dramas, and will be singing in them for many years to come—the roles of Isolde and Brünnhilde beckon—Davidsen is adamant she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Hence her move into Verdi this year. “I really feel that with Don Carlo and with La forza del destino coming up, I’ve opened my Italian door,” she says. “It’s been long in the planning and hard to get the industry to want me to do it. You have to present [the idea to them]. My agent has done such a great job with that.”

“I felt with the Marschallin, there was a lot of expectation, because I’ve done a lot of Strauss and Wagner, and it was a much more predictable thing for me to do,” she adds, “but the Verdi was huge for me. It was so important to prove that I can do this as well. It was really wonderful to get there. I was very happy with the way it ended.” 

If moving into Verdi alongside her beloved Wagner and Strauss was seen as a risk by the cautious, commercial opera industry—“a lot of people have gambled on me,” says Davidsen—it was one that handsomely paid off. I was at the opening night of Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, and Davidsen’s portrayal of the French queen was superlative: beautifully acted, remarkably sung. The rest of the critics agreed, but she admits she doesn’t read her reviews—“they are for the audiences not the singers.” 

What matters to Davidsen is how she measures up to her own expectations. “I know exactly what I want, I know exactly how it went, and I also know what I want to do next time,” she says. “I need to have my process before I hear from anyone else. There’s nothing that annoys me more than people giving me tips and advice I didn’t ask for. It’s probably meant with a big heart, but I become a monster inside. It’s not my proudest side, but it’s the truth.” 

With a strong 2022-23 season behind her, Davidsen is busy preparing for upcoming dates in the next, which includes the title roles in Janácek’s Jenufa and Strauss’s Salome, as well as Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino. She also has several song recitals in the diary with her regular pianist, James Baillieu. The intimacy of the repertoire offers a contrast to her operatic work; her 2022 album of Grieg songs revealed an artist capable of great subtlety and nuance.

“I’ve become one of those people who cries at Schubert songs,” she says. “Song has been so important to build my vocal stamina. It’s as hard to learn a full recital as an opera.”

As we speak, Davidsen is preparing to round off her summer with the Last Night of the Proms, an appearance postponed from 2022, after the event was cancelled following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. “It’s exciting and feels surreal a second time around. I spent so much time mentally preparing that when it didn’t happen, I almost felt like I had done the Prom already,” she says. “Now I’m just looking forward to it, but if you meet me on the day, maybe I’ll be very, very nervous.”

And that, for Davidsen, is the great paradox of being on stage. “It’s weird because I fear it as much as I’m free when I get there. I’m so scared in advance. Scared of things that will go wrong, scared I will fail, scared I won’t be good enough,” she says. “But when I get there, it’s what I love the most. With everything else—the interviews and things like that—I feel naked in a way. But when I’m in front of two thousand people, it’s in my control. I can let go of all my emotions. And I think that’s the part I love so much.” •

Rebecca Franks is an arts journalist, writer and editor. She has been a classical music critic for The Times since 2015, reviewing concerts and opera around the U.K., as well as interviewing musicians. Previously, she worked on the editorial team of BBC Music Magazine for over a decade.